Mr. Lewis’ Neighborhood Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 

Putting in walls on Royal Street, March 2013.

Putting in walls on Royal Street, March 2013.

We woke up to a much clearer, albeit chilly morning. We huddled, shivering again in the yard of lowernine.org, but this time with sun on our faces. All three groups were sent to their previous locations. Van 2 to work on Royal Street to work on insulation and sheet rock. Van 3 to reinforce floors, rebuild walls, etc. for a sad shotgun house on Deleray Street. I returned with Van 1 to work on the floors of a home on Gordon Street.

We encountered some bottlenecks in work because we had to lay special board to serve as a foundation for a tile floor throughout the home. The board is like woven concrete, which means we do not to lay cement for the base. But is heavy and needs to be cut to fit in many places. Through the lack to tools, extension cords, goggles, masks, etc., there were some delays, but spirits remained intact. The long-term volunteers working with us provided a certain international air. Liam, the workhorse, from South Korea; James, the heartthrob, from England; and we’ll add the wise and acerbically funny Eileen, from the nation of Nevada.

Installing flooring on Gordon Street, March 2013.

Installing flooring on Gordon Street, March 2013.

To the eye, Van 2 probably made the most headway, as it is easy to follow the progression of installing insulation and walls. And Van 3 clearly had the grimiest work situation as they were working with old rotten and termite chewed wood.

Our group, Sam and Casey’s Van 1 also suffered from the fact that we had to take Van 1 to the shop to get the windshield installed before the trip home. A previous replacement was clearly not properly sealed. And given the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, the nearest Ford dealership on this side of New Orleans is in Slidell. Casey made the trek across the City to Metairie and I followed to pick him up. And because this is New Orleans, a simple windshield replacement will take a day; well, as it turns out — more.

IMG_0303While I was out getting much needed Ibuprofin, James packed all of the vanless students into the back of a pickup and took them down to where the Industrial Canal flows into the Mississippi for a picnic lunch. The hazard did not escape me; however, the fact that I missed it was quite annoying. They had a memorable lunch, snoozing on the levee, although many returned with distinct pink patches of skin.

At 4:00pm our group walked one block to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. The rest caught up with us and we spent the next hour being educated and entertained by the unofficial mayor of the Lower Ninth Ward. From a childhood on Deslonde Street to his current home on Tupelo Street, Lewis roots in the Lower Ninth grow deep. From laying streetcar track, to union organizer, to community leader, Ronald’s passion and determination flow throughout Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Meeting him will make reading the book all the more meaningful.

The New Orleans class and the Lewis family, March 2013.

The New Orleans class and the Lewis family, March 2013.

The House of Dance and Feathers is Ronald’s collection of Mardi Gras Indian and second line paraphernalia from groups in the local nine. Again, it reflects Ronald’s gritty pride in his neighborhood and the distinct African-American culture that it holds. Ronald took half of the class into his museum (although it had climbed into the mid 60s, he had the heat on), while his granddaughters entertained the rest in the backyard. Then we switched. Afterwards we took pictures and said our goodbys until next year.

As I left the yard, I encountered a French-born anthropologist from Brazil. She is studying the relationship between the Indians and similar neighborhood groups in Brazil. I gave her a ride into the City so that she could catch the streetcar to Mid City. I showed her the location of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, where Sylvester Francis maintains a larger collection reflecting the traditions of his neighborhood. I dropped her off in the Quarter and suspect that we’ll cross paths again on Super Sunday or St. Joseph’s Night.

IMG_0324In the evening, the students feasted on spaghetti and salad and returned to the French Quarter. I joined up with friends Burt Feintuch and Gary Sampson, who are working on an illustrated book of interviews with New Orleans musicians. Appropriately enough, we met at Bullet’s Sport Bar on A.P Tureaud Street in the Seventh Ward, for Kermit Ruffins’ longstanding Tuesday night gig. From Kermit’s showmanship  to some fabulous guest vocalists, to the grill of barbecued meats outside (yes, I did), it did not disappoint. In addition to neighborhood folk and tourists, the audience contained Derek Shezbie, trumpet player for Rebirth, and actor Wendell Pierce, the hapless Antoine Baptiste on HBO’s Treme. Gary, who has never been to New Orleans, was clearly living a photographer’s dream. Hopefully, I will get to talk to him at some point during his visit. As it approached 10:00 pm, we left the Tuesday night revelry and headed our different ways.

IMG_0321Between work during the day and too many options for entertainment at night, one has to pace oneself.

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lowernine.org Tuesday, Mar 12 2013 

The first day. Stowing belongings while half asleep. Putting together lunch with 30 fellow students and strangers. Getting to lowenine.org late because of erroneous information. Rain. Wind. Uncertainty. It had all of the makings of the worst start to the work week ever. But it was not.

From past experience, the worst thing that can happen is to get to work that first day to find that they are not quite sure what to do with you: “Well, we would use you on this and that, but we already have a crew on this and that. Wait a few minutes while we figure this out.” I understand that this is the product of spring break, when organizations are awash with volunteers, but it is hard to communicate to students who have anticipated this moment for months. Working with lowernine.org was not like that.

Orientation with Laura, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

Orientation with Laura, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

We huddled together in the cold by the banana trees, waiting for our assignments. Laura introduced herself and the Lower Ninth. I think the reality of what the people here have faced Katrina really became a reality to the students. A wall of water. Weeks of flooding. 100% of the housing in the ward ruled uninhabitable.

Within 30 minutes we were spread out around the Lower Ninth. Shoring up flooring in an old double shotgun house. Preparing to install insulation and sheet rock in a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood. We spent the day ripping up linoleum and carefully removing baseboards to make way for a base and a tile floor through one half of a home on Gordon Street. We were almost exactly a block over from Ronald Lewis’ backyard museum on Tupelo Street, which we will visit after work this afternoon. Happily, I think most groups will stay on site and task throughout the week, which should provide them a sense of what a week’s worth of work can accomplish.

Removing linoleum, Gordon Street, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

Removing linoleum, Gordon Street, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

Even after seven years and nine visits since Katrina, the abandoned, overgrown homes and empty lots are haunting. The Lower Ninth is only 30% occupied. Government neglect, corporate racism, shady contractors, and socioeconomic realities have combined to create a perfect storm of dysfunction. And the people here have to live with. Still, most of what happens, comes from agencies like lowernine.org with volunteers like us.

We got to know the homeowner immediately, which is an important connection with the neighborhood and why we are here. And more importantly, for the students, we got to meet his 92 year-old father’s dog, Oreo. Work went in spurts, but it is clear we are readying for more work intensive tasks down the road.

Chalmette Battlefied, site of the Battle of New Orleans (January 1815), Chalmette, LA, March 2013.

Chalmette Battlefied, site of the Battle of New Orleans (January 1815), Chalmette, LA, March 2013.

We took a short break for lunch. Visited the corner grocery across the street. And several snoozed in the van. Afterwards I visited the other groups to see how their day was going. Unfortunately, work was easy compared to the confusion of organizing shower opportunities, with limited access to belongings, because of the afternoon program at the All Souls Church.

To avoid the confusion, I decided to take a short trip over to the Chalmette National Battlefield and Cemetery. Sam, one of the leaders, and a couple of students in her group, Jenn and Anna, came with me. As it turned out, we arrived just before closing, but one of the rangers gave us directions to park outside of the gate at the cemetery, which we did. The weather had thankfully cleared and the walk under the live oaks, surrounded by the mostly Civil War-era graves was quite moving. And I reminisced about that first March after Katrina, sitting under those same oaks, reading, thinking, and coming up with the idea for the New Orleans course.

IMG_0274We came back to All Souls and I cooked a batch vegetarian red beans and rice while, Theresa orchestrated two beautiful salads. I think sitting down together and eating took the edge off of a frustrating post-work experience.

Most of the students went into the French Quarter for beignets and cafe au lait. I literally walked the Quarter. I took Royal from Frenchmen Street and crossed to Canal, returning by Decatur. It was cool and not very crowded, unlike the Spotted Cat, which was packed. As a result, I decided to head over to Kajun’s Pub on St. Claude. It was on the way back across the Industrial Canal and one of those places I’ve meant to visit for years.

From all appearances it is a simple neighborhood bar, which on the edge of the Marigny makes a very interesting neighborhood. Its story is one of those wonderful tales that flow through the pages of Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives, which chronicles the experiences of nine very different New Orleanians from Hurricane Betsy through Hurricane Katrina. And beside Ronald Lewis, one of my subjects is bar owner Joann Guidos. I won’t go through the details of Joann’s life journey; you should read the book for that because Baum does a much better job of it. Suffice it to say, she has built an environment that is the triumph of acceptance and tolerance; one that stayed open through Katrina due to her grit and many gallons of fuel for her generator.

IMG_0277

Chalmette National Cemetery, Chalmette, LA

I talked to the bartender, a history major at the University of New Orleans; naturally, we do make the best bartenders. She asked what I did and I told her about my job and my teaching and this class and that we are using Nine Lives, and on and on. She turned away to wait on another customer and furtively called upstairs for Joann to come down and meet me, which she did. And it was a most delightful experiences.

We talked about her path, the bar, and the book. I hated to leave, but it was getting late. She offered to meet and talked to the students in the class, which I am seriously considering, and I promised to come back over the weekend.

Potholes and pitfalls notwithstanding, it was a good start to the work week.

Spring Break for the New Orleans Class, 2013 Wednesday, Jan 30 2013 

Spring break and college students go way back. It used to be Southern Florida, particularly Fort Lauderdale. It has expanded to several places in Mexico, beach resorts in the Dominican Republic, cruises, and any place where underage drinking and other youthful behaviors are permitted. Alas, when I was of age, such spring breaks eluded me. And while I have had the fortune to be in the presence of college students every year since 2006, these trips have been a little bit different from the norm.

UNH students at the Irish-Italian-Islenos Parade in Chalmette, LA, March 2007

UNH students at the Irish-Italian-Islenos Parade in Chalmette, LA, March 2007

Yes, I have spent all of those spring breaks in and around New Orleans, a noted incubator for youthful license. However, I have had the pleasure to observe something totally different. Since 2007, I have been involved with trips run by the UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, whose purpose is provide drug and alcohol free service learning trips during spring break. And while we are no longer a part of UNH-ABC, our student-led trips will be based upon the same model.

This does not mean that students only spend their time engaged in community service. Nor does it mean that they are isolated from all vices while in New Orleans. The days belong to the agency we are working for. And free time is spent, usually with the travel groups, exploring the history and culture of New Orleans. And while that

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2008

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2008

can’t happen in a bubble, each student must sign a contract agreeing to follow trip guidelines. I am not naive enough to believe that this has never been violated, but I am confident that the purpose of these trips has largely been respected.

I am truly excited about this year’s trip, because I believe it holistically reflects the dual meaning of service and engaged learning. This year, we will be living and working in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In the nearly forty days I’ve spent volunteering in New Orleans and environs, I’ve spent exactly one day working in the Lower Ninth, the area hardest hit by Katrina’s flood waters. In years past, we worked throughout New Orleans and, at the end of the day, left for housing elsewhere. This year will be different.

Ronald Lewis at the House of Dance and Feathers, March 2012.

Ronald Lewis at the House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012.

This year, the class will be immersed in New Orleans. A third of the group will be staying at lowernine.org, the agency we are working with, while the rest will be staying at the All Souls Episcopal Church a short distance away on St. Claude Avenue. Thus, we’ll be working rehabbing houses in the neighborhood, while staying around the corner from Ron Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers or Fats Domino’s black and yellow house. And in the process, these students, mostly native New Englanders, will converse with people and absorb a culture far different from previous experience. And we have been invited to work with children in afternoon programs run by the church.

And all the while, they will be across the Industrial Canal from Musicians’ Village, ten minutes from the French Quarter, and a half hour from Uptown mansions. Along with the work, there will be good food, live music, parades, beignets, and the sites and sounds of a unique city. In the process, residents will engage them in conversation, endlessly, if you allow them. And in the process these students will learn more deeply and more intimately than they ever imagined possible.

I can’t wait.

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