Dear reader, remember in the previous entry when I compared the patchwork repairs in the church to the illusion of New Orleans as a whole being back on its feet? Following our experiences this afternoon, I have to say — this city still needs your help. Desperately. Just because they have a Metrodome and the Saints won the Super Bowl last year, or just because Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are open for business, or just because there are still wild costumes on parade — that doesn’t mean that folks here aren’t deeply hurting, with neighborhoods still decimated eight years after the storm. I hope you will allow me to tell you about some of what I saw today, and perhaps sway your heart so that you might decide to visit New Orleans yourself, or even form a partnership with some of these community organizations that are trying to build this city back to what it deserves to be.
We drove east (or, as they say here in New Orleans, “downtown,” meaning downriver) until we crossed the canal into the Lower 9th Ward. Immediately the devastation was evident. Beautiful, proud old homes sagged in on themselves, their owners gone with no intent of returning, or wanting to return but unable to afford the repairs, or “missing” (which everyone in the Lower 9th knows is really “dead,” but the government — OUR government — doesn’t want the
bad press of having to admit Katrina took a higher official death toll than they had originally announced. The official count was about 1,300, whereas once the “missing” folks are added in, the total would be closer to 6,000. But that’s three times the number of U.S. citizens who died in 9/11, so it would be bad for tourism). There were a few structures that completely lacked walls; the grey frames stood forlorn and empty, with sun and rain alike blowing straight through.
Interspersed between the sad and overgrown yards, there were homes that had been reclaimed — roofs patched, windows replaced (or at least boarded), shutters repainted, bushes trimmed. Before Katrina, the Lower 9th boasted seven schools, one of which was the best in the state, with a bustling and energetic population that was proud of its community. After the storm decimated the Lower 9th Ward (which, incidentally, is on the highest ground in the entire city, and only floods if the levee on Lake Pontchartrain breaks, which it did in 2005 when Katrina hit), the community never recovered. With neighbors and loved ones scattered, relocated or dead, today’s population is less than 1/3 of what it had been in 2005. There is only one school, which serves K-12, and most of those students don’t actually live in the 9th Ward community.
In 2007, a resident named Mac was able to return, and he felt called to purchase an abandoned building to turn into a community center. The residents jumped in to help, and the Lower 9th Ward Village was born. Over 50,000 volunteers from all over the country have come since then to help turn the building into something that will serve the people who live there. There is space for studying, working, and playing — there’s even an indoor skate park.
However, at the moment the Village can’t fulfill its mission — its doors are closed because there is no money to repair the roof or replace all the burned-out lights, no money to hire staff to supervise the youth. For safety reasons, Mac has to keep the Village locked up unless there is a group scheduled to use the space and someone can be there to oversee.
Right now, the Village is working on organizing the community around the upcoming city elections for City Council, Mayor, and Sheriff. Tomorrow evening and next week, they are having candidate forums. Currently, the people in Lower 9th and East District make up 44% of the city’s tax base, and yet only 1% of that income is making it back to this suffering community. Jobs are scarce, crime rates are rising — as one resident warned me, “Some folks just aren’t in their right mind these days. Be careful out here.” He was a cop in New Orleans in 1975; now he feels hopeless to help these people about whom he cares so deeply.
So when we arrived at the Village to volunteer, we were asked to canvass the area and hand out fliers, talking to the residents of the Lower 9th and asking what questions they’d like the candidates to answer at the forums. We were also supposed to make sure they knew there were buses available to help them get to tomorrow’s forum. Maps were highlighted and passed out as we paired up, showing us which blocks to focus on.
As we began to venture out to our assigned starting point, my partner commented that she was extremely aware of her own white privilege at that moment. I could certainly see why — dead branches blocked sidewalks, forcing us into the street; empty windows gaped at us, with muddy yards cluttered with trash; and with our binder full of fliers, we were the only two white people anywhere on the street. Eyes followed us as we determined that we were where the map told us to be.
I understood the place my partner was in, having been there many times myself, and I expected this time to be no different. I waited for that moment when my anxiety would spike, and I would feel those nervous words waiting to bubble out of my mouth. But it didn’t happen. I spotted a gathering of four men chatting together on our assigned corner, dark eyes watching us approach; they nodded their heads with a cautious, “Hello, ladies.” With some internal puzzlement, I found myself offering them an easy grin and a “Hello, gentlemen. We’re volunteers with the Village. Do you have a minute for us to talk with you?” I didn’t have time to marvel at myself, because they agreed in their deep and gentle voices, and soon our conversation was underway. It didn’t stop for over half an hour.
What I heard was complex. They wondered why we cared whether they voted or not. They were deeply appreciative that we were there to listen to their stories and concerns. After eight years of being ignored and forced into destitution by the government that still demanded taxes from them, they had no faith in the system, in their representatives, or in the possibility that voting would change anything for them. If anything, the thought of voting for anyone at this point was deeply offensive to them. They talked, and we listened.
And then, much to my surprise, the former cop — who seemed to be the informal leader that the others deferred to — said, “Well, I think I’ll go to this here forum. And I’ll talk to some others, see if I can get them to join me. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
And a seed of hope sprouted.