If you haven't read yesterday's post, please do it first. I promise, this one will still be here when you get back. And thanks to Mark Carter for sharing his experiences as a volunteer with CulinaryCorps. Once again, welcome, Mark.
I have a fondness for food. I’ve visited New Orleans three times prior to this trip and have always found the city to be one of the most atypical American cities. Not because of its maintenance of the French Quarter but how the diverse groups and circumstances came together and both melded and upheld their identities. American culture tends to steamroller itself over nuance and removes many of the vestiges of an area’s origins. Somehow New Orleans partially escaped this process or was too mighty to succumb.
I love that it managed to do that, its individual parts and the final results. I suspect that many feared that in the ensuing restoration much of what built and preserved the culture might disappear. I worried that it required a certain critical mass of each group to both preserved what they had contributed and to ensure that the fruit of that mixture, what makes New Orleans a live and not a static culture, may not be able to endure with such a population loss. It’s my hope that the area’s renewal keeps those qualities; that the displaced families would find what they always loved about the place and hopefully to see it improved. That’s certainly no easy task and certainly not in a city mired in its government’s past behavior.
How do you bring the thousands back to the devastated Lower 9th? It’s easy to write the area off as geographically compromised. It’s adjacent to an industrial canal. Many of the residents were retired, disabled and unable to work. In spite of this, more of the area’s residents owned their own homes than any other part of the city. Many families had lived in the same homes for generations, some tracing their history there to when the area was first developed post-plantations. Numerous New Orleans musicians called the Lower 9th home.
After Katrina, “home” was mostly metaphoric. Today, perhaps ten percent of the homes have been either rebuilt or restored, the district being mired in a circular impasse. In order to rebuild their homes, property owners must prove ownership by producing a title. Residents are often several generations removed from an original owner as Louisiana follows a modified civil law and paperwork may never have existed. And if it did, it as well as most other possessions were lost. An owner may not be able to prove his claim. And, they may be living in Houston or Baton Rouge or anywhere because of displacement and not sufficiently inclined to return to rebuild their homes since they may be unable to produce the required documentation. You need a job to qualify for a loan and there are fewer of them. And the schools are still in the process of being rebuilt. And if you rented, your landlord is probably having the same difficulty in trying to rebuild. Lots of ands.
The city stated that they would repossess property if it appeared that it was abandoned by their owners. Groups of volunteers and neighbors regularly mow empty lots and remove debris, often for people they never knew just to maintain the appearance of their presence. No one knows how many will or intend to return. The area has the look of a newly begun housing development. Houses are scattered about, some new and some restored.
Make it Right has designed and built almost one hundred energy efficient homes using green materials so that they are both economic to live in and also safe. Novel designs stand out in the area but prove that simple housing doesn’t have to be boring and redundant. Owners who have moved into one of these homes exhibited tremendous pride for having returned and qualified for someplace new with a capital ‘N’.
Habitat for Humanity is probably the best known rebuilding organization there and their Musicians’ Village is their most cited. However, they and their volunteers are also actively rebuilding in St. Bernard’s parish southeast of the Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood that suffered significant structural damage to 100 percent of its residential and commercial buildings.
Our group of volunteers had the distinct pleasure of visiting their “Camp Hope” facility where they feed and house the hundreds of volunteers cycling in and out of their program. Using food that has been donated to them, we ‘crafted’ a menu heavy on frozen and packaged ingredients by breaking into several groups and produced salads, entrees or desserts for the hundred-plus volunteers expected to file through the reclaimed school cafeteria. As the first tired workers began coming through the line, phone calls and text messages to other volunteers quickly swelled the size of the group to well over two hundred.
While our “Evening in Italy” menu may not have been anyone’s idea of gourmet (I’ve never cooked for so many people without using a knife), it was a meal unlike any they had while staying at the camp. When, at the end, our group was introduced to them, we were greeted with a standing ovation. Trust me, they are the ones doing the heavy lifting and deserve all of the thanks we could offer.
I remain the same cynical skeptic of things in general. But I’ve discovered over time that it is just that outlook that enables me to truly appreciate those things that can make it through my filters. I went because my greatest fear is that what it took to become New Orleans and to continue to be New Orleans might falter from a lack of bodies, lost diversity, grandfathered inefficiency and time out of the spotlight. It’s a trite saying to tell of the appreciation that everyone we met and encountered had for not only the work that we were doing but for just showing up. It’s impossible to grasp their request that we remind everyone that the city is still there, still cooking and being New Orleans, as being necessary. But they asked.
I hope you'll take a minute to watch this highlight reel of the trip.
And, tomorrow, check out some "copspeak" from Homicide Hussey.