Last weekend we visited an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward, ate a wonderful dinner at the post Katrina home of the Anderson family, and also asked the hard questions about life down in Louisiana.
After only having lived down in the Bayou for two plus weeks, I am definitely still an observer to this culture and community. Some things I do know are that Louisianians like to eat shrimp, po-boys, and listen to good music. What I am still learning is what daily life is like here on land that is sinking at an increasing rate. As we have frequently heard, the water is a blessing because it supports many people’s livelihoods, but can also take it all away.
A trip to the Lower Ninth Ward
Last Saturday we began our New Orleans excursion by pulling up alongside the former building of Blair Grocery in the Lower Ninth Ward. Located here is a school called Our School at Blair Grocery, run by a man named Nat Turner (who goes simply by “Turner”) and who was profiled in the NYTimes earlier this year.
The Lower Ninth Ward, home to musician Fats Domino, is mostly African-American and working class. It was also one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Katrina. Only about 1/5 of the former 20,000 residents in this neighborhood have returned since Katrina. This Times article notes that some groups “estimate that homeowners in predominantly black communities like the Lower Ninth have received substantially lower house-reconstruction grants from local, state and federal agencies than white Katrina victims have, even though it usually costs as much to rebuild a house in the Lower Ninth as it does in more upscale districts”.
Our trip here was a surprise visit planned by Nicholas School Professor Charlotte Clark, so most of us had no idea where we were when we arrived. Therefore we were all pleasantly surprised to see a very healthy garden located in the middle of this neighborhood, filled with all sorts of vegetables and interesting artwork. Soon after our arrival we were ushered inside the building by Turner himself, and treated to one of his thought provoking lectures that he is obviously well versed in giving to visiting groups.
From their website, the school is described as “an independent alternative school and sustainability education center…to drive sustainable community development in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans”. Turner talked about the importance of sustainability, food security, and environmental justice, among other things. He also spoke of the great hardships and bleak lives of many of the neighborhood’s citizens.
He challenged our group to think about the purpose of many of our activities, such as wetland planting. Without the opening of the levees and the re-sedimentation of the area from the Mississippi River, he noted rather strongly that it is unlikely that Louisiana is going to stop sinking. However, while down here I have learned that the issues are often more complex shades of gray rather than black and white.
Dinner with the Andersons
After our stop in the lower Ninth Ward, we journeyed to the home of the Charlotte Clark’s sister’s home in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The Andersons warmly welcomed our group into their home and cooked us a wonderful New Orleans dinner of red beans and rice.
Before Hurricane Katrina the Andersons lived in the city of New Orleans. We listened to the story of their departure from the city pre-hurricane with multiple cats, dogs, kids, neighbors, and musical instruments all packed into their cars for the drive to a pre-booked hotel. (My question of course was, what about hotel pet policy? To which I learned, hotels often overlook the rules in times of hurricanes). We also heard about the year they spent living in North Carolina and Minnesota after Katrina before they were able to move back to their beloved city.
Looking at the picture album of their old home, both pre- and post-Katrina, we were amazed by the destruction which was photographed room by room. Eventually after they salvaged everything they could, their old house was razed to the ground.
When we asked how they made the decision to return to New Orleans, they simply answered that it was their home, and they both hoped and believed that it would return to its former glory. What was also implied is that New Orleans, and Louisiana, is a special, unique place full of character and culture that is hard to tear yourself away from.
So why do people stay?
Is it family, history, cultural attachment, environment, employment, lack of financial means to move elsewhere? Probably a combination of all of the above.
Families such as the Andersons had the means and expertise to both leave the city before the hurricane hit, and to return under their own choosing. Even before they moved back to New Orleans, they spent hours negotiating with the insurance companies, getting paperwork in order, finding a lawyer to help them pro-bono, and getting what they could from their old house. I’m guessing there are many people from New Orleans, and probably a large majority of the people from the lower Ninth Ward, that were not able to do this.
Over the weekend I heard Louisiana described as both a “failed state” and a “third world country” from two separate Louisiana residents. However, at the end of the weekend I think we were all marveling at the ability of New Orleans to rebuild itself into the vibrant city it has returned to after Hurricane Katrina. And that people live and thrive here with the unknown heartbreak around the next corner, and the constant sinking of their home right under their feet.
But what I do take from the summer so far is something Diane Huhn of Bayou Grace told Heidi and I today. Diane said that staying positive here in this beautiful and unique place is what she does everyday, even among the constant struggles and complexities of life in the Bayou. And that every small thing and accomplishment here can be thought of as a piece of the larger puzzle.