Thursday, April 25, 2013

The City that Care Remembered: My Students Reflect on New Orleans

My students working at a Habitat for Humanity site, 
Central City, New Orleans, March, 2013. 

For the sixth time since 2007, during Spring Break I led a group of 14 of my students on a 10-day service-learning adventure in New Orleans, Louisiana. As part of my honors class at CUNY entitled, “The City that Care Forgot: The Roots, Ruin, and Rebirth of New Orleans," we all visited the “Big Easy” from Friday, March 22, through Tuesday, April 2, working on rebuilding projects with Habitat for Humanity and harvesting vegetables at Grow Dat Urban Youth Farm.

My students and I also took levee and "human geography" tours of the city, visited the swamps at Barataria Preserve, rode the St. Charles Street Car, evaluated the progress of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward, and even learned how to Zydeco at the famed Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl!

Click here to see a quick 30-second YouTube video of us each saying our favorite N'Awlins word: CreoleGumbo, Y'all, Jazz, Crawfish, 9th Ward, Lagniappe...

What follows are a series of reflections on the trip written by the students themselves.

City College student Leanne demonstrates that New Orleans’ levees are still inadequate by standing in a remaining gap, which is almost as tall as she is! 

     “It angered and frustrated me to see that these kids did not even have an adequate school building to learn in because they came from the Ninth Ward, were Black, and poor. They were not only abandoned by their board of education but by their state and by their government. In this way, my previous war zone description is especially fitting because on top of neighborhoods still being in ruins, an entire school system is in ruins and is unable to meet the needs and supply the resources that its children need in order to learn, grow, and flourish.”

     “This is how I breakdown New Orleans in the end: Festivals, bars, and parties lie in the center of New Orleans. Take a step back from the center of the city and notice the broken education system, the environmental racism, and the lingering socioeconomic disparities that have existed for a long period of time. Take a step further back and watch the swamplands (that have been housing alligators, deer, cypress trees, and other wildlife) erode slowly as saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico pours in. Overall, New Orleans is a dying city in the making—a city that parties all day long while neglecting the problems around it. Hurricane Katrina afflicted significant damage to many parts of the city, but what it really did was highlight the environmental, the socioeconomic, and the political diseases that existed before the hurricane.”
     “…as we entered the area surrounding the George Washington Carver High School, there was the presence of an aura of fear and violence—streets deserted, houses damaged, the story of a student shot nearby, and the struggle to provide the best quality of education to an area full of low-income, colored families. Looking at both areas, how can such a level of inequality between whites and blacks still exist in modern American cities? It was as if history still remained intact in the city.”

     “To be honest, I thought volunteering would be satisfying but I felt mostly inadequate. There was so much more to be done for the city of New Orleans. All the work I did felt marginal, but I know I am just being a little cynical. It did give me a brand new respect for day laborers and farmers. My mom thought it was hilarious that I was farming since she grew up on a farm. I am pretty sure she did not come to this country so her children could spend another generation farming in the hot sun.”

     “Upon arriving in New Orleans, I was immediately enchanted by this fun, uninhibited lifestyle that cloaks the city in a shroud of seemingly impenetrable recklessness and dissent. This uninhibited care-free nature is what deems New Orleans to be ‘The Big Easy,’ an attribute that is truly unique and remarkable to experience. Despite the extreme racial and class tensions that exist and intersect with the impoverished state of New Orleans, the city has managed to maintain this easy going lifestyle. While I found the uninhibited, easy lifestyle of New Orleans to be magical and entertaining, I could not help but wonder: at what point does the magic end? From a sociological frame of reference, without the shroud of music, festivals, and alcohol New Orleans would cease to exist as we know it, revealing a broken skeletal structure built upon inflated inequalities and unstable terrain.”

     “Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City and Richard Campanella’s Bienville’s Dilemma [see here for the intro in PDF] put the city of New Orleans in its rich historical context. Many think of New Orleans as the ‘true melting pot’ of America. This conflicted with my established notion of what a melting pot was as a native New Yorker. I knew that New Orleans’ diversity was far different from that of New York’s. Powell and Campanella’s respective analyses of the word Creole’ and its evolution harped on this. The word serves, at any given point in history as a racial divide between peoples of New Orleans. I found it difficult to picture a city with distinct Spanish, French, and African influences that was both divided and amalgamated at the same time.”

Students stand along the top of the London Avenue Canal after a levee tour with Dr. Stephen Nelson of Tulane University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 

     “I was around thirteen years old when Hurricane Katrina hit. Even though I knew what happened was terrible, I was still unable to fathom how much damage had been done. In class, we read all about the numbers, how the hurricane claimed over 1,800 lives, some parts of the city had flooded to over fifteen feet, the city had remained flooded for about four weeks, over 50 levees had breached. All of those numbers seemed abstract. All those situations, even as they played over and over on the news did not seem real, and did not feel as though they could have happened in the United States.
     I definitely had trouble comprehending how the government had failed its people. After taking this class, and after hearing many stories of different people, both natives of New Orleans and not, a clearer picture had been painted. Kanye West’s infamous outburst that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about Black people’ no longer seems that unsound or unjustified. While the Lower Ninth Ward is about 20 minutes out of the French Quarter, it looks like an entirely different city. Even while watching and walking through it in real life, it was difficult understanding how any government would allow its own city to quickly spiral down into complete ruin.

Students enjoy a tour of New Orleans’ unique urban geography with Dr. Richard Campanella of Tulane University.

     "The French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans, the popular must-see tourist destination. However, while touring the French Quarter I did not feel like a tourist. The French Quarter felt oddly familiar to me. As I learned in class, after the fires of 1788 and 1794, the Spanish rebuilt the French Quarter, making it as much a “Spanish” as a French settlement. It was no wonder that I was reminded of the Dominican Republic, the native country of my parents, which was also been colonized by the Spanish. This allowed me to instantly feel familiar with New Orleans. I felt as if I had been there before. The music on the streets was intoxicating. On one occasion while touring the French Quarter I heard drums in the distance and in an uninhibited moment I started to dance to the distant music. The brass bands playing in the streets are the most captivating. The trip to New Orleans did not really begin for me until the class danced spontaneously as a group on the street to the music of an amateur brass band.
     As I travelled throughout the city, I had a constant feeling of awe and amazement at its beauty and magic and at the resilience of the people, however I also felt a gnawing feeling of trauma, unfairness, inequality, and inevitable doom. The city of New Orleans has always been and is constantly in battle. Throughout history there has been culture clashes between new migrants who challenge the traditions and culture of the old, long-time residents - the so-called 'Creoles.' There has also been a battle between the inhabitants of New Orleans and its government (whether the French or Spanish crown or US local, state, and federal politicians). And of course there is the never ending battle between the city and mother nature herself."

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