Just got back from a whirlwind trip to New Orleans. Too late and tired to form coherent sentences, but I wanted to record some impressions sooner rather than later, because I heard and saw a lot over the past two days that I don’t want to lose in one big, blurry memory. So, random thoughts from things seen and heard:
– The areas that were badly affected by the levee breaches are just, really, post-apocalyptic. They are deserted, with the exception of a few cleanup crews (local residents, and from elsewhere)… in the areas adjacent to the 17th St. Canal breach and the Industrial Canal breach, the homes are just… it looks like a war zone. There’s people’s stuff, totally banal stuff like tshirts and VCR tapes and silverware and children’s shoes, strewn all over front yards. It’s almost unreal, until I started to imagine my neighborhood, my parent’s house, totally demolished like that – nothing special, you know, just the sum total of someone’s life. Horrifying.
– We checked out a FEMA trailer park, and chatted with one of the security guards there, a guy from Michigan. Not really sure who he’s guarding – the people in the trailers from the outside world? Or the other way around?
– One of the more troubled housing projects in NO, although suffering little damage from the storm, is still closed, and the city installed these safety screens over the windows on the first floor to keep looters out. But the buildings are safe, so why aren’t they open yet?
– Under the highway next to the projects, abandoned cars lined up. Some of them still have people’s stuff in them, covered in mold or dirt. A fellow student pointed out something that was missing: all of the cars had had their stereos and other parts removed by looters.
– Quote from one of our guides, paraphrased: when you’re rebuilding, you’re not just responding to the hurricane, you have to respond to the many past changes and cultural histories that has made NO what it is today.
– We spent a lot of time listening to Tulane faculty, and the President of Tulane, speak about efforts at planning for rebuilding. These very knowledgeable people sit on key committees in the city and are spearheading many of these efforts. Some things coming from that, and questions that came up for me:
– What gets rebuilt? A big emphasis on historically/culturally relevant sites. Well, who gets to decide what’s relevant? Which directly relates to the other question, whose culture?
– The pre-Katrina school system was described over and over as corrupt and inadequate. After state takeover, charters are being opened in a somewhat haphazard manner – just trying to get bodies back in classrooms. Right now all the ed talk is about charter schools, but what about refocusing on the traditional public school system? A speaker who’s opening a KIPP charter told us that he expects 95% of the $6,000 that he’ll get per student will go towards the student’s education. The number for the public schools was 60%. How much do the charters have a stake in the communities they’re in? What are the implications for having schools at the center of neighborhoods (part of the rebuilding plan) if students are bussed from an hour away? What are the implications for being culturally relevant to the students?
– The topography of NO – naturally occurring available high ground, filling in and populating low ground – is intricately tied in lots of fascinating ways to how the population distribution of NO has been historically shaped, esp. by race & class.
– City has face significant segregation in the past 20-30 years (when it had historically been a much more integrated city). A good majority of working class African Americans lived in the hardest hit areas, and they are the ones with the fewest options for getting anything back out of their property investments. As it was described to us, these folks have the following options: leave the city, find a buyer for their house (at way below its value), or stay in the city – but where? where can they afford to stay? mainly, in low ground areas. In the current urban planning, there is no concrete plan for low or mixed income housing in higher ground areas. This is a real problem in terms of moving towards reversing the trend of segregation.
Am tired. And sad. The good thing is there are lots of smart, well-intentioned people working on future planning. Things could turn out really well. Or not.
Off to bed.