Monday, March 30, 2009

Day 754

Day 754
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Daylight savings time provides an emotional boon across the City. People play later, leave work earlier and enjoy the everythings and want-to-bes of spring time life. The local parks are always full.

In a few more weeks, nearly everyone will be wearing linen.

When I first moved here 754 days ago, our newspapers and televisions led and ended with Katrina stories. Every day. I gauge the passage of time now by the amount of with "Katrina" in the newspaper. Now, there are coffee and paper mornings--I swear it--where the K-word can't be found.

I like these mornings.

When year two turned to three, our public figures and friendly tableside rhetoric shifted slightly: "Now three years later..."

And as the months progress, we are saying, "Now three and a half-years later..."

Soon it will be, "Now four years later..."

That moment in time, the day the New Orleans calendar reset, will be with this community for a long-long time. It guides the people here, provides a measuring stick of sorts. What's more than interesting for an outsider like me are the experiences that make New Orleans what it is, even if Hurricane Katrina had never happened.

Crawfish boils, annual festivals, irreverent dress-up days, and second lines come to mind.

The messy stuff is what people elsewhere see about New Orleans. I paraded from 6am to 3pm on Mardi Gras day with a blue sky and a slight breeze the whole way. When we finished, my friends and I played football in our street.

But my friend outside the City texted, "Were you near the shootings?"

Six people were shot along parade routes on Mardi Gras day. There were a few others earlier in the week as well.

New Orleans according to everyone else is a dangerous outpost where people here on business are timid about walking after dark. New Orleans according to those living here is a cultural outpost where people laugh harder, cry longer and eat better than most.

Now, if only the spring weather stayed could stay longer than May.



Saturday, March 21, 2009

Life in the French Quarter

Dear Family and Friends,

Our sidewalks are brick and a parrot two doors away squawks when people pass her.

I've been in the French Quarter a short time now, surely not enough to call myself a part of the neighborhood, but long enough to have come home to random people on my stoop, my car rifled through by a homeless man and a next door neighbor who will sign for my packages.

Our house was built in 1830 and has 14-feet ceilings. My roommate Andrew and I, we bought a basketball hoop. It's nine-feet high; most shots are accessible and the toughest one makes you navigate a once-was-dining-a-room chandelier.

In the morning, sunlight comes through three bedroom windows. I wonder often who lived here when way back when was an era of horse-drawn carriages and dirt streets. Every time I hear people say that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt, I touch my keys and think someone has been opening a door to this place for 179 years.

The parking is atrocious. I have a lemon tree in my backyard. These two things cancel each other out. During the big events, Mardi Gras most recently, police sirens and drunken sidewalk singing sessions both invade my thin second-floor bedroom windows. On nights like these, I've found, it's better to be out with the people than trying to sleep through them.

When I look back and say "When I was 25..." I hope living in America's most notable neighborhood will make me smile.

But there are those nights when people seem to lurk too closely in the shadows. Recently, the news extensively covered the murder of a bartender by a 15-year-old in a stick-up gone bad. The intersection where it happened is about eight blocks from my house.

The news was clear to state that our police district is the smallest, yet has the most patrol units. Crime, although not acceptable anywhere, certainly isn't acceptable here. It is the French Quarter, our tourist livelihood.

"Walk on the side of the street without the cars," people say. "Muggers hide behind cars."

During my first conversation about moving in with Andrew, after he said how great living here is, he did, almost like slipping in an earmark into a piece of legislation, say that a man fired a gun from our doorstep his first night.

"Nothing has happened since then," he said.

I've said that we're urban soldiers. I hope this joke remains funny. The alternative is scary, of course, but not enough to not love living in New Orleans. Sure this place has its black eyes, bad roads and everything else that comes along with the fabric of a poor American city recovering from a major disaster.

But, today the temperature is 70 degrees. And I have a parrot for a neighbor.



Saturday, February 14, 2009

Maya Angelou drives 22 hours to New Orleans

University of New Orleans
February 12, 2009
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

When Maya Angelou appeared from behind a temporary partition, we knew tonight would be a life-long memory.

There were 2,000 people watching, but she made the event seem so much smaller. Her words convince some people that there is a wholly higher level of communicating.

She bends at the hip.

"Romance," she says. "Makes us who we are." Her voice is strong. It offsets the cane she uses to walk. Hers is a voice, people wouldn't mind listening to while on hold. If I could, I'd pay her to greet friends and colleagues leaving me voicemail.

"Hi, this is Maya Angelou, Robert isn't here."

Even her name is cool. Although I wiki'd her and found out Maya is a nickname and short for Mary Elizabeth. She drove 22 hours to New Orleans, she said, because airports make here anxious and she can't stand people hanging over her. And because she's always loved the City.

There isn't a shortage of doing good in New Orleans, though. It seems, that everywhere you look, more community meetings are held, more tutors read to kids, more protests about social injustice draw news media. The more I think about it, the more Maya Angelou gives a voice to the voiceless.

Because her success is about as unlikely as New Orleans success. Angelou is a child of the civil rights movement. She moved around, was raped as a young girl and became mute. A teacher and history's most famous wordsmiths revealed Angelou's voice she said.

She told New Orleans that there are always rainbows within the clouds. Coming from Maya Angelou, it didn't sound sappy at all.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Volunteers bundle Christmas Trees for Wetlands Restoration

Former Recovery One Landfill Site
Bayou Sauvage National Refuge
Orleans Parish
January 31, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

Somewhere between New Orleans East and Venetian Isles, the stacks of browning Christmas trees stand six feet high. In southern Louisiana, post-tinsel Christmas trees take on new roles as a part of the state's "Christmas Tree Recycling Program."

This year, the Sanitation department collected over 7,000 trees in Orleans parish. For the past two weeks volunteers have bundled the trees into fence-like structures, which experts say can catch sediment and deflect waves in America's most fragile natural habitat.

Since 1989, over 1, 500,000 trees have been placed in Southeastern Louisiana wetlands thanks to thousands of volunteers.

You'd think there would be more efficient ways to consolidate trees into bundles of 80-90 trees each than by using an assembly line of volunteers. Easier ways do exist, of course. But, as Wynecta Fisher, the director of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs says, the education and awareness experienced by a citizen bundling process is extremely valuable.

Over 100 volunteers have come to bundle trees over the past week. The process is a team effort. Metal straps about 50 feet long are laid out and volunteers grab trees empty of all decorations and place them in a row. The bottom row takes about 20 trees and then another 60 are stacked in separate rows on top.

"The wetlands are an integral part of life in Orleans Parish," Erica Johnson, a volunteer says. "The volunteer project provided a fun and easy way to help preserve this valuable resource while enjoying the sunshine and the camaraderie of fellow volunteers."

After the trees are bundled, the National Guard donates two helicopters and 15 servicemen to place the completed tree fences in the coastlines of 19 Louisiana parishes. Over eight miles of tree fences are currently in Louisiana wetlands. According to the State of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources, the primary goal of the Christmas tree fences is to "slow fetch and trap sediments." The fences reduce wage energies, while allowing the movement of water and sediments.

The National Guard has dropped tree fences in several types of locations according to the state like, open water bodies, shoreline protection, along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, interior lakes, and abandoned oilfield canals.

The Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), a Louisiana wetlands advocacy group, says the nearly a football field every 45 minutes of Louisiana's wetlands fully submerges because of Louisiana's natural subsistence problem as well as man-made destruction of coastal areas. The wetlands act as a buffer during storm surges and GRN as well as several environmental scientists say Louisiana has little time to rebuild wetland protection.

The Christmas tree project, however, is not the answer to saving the wetlands. Some analysts say it is a multi-billion dollar problem. But the tree cycling program is great to raise awareness and to expose New Orleanians to the largest urban wildlife refuge in America, Bayou Sauvage.

"The trees smell so good and great to feel like we were contributing to stabilize the wetlands," Michael Barr, a volunteer said. "And to just to get my hands dirty on a sunny day."