Sunday, December 23, 2007

Brad Pitt. The Pink Project

Tennessee and Derbigny Streets
December 26th, 2007
Lower 9th Ward
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Until recently, the daylit view off the Clairborne bridge was an unlikely inspirer. Looking towards the intersection of Tennessee and Derbigny, the residential lots blended together. Grazing grass replaced front yards.

What once was a lively part of the Lower 9th Ward had become an American eyesore that millions flocked to see. Devastation tours became big business.

Now, however, an artistic expression, a battle cry for sustainability, and a stab at correction is covering the most devastated area in New Orleans. The experiment is Brad Pitt's Pink Project. The Make It Right foundation hopes to build 150 homes here.

Over 400 scaffolded triangles and squares wrapped in pink are scattered across 15 square blocks symbolizing the homes lost in the Storm. It's an art installation on a massive scale, and I'm beginning to think the symbolic merit of the process will ultimately be its most important component.

The 150 homes rebuilt are a drop in the bucket in a neighborhood where over 5,000 homes were destroyed. This is not a save the City project by numbers. It's far more important from a spirit and upside outlook. The sounds of diesel engines and heavy machinery--not silence--give way to the crickets at dusk. When people drive through "ground zero" they don't think, "What's going to happen here?"

Too many Americans have left this neighborhood feeling angst, hopelessness, pity and shame.

The art component of the project is genius, really. We're a culture of extremes. If it isn't the fastest, the slowest, the youngest, the oldest, the biggest, smallest, the worst or the best it ain't a headline. For two years and four months, despite the truth that 80 percent of the City sustained considerable damage, these 15 blocks were the center of attention.

The Lower 9th Ward was Brad Pitt. We were the paparazzi.

Pitt called the project a small act of civil disobedience, citing pink as the color that screamed the loudest. The bright pink thingees have achieved what no guide or resident has been able to do--inspire.

Each time $150,000 dollars is raised by the Make it Right Foundation, the fragmented pieces of pink scaffolding will be joined to form a house in wrapping paper. Currently, enough has been raised for 52 of the 150 homes. At night the installation exhibits similarities of several pink jack-o-lanterns on a really big porch.

Pitt had 13 architecture firms submit designs for the homes, with sustainability a key concept.

“If you have this blank slate and this great technology out there, what better test than low-income housing?” Pitt told the New York Times. “It’s got to work at all levels to really be viable.”

"You can adopt a tankless water heater or a solar panel or a tree or a low-flush toilet,” Pitt told the New York Times.

And for those who've wondered whether Pitt is figurehead or real contributor--friends close to the project say it's the latter.


--Best,

Robert

Donations can be made through the Make it Right foundation's web site: www.makeitrightnola.org.

Photo Credit: Lee Celano, Reuters.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Transplant indiscretion



December 10, 2007
CJ Peete (Magnolia) Housing Projects
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The rumble in the green space between units at the Magnolia housing projects is gone now, replaced by the muffled sounds of the expressway nearby.

The physical structures are barracks-styled, they look much like a Northeastern boarding school or what servicemen might have stayed in during World Wars. There aren't many who'd say these public housing projects aren't built well. A joke down here is, "The only time people are running to the projects is when a storm is coming."

Jokes are funny. But they only work with little truths. People have always run from the projects. They run when crimes are committed. Or they run away pursuing a better life. Before the Storm, the public housing projects were centers of violent crime, poverty and poor education. Magnolia, in its pre-storm days, had developed a national reputation for its violent crime.

It has been locked since the Storm.

Magnolia and three other of the City's largest projects are due to be demolished beginning next week. Advocates of the New Orleans' public housing projects aren't going quietly. Last week, they marched on the City Council meeting. Today, recent whispers of human road blocks became yelps of intent. You see, many of the housing projects suffered little damage in the storm, and some, according to anti-demolition advocates, are move-in ready. Many public housing residents are still displaced and those who've come back returned to locks on their residences.

It's a bit of a paradox in New Orleans--tearing down usable buildings.

This is not an arena for me to tell you about whether I think the demolitions are right. The price tag is large and the outcome calls for mixed-income communities. There are passionate people on both sides.

The clash (read: human roadblocks) between government and grassroots arrives on December 15th. Until today, these advocates had played a flawless game of call-to-action and political dissent. Many of these human roadblocks will look more like me than the typical New Orleans' public housing resident. Thousands of young, mostly white and well-educated Americans have transplanted themselves here post-Katrina.

They are hip, socially-conscious and technologically fit, blogging, photoshopping and disseminating media to all corners of America and abroad. So today, when the signs appeared reading: "For every Public Housing Unit Destroyed, A Condo Will Be Destroyed," --I didn't see angry and powerless people behind them.

I saw transplants with far less invested creating a firestorm in a racially divided City already on fragile ground.

I was at City Hall when these signs appeared, and I've seen many of the socially-just post-K white well-to-doers at the protest on several other occasions during my time here.

After all, I guess I'm one of 'em. I might have even sat at their lunch table, if this was high school.

It was disappointing that transplants had become the story. Disappointing that, if this was a game, role players lept at an opportunity to become more important than they are. The fight between government and grassroots in an old city doesn't need newcomers with little invested inserting themselves into the dispute. The FBI is investigating. I believe it's propaganda produced in a corner coffee shop that went too far. I think most have the same attitude.

We are a generation of altruism. A demographic of go-getters and big dreamers. More so, I'd say than any who've come before us, given our development in relatively peaceful and prosperous times. Somewhere along the line, behind the big ideas and world-beating attitudes, a little narcissism crept in.

It took a lot of gumption to adhese these signs to City Hall and around the Central Business District. I think it took even bigger egos.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, this is not our place to become the story, or the world-changers. A guy told me the other day that he's a little tired of the idealistic transplants who think they've "come to save our shipwreck from itself."

I'm all for idealism. I'm all for world-beaters. But, we must all remember, the people from New Orleans are a courageous and competent bunch and we, the young transplants, will learn more from them than they'll ever learn from us. There is a delicate balance between learning, listening and serving a community and doing what you think is best.


--Robert

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Stuck. 8/26/05

















December 2, 2007
Thomy Lafone Elementary
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The silence is the scariest part.

All but one entrance has been boarded. Shattered glass and bent plywood rest in front of the door I've entered. If I'm caught, is it only and entering?, I wonder. After all, someone else has done the breaking.

My breath is loud. I try to quiet it, there could be people in here. It's funny really, I worry more about the people who may be mad about me getting in here and less about the people who may be living here. People who may have guns.

The walls of Thomy Lafone Elementary School are preserved as they were, Friday, August 26, 2005. Ms. Becknell taught in Room 233. Her lesson plan is still attached to the wall, just under the light switch.

8:00-9:30: Literacy
9:30-10:00: LEJS
10:00-10:30: Writing
10:30-11:30: Math
11:30-12:15: Lunch Duty
12:15-1:00: Language
1:00-1:45: Science
1:45-2:30: Social Studies

I'd like to find Ms. Becknell. I'd ask her what she's done since she left Room 233.

In another room on the second floor, a news-clipping montage is on the wall. When I read it from a far, I thought someone had put it up as a social, political statement for the post-K wander-iners of Thomy Lafone to read. The headlines, "New Orleans mourns" and "Darkest Day" and "This is a Sad Day in America" were what I saw from a distance.

They were September 11 clippings, there to remind the children of what had happened. Our language, as beautiful as it is, has limits of expression. The words we pull out in tragedies--they're recyclable, no matter how different the scenarios.

As I walk down the circular stairs that so many others have walked with backpacks and pencil pouches, scrunchies and Air Jordans, I get sad. It's an odd, selfish sadness though, about how I'd feel about the elementary school I went to going through what LaFone did.

Do you remember the kid who always picked his nose or the teacher who gave you candy when your spelling test was perfect? These are the memories of Katrina kids are making somewhere else now. Often in multiple places since the Storm.

I walk past a clock that looks like ones I used to visualize skipping forward until the end of the school day. But this isn't a place for fast-forward. If anything, New Orleanians wish they had a two-year-and-some change rewind button.

Even if we wanted to, we couldn't turn the clocks back inside Lafone.

None of them work.

--Best,

Robert

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tuesday at the Maple Leaf


Maple Leaf Bar
8316 Oak St.
Just after Midnight
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends--

Last night, when the Rebirth Brass Band's drummer walked through the door 30 minutes late, no one batted an eye.

"They need you," the bouncer said.

Rebirth is worth the wait. They began at 11:30 for a 10:30 show, administering their instant injection of pro-New Orleansness to a mixing pot of college kids, hipsters, brothers, sisters, barbie dolls and senior citizens.

The senior citizen part is true. They enter at their own risk, with no guarantee of replacement if a hearing aid breaks.

The Maple Leaf bar is positioned on a road out of a Jack Kerouac novel. The store fronts have character because the proprietors have character. Oak street is stuck in a time warp, but has installed wi-fi and bikram yoga spots to suit the needs of our 21st century quest for information and spiritual centering.

Its music hall is small, and fire codes are broken. People file in and in and in. At the end of the herding and beginning of the brass player's craft, your shoulder is next to a person whom you don't know but don't mind bumping into. Two vintage ceiling fans are doing a terrible job of circulating air. Fifty-watt light bulbs are off and the collective bounce of the crowd makes the little metal chains attached do their own jigs.

Everyone sweats. I'm talking man my clothes are sticking to me and I'm wiping my forehead every 30 seconds sweat. I bet girls hate this, especially the ones that put stuff in their hair to make it "volumous." The light is just dark enough so the condensation factories we call our foreheads aren't on display.

The light is so good in fact, that a goofy guy bobbing unnaturally and wearing a bass fisherman's hat looks cool.

I love this place.

You can do anything and have no fear that about people watchers sizing you up. I've found several places like this in New Orleans-- places that don't wholly follow trends or fashion labels or attract women who've bought into the one-look man.

Outside, my friend Cole and I meet a French girl. She says New Orleans isn't anything like the European or American Cities she's visited.

Her response solidifies what many transplants from around the world have been suspecting-- there is no place like New Orleans. I know you've heard it a hundred times, but it's true and you must see it for yourself.

You can stay on my couch.


Best,

Robert

Saturday, November 17, 2007

VISITORS AND LOCALS


Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
National League of Cities Conference
November 14, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Volunteers,

The free-filled days of the average Southeast Louisianan are gone. So, when we write this letter or shake your hands, thanking you for your time, it’s sincere. Because we know what your time is worth. Many of you may have lived in the Cities represented this week at the 84th Annual Congress of Cities. The mayors, city council people and other officials from Sandusky to Seattle are here.They want to know about what it means to live in New Orleans. They want to know what it’s like to operate in a post-disaster environment. They’ll get information from the local leaders of the Southeastern Louisiana parishes. But, you, the citizens have the stories they need to hear as well. Your duties this week are to greet and disseminate information, distribute bags and take tickets. But at the end of the day, we ask you also to tell your stories of life in a post-disaster environment. Tell the Mayor of whateverville your story. If they return to their City remembering only the conversation with you--call it a success.

The mayors flew in from the east, the west, leaving their towns full of grain mills or expansive office parks. They came to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for the Congress of Cities, an annual convention of locally-elected officials. The Convention Center, over 1,000,000 square feet feels more like an international airport concourse than a meeting place when you first walk in.

The students who came to the Convention Center this week to greet the mayors were honor students and homecoming queens, athletes and class presidents. Both teachers from Cox and McDonough 35 spoke proudly about their students.

"People stay in New Orleans," Helen Cox teacher LaToya Bailey says. "It's just how it is down here."

But Bailey says many of her students are on their way to colleges around the region and country. Many will stay here in New Orleans and attend historically black colleges Xavier University and Dillard University. Xavier, McDonough 35 teacher Dan McLean says, produces more African-American med students than any other school in the country.

Helen Cox junior Greg Monroe came to greet the mayors. Monroe is attending Georgetown University once he graduates from Helen Cox in 2008. He's 6' 10 and the top-ranked high school basketball player in the country for the junior class.

When the Helen Cox students formed a gauntlet at the entrance of the escalator, Monroe manned the last spot. "Welcome to New Orleans," the students sung and yelled.

This was the only time I've ever seen middle-aged, middle-American, slightly uncoordinated men and women dancing--feeling like rock stars.

Over 300 volunteers helped welcome the locally elected officials. The Council of United Way agencies donated over 500 hours. Trinity Christian Community, based out of Hollygrove, donated 200. They did it because so many in the non-profit and relief effort down here believe that visitors aren't getting the whole story. This was a way to tell the leaders of other communities what's happening here.

Boisterous volunteers with a little gumption went up to people and began conversations. Most of the Mayors told me when they left that New Orleans wasn't what they had initially thought.

I have a theory about this.

This, whatever this is down here, has too many layers and niches, nuances and details to be condensed into a news story by a national syndicate. What you get in your living rooms or on your coffee tables is the stuff that is digestible.

It takes a trip here to see the progress and the struggle. Five-thousand mayors and city council people had the opportunity this week. Twenty-thousand ophthalmologists did the week before.

Somewhere in blank-ville, a mayor has stashed a folded "I love N.O." shirt in her closet.


Best,

Robert

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween

Frenchmen St.
November 1, 2007
3:45 a.m.

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm not alone. Six-thousand of my closest friends will be hitting snooze this morning. Fear of oversleeping runs wild in our thoughts. It's a quarter to four and five hours until the experiment we call work after Halloween in New Orleans begins.

In New Orleans, much like New York, the new attitude is work hard, play hard. People tell me, that pre-K, it was more like work some, play more. Dr. Edward Blakely, the City's recovery czar, says there should be no more "Easy" in the nicknames for New Orleans.

The work hard play hard mentality that is beginning to permeate this place, especially with the 22-34 demographic. I hope it defines post-K New Orleans. Maintain the coffee at sunset, the cocktails at sunrise, dance six feet from of a trumpet player all night long activities. Right after work is finished.

Frenchmen Street occupies a sliver of New Orleans that is steeped in funky. Architecture, people, smell sometimes. The neighborhood, called the Marigny, has residents who follow the building structures: they are often colorful, sometimes tilted, but overall incredible to look at or know.

On Halloween, Frenchmen Street turns into a mass of alter-egos. Wonder-women, Harlequins, Marie Antoinettes, Bumble-Bees. Beetlejuices, Where's Waldos and Larry Craigs (Ha). The area can hold 10,000 people I'd say.

The it's ok to take alcohol outside as long as it's not in a glass container law promotes the makeshift-no-invitation-necessary-because-this-a-street-and-not-a-living room party. They tend to sprout up often in New Orleans.

On holidays like Halloween, these parties turn into massive celebrations where new friends are made, acquaintances reunite, and several people try to take snapshots with police officers.

The no glass rule kinds of goes out the window by midnight. Jules Goins, my friend and roommate, dresses like Tiger Woods. I'm his caddy. We bought a roll-out putting green and brought it to Frenchmen St, put it down and started yelling "Putt for beers!"

There is something special about watching a vampire with a golf club. No way this would fly at New Orleans Country Club. By the end of the night we'd gone through our inventory, and our last spot was at an intersection. Twice unrealizing motorists had to be escorted through the crowd by the New Orleans Police Department.

"Game on," Wayne from Wayne's World yelled.

Right out of a movie.

Eight hours earlier, New Orleans under 12 population is spending Halloween in Palmer Park. The Mayor and his wife have outfitted it with hot dog stands inflatable play pens, fire trucks, police cars and one scary guy who is 7-feet tall with a tiki torch and a fierce make-up job.

The trick or treating and costumes have put smiles on children and adult's faces. There is a feeling a safety and community here. The Mayor says to the crowd thanks for coming and that more events like this will be planned for the City's children.

Nights like these are a litmus test of this recovery. New Orleans knows how to celebrate holidays. In a symbolic sense, I think a City without hope wouldn't celebrate.

The funniest thing is, several people told me, "Just wait until Mardi Gras" with you haven't seen anything yet looks.


This makes me scared, happy.

Best,
Robert

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Convention Center


Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
October 31st, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

You may remember, over two years later, the images of the Superdome and the Convention Center. Images of heartbreak.

I'm not the one to tell you why. I wasn't here.

But my friend Teddy was. He says that living for three days outside the Convention Center were the most horrific of his life. Teddy says that all the rumors you heard about the Convention Center were essentially true. Some of the crazy stuff like rampant rapes weren't. But, guys with guns and the rising of underworlds and tribes like something out of "Survivor" did happen.

Teddy left the Superdome because like thousands of others, he heard that the government had opened the Convention Center as a shelter. No order was ever issued. There was no food, water or preparations for the Convention Center to be used as a shelter.

Teddy tells people he's going to charge for the next time he tells his story. It's true, this guy should be getting paid for his knowledge. Journalists, even embedded journalists, can't tell a story like the one he has.

Dead New Orleanians were left for days on the street outside the Convention Center, he says.

Generally, like the ways of our primal world, these people were our elderly or special needs citizens. Just goes to show how fragile civilized society is. I'm not a New Orleanian, but I'll use pronouns like we to describe this. This was a national event. These were all of our brothers and sisters--our grandfathers and grandmothers.

I went to the Convention Center today. Sixty million dollars of renovations later, the one million square feet of space looks pretty darn good. Hall "A" the oldest part of the Convention Center, built for the World's Fair of 1984, was the most heavily damaged during Katrina and the days of pain after.

One of the Convention Center's event planners gave me a tour of the place. Every square foot of carpet has been replaced, all doors repainted, he says.

New Orleans has always been a Convention destination battling Las Vegas and Orlando for top honors. The convention are returning steadily to New Orleans. I've read some of the welcome brochures of these conferences. No matter whether it was the American Association of Surgeons or the World Association of Police Chiefs or architects or pharmacists, each welcome letter focuses on "the feeling that we must help New Orleans in it's time of need."

True that.

The Convention Center canceled all events from September 2006 to March 2006 due to Katrina related damage. In 2007, the Convention Center says it expects 324,568 people to visit and particpate in events held at the Convention Center. For 2008, they've booked 382,914. In 2009, they've booked 541,860 and 504,240 for 2010.

What happens when the feel good stuff runs out though?

It's the thing I fear most for this City's economic livelihood.

The airport reports as of the two-year anniversary that it's operating at over 80 percent of it's pre-storm level. That means visitors are coming here. Convention visitors are coming back and big events are coming back.

But these things can go elsewhere if New Orleans, the City, doesn't amount to a fantastic destination anymore. All indications point towards that not happening. The people I've met and spoken with who've come to New Orleans say they're gonna go home and tell a friend, "hey, New Orleans was great."

For the paradigm of how we think about New Orleans to shift, it will not be because of the national media. It will be a few consecutive years of millions of visitors coming--and leaving--with the "New Orleans was great" attitude.

"Do you do exit interviews with Convention people?" I asked

He says they have people rate their satisfaction with the Convention Center and the City. "I don't think I've seen less than a 7 since the storm," he says. Overwhelmingly, the response has been fantastic, he says.

This was good to hear.

The feel good Katrina reasons for coming here will dry up, it's inevitable. But, New Orleans' hospitality won't go away, no matter how you get here.

See you soon.

Best,

Robert

Monday, October 22, 2007

After Midnight.

1:30-2:30 a.m.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

How do you connect with the people that sleep outside of your comfortable and secure apartment building? I hope I never have to use a cardboard box for a pillow. At first, I thought it was stupid to bring food outside in the middle of the night.

I have food. No wallet.

Henry Gray, 51, of no address is “High.” “On Budweiser,” the old-timer says.

A woman is on the neutral ground too. She speaks in tongues and walks in circles. Rollers are wound tightly in her hair, a soiled week-worn sun-dress covers her.


The two actually aren't unlikely characters for this time of night in this type of neighborhood.

Gray and I dig into leftovers from early in the evening--red beans and rice from Mother’s Restaurant. It is a great time for midnight snack. I splash some hot sauce, he grabs a spoon.

And we listen to her.

“Jesus Christ” she says. “Mistas please buy me some cigarettes.”

“Nothing is open,” I say. She doesn't hear me. She's retreats to tongues, her comforting circle-walk.

I turn to her, “What’s your name?”

“I don’t have one,” she says. “Actually, I don’t remember my name.”

Henry and I watch the elderly woman, a hospital id bracelet is affixed to her left wrist. Maybe she had worn the dress under different circumstances--before becoming one of the walking forgotten of post-KATRINA New Orleans. Maybe she used to be the matriarch of a family.

She comes back to Henry and me.

“Those red, beans and rice?” she says. Her gums smack together when she speaks, no teeth to buffer her speech.

“Yeah,” Henry says.

“I make me some good red beans and rice,” she says.

“What’s your secret?” I ask.

“Honey, just gotta make sure them beans be tenda,” she says.

Henry and I hear water flowing. No, it’s urine streaming down her legs. She begins an internal but audible conversation with a family member. A sister, perhaps.

Regina” she says. “Regina, why don’t you come on over here.”

Henry and I talked about the embarrassing ironies of post-KATRINA mental health care in New Orleans. Over 80 percent of New Orleanians have reported battling a least one bout of depression or some sort of post-traumatic stress since KATRINA came.

“Did you know that there was an exodus of psychiatrists and psychologists after Katrina?” I say.

“No, man,” he says. “But that lady needs some help.”

The sanctuary for the mentally-ill, Charity Hospital, closed its doors after Katrina. New Orleans went from 412 psychiatric beds to 82 after KATRINA.

She had been in a hospital.

There were id bracelets to prove it. But what happened? No beds and no doctor to care for her, I’d assume.

I start taking pictures of Henry and me. The first one doesn't come out. You know the ones. When you get together and hold your hand with the camera out. We look at the picture: my face and Henry’s knees.

“Don’t be snappin’ no pictures of me,” she says.

But I had to. I needed to. She was the face of the New Orleans’ mental health crisis. I felt anxious, but took the picture.

No flash.

“Quit that boy,” she says. I take two more duds. She’s after me now in a hobble. She is at least 70 and hardly a thoroughbred. I walk away from her and back around to say goodbye to Henry.

“Bring me some Budweiser when you come back in the morning,” he says.

I say I’ll try, knowing water is the only thing he’ll get from me. The camera is in my pocket. Still with no clean image of the woman with no name, I take it back out. Her reaction is different this time.

“You want to take my picture?” she asks softly. “Yeah I do, can you smile for me?” I ask.

“Is this for my obituary?” she says.

“You’re not going to die,” I say.

“How do you know?” she says.

"I just know," I say.

I focus and shoot.

“Mista, print that out for me when I die.”

She goes back to her circle dance, her foreign tongue.

Henry and I have lost her for the last time.


Best,

Robert






Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Orleans' Music. The Second Line.

September 30, 2007
Congo Square
New Orleans, La.



Dear Family and Friends,

When I die, throw me a party.

It's the only way it should be. Like the ones who thought up jazz funerals so long ago will tell you, the dead are off to a better place. Pick up your feet, raise your hands and celebrate cause you'll see them on the other side.

I went to a second-line the other weekend, the formal name for a musical procession through the streets for an event or more historically to honor a fallen New Orleanian musician. They call it a second-line because the first line is typically the band and integral members of the deceased's family and friend circle. The second line is the scrum of people--old and young, friends and never-knew-hims who dance behind.

Sometimes, I hear, they last for miles.

The one I went to wasn't a celebration of a musician's life, it was kick-off of to a music festival--and my first time. I went telling everyone, "it's my first second line!"

Such a tourist.

A friend told me, "Do you see why New Orleans is worth saving?"

There is this old-guy in the band. I've seen him around town. He's always wearing a bowler's top hat, the one that famous pale white guy with the funky mustache wore.

Charlie Chaplin?

But this guy, a member of the famous Treme (Treh-May) brass band, he's cool. Cool, like only a guy who plays an instrument and knows it like an extension of his hands. Many of the city's musicians have moved on, taking their acts to the clubs of Austin, Tex. or New York City.

The ones who've made it back, including the bowler-top-hat-wearing-I'm 70-years-old and cooler-than-most-gen-y'ers, have the soul of this city in their lungs, hands and feet. In New Orleans, people say, the music must continue, the show must go on.

This second line started at a church called St. Augustine. It ended in Congo Square, the section of land just outside the French Quarter where African slaves spent Sundays playing music and dancing in 18th Century French and Spanish-controlled New Orleans.

It rained. People danced without regard. Others hid for cover.

This is New Orleans. And Austin, you can't beat it.


Best,

Robert

Monday, October 8, 2007

Remember Carl Davis? An update


New Orleans Public Library
October 10, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Carl Davis looks skinny. Skinnier than the first time I met him in June, when he told me things I felt wrong to repeat. Davis says its ok to repeat these things.

A man on the ropes isn't much on maintaining an image, I guess.

But, it's a man on the ropes who isn't afraid to give a story, a real oh my god that's whats going on and I'm no shrink but that's some crazy stuff kind of story. That day, Carl Davis told me how Hurricane Katrina had psyched him out. Voices that talk to him everyday. Voices that have told him to kill himself twice since the storm.

The last three months have been better for Davis physical condition. The terribly-sun blistered lips are now more healthy. The damage, I'm sure, will always keep Davis' lips looking a little off.

His head is still in shambles though. "There are two voices," he says. I asked what they look like--if voices had a face. White guys he says. The bad one, the one that tells him to kill himself looks like the devil.

"The good voice is telling me you're alright, Robert," he says.

Knowing that Carl has something else making judgments about me are unsettling sure, but he is a gentle man, whispering when words matter and other people are around him.

Davis weighs 135 pounds. "The voices tell me not to eat," he says. "It's poison," they say.

"The bad voice told me to kill myself the other day."

He's living in an apartment with the help of a homeless shelter in town. They gave him a deposit and first month's rent on a little place off MLK Boulevard.

"I got robbed again," he says. "It was stupid, I bought me a piece of ass."

"I hadn't had no ass in a year."

Asking was shameless and intrusive, but the answer would be a market rate snapshot in America's underworld of desperation--so I wanted to know:

"How much?"


"She had charged me 20 dollars and stole my keys. Her boyfriend came back with a gun."

They took 600 dollars, he says.

After we met in June, I didn't think I'd ever see him again. He's a classic disappearing act, but not in the romantic world traveler way. When he came to see me, we hugged. We walked three blocks and sat in the shade, ate snickers and drank orange juice.

"I'm glad you came in," I said.

"I just heard you were giving away tennis shoes," he said laughing. "I'm an 11 and a half."

Best,

Robert

To see initial Video and Column about go to the "JUNE" Folder

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The new New Orleanian

(Click on Photo to enlarge)
Ashe Cultural Arts Center
September 30, 2007
New Orleans, La

Dear Family and Friends,

I cringed when she said it. "I want to change the world."

I met her the other night. Her socially conscious mantra got her here, I'm sure. New Orleans is experiencing a surge of America's well-educated and upwardly mobile 20 and 3o somethings.

Some call us vanguards. Others YURPs (young urban rebuilding professionals). We reflect America's portrait of higher education. We--Americans--all seem to be represented, but the new New Orleanians are dominantly white.

The program I'm in reflects the transplant trend. There are 17 people under 3o in my AmeriCorps program. Fifteen are from outside New Orleans. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio, Arkansas and Maryland are represented.

Twelve of us are white.

The upwardly mobile transplants must remember that New Orleans is different from New York, Seattle, San Francisco or Chicago.

It was her first night in town.

She had the attitude that a good New Orleans first night will give to anyone--the I love it here attitude. She didn't say "I want to change the world" in a very serious manner. It was more of a "why'd you choose here questions and a because I wanted to change the world" answers.

If you think about this place post-storm, any new person somehow has that idea inside them somewhere. I do believe we're all optimists. The Cubs are going to win the series and I'm going to save New Orleans kind of deep down thoughts.

It's poetic.

But, I cringe, not because of the thoughts. I have them too, sometimes. But, because in a City that was 70 percent black before the storm, that romance and heritage and whatever adjective you want to put in that made it worth saving in many ways was built by African-Americans.

In comparison to the birth of New Orleans, renaissance-driven YURPS or Vanguards will be important but not world beaters--role players, not stars.

So, yes, I cringe when I hear "I'm going to change the world in New Orleans."

Whatever we do, vanguards must remember that money for deposits and travel, dishware and furniture is a luxury few have. Over 100,000 New Orleanians are still displaced. Many homeowners are still paying mortgages on destroyed houses or played roulette with minimal insurance on homes they owned outright. A couple hundred bucks a month means more to some than others.

Many say the new New Orleanian is what this City needs to survive. I say, the City--its displaced and returned--have done more for us than we've done for them. That fragile balance, between new and old, must be thought and spoken about as New Orleans recovers.


Best,

Robert

Monday, September 24, 2007

The storm you almost heard about

September 24, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Whew.

So the storm you almost heard about turned out to be clouds. Guys like me still needed sunblock for the supposed day of wind and rain. Tropical depression "10" had been tracked to hit New Orleans on Saturday morning around 4 a.m. Ten wasn't big enough to pose a threat to foundation-housed-residents, but the 60,000 people living in FEMA trailers in and around New Orleans began throwing out what-ifs and where-to-gos.

No, I didn't add a zero. 60,000.

The City of New Orleans Office of Emergency preparedness announced shelters would be open for FEMA-trailered residents.

Storms and Shelters are two words people in New Orleans don't want to hear. It was the first time since Hurricane Rita that a storm posed danger to the fragile rehabilitation of New Orleans-physical.

New Orleans-mental went into a tail spin--albeit a tiny one. More like a tail-pirouette. But, the City took it seriously. They prepared. They readied shelters with cots and food, volunteers and generators. My buddy Jon and I were ready to work a 1:30-am-10:00 am shift at a high school gymnasium. The Office of Emergency preparedness called and said the storm moved. I text messaged Jon.

"We're off the hook."

"Ten" didn't even come close to New Orleans. It turned out to be a test run for the most vulnerable. What if it had been real, I asked myself. What if people either in FEMA trailer parks or with FEMA trailers in front of their house had their temporary residences blown over by the big bad number "10?"

There is nothing big or bad about a tropical depression in these parts. But to 60,000, even a tropical storm poses major threats. FEMA trailers are to be evacuated in the event of a tropical storm, which begins at 35 mph.

Two-lane street winds.

Thousands of people worry here when the tropical depressions/storms huff and puff their little lungs. Ten was neither big nor bad for anyone in New Orleans. But another of these little storms will pose a problem for those hung up in foundation-less homes.

Bad little wolves.

Best,

Robert

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Superdome


The Superdome
Central Business District
11:00 p.m.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

I met a girl the other day. Told me she watched a man fall from an upper-deck seat to the field in the Superdome.

"I can tell you so many stories," she says of her time in the Superdome during Katrina and her aftermath.

She's 21. After meeting her, I know that what people say is true: Age really is just a number.
Most 21-year-olds I know are happy to waltz into bars and pubs joking about the days-gone-away when they had to sneak inside.

Not many of my friends have ever seen a man die.

Her 44-year-old boyfriend kicked her out five days ago. She's sleeping down the road from the Superdome. You can't really call it sleeping, she says. If you sleep she says, as a woman, you're vulnerable.

"I try to keep standing, walking," she says. "But, I doze off sometimes." It's how she was at the Superdome, she says. The micro-society inside the dome didn't form protection fast enough. In there, often it was every woman for herself.

Tonight, all is calm in the Poydras St. moonlight. I have a copy of Chris Rose's 1 Dead in Attic in the backpocket of my linen pants. My linen shirt breathes. I wear no socks.

Damn New Orleans' heat.

If you haven't heard of Chris Rose, google him. He's made a name for himself as the post-Katrina voice. He is a satirical and real, laugh-inducing and tear-jerking local newspaper columnist.

As I sit on some granite with the Saint's Fleur de Lis logo etched in it, I open Rose. I've been reading it on and off for two weeks and knew there had to be a story about the Saints Monday night football game last September. A Night to Remember, he called his column.

I'd like to share with you excerpts from what I read in solitude under a dim streetlight outside the place that means more now socially, politically, economically--any ly than it did before Katrina.

A Night to Remember
9/27/2006

...Now of course there were naysayers out there in the Great Elsewhere. All that money, they said, that could have been used to fix people's houses. All that effort that could have gone somewhere else. All this fuss--about a game?

The simple answer is that, for the city's economy to survive, the Convention Center and the Dome had to be fixed-first and fast-because they are the bread and the butter.

A more nuanced answer is this: Better a Saints game to rechristen the building than a boat show or a gun show, for the irony of that would have been simply too much, even here in the city whose chief export in the post-Katrina age is, in fact, irony. By the ton...

This building, this monument to our shame, our disgrace, and our sorrow, will always be so, but it always has been and always will be more than that. Neither Katrina nor Tom Benson has been able to make the Superdome go away.

Its durability is our durability...

The game. When they blocked the punt and scored the first touchdown, something inside me that I didn't know was there broke loose. I let out a yell so loud that my throat still hurts today.

I fell into a human scrum t
hat consisted of a tall skinny guy, a short woman, a cop, and a beer vendor. Every layer of authority and sociology was stripped away. We literally fell on top of each other. I have never experienced a flash point of sudden emotion unloosed so fast...

It is superficial and meaningless and a total loss of perspective, but I stand before you and I declare: It is good to feel like a winner...

Ah, but let us live it, just for today, because who around here hasn't felt as though we've had a big L stamped on our foreheads for the past year and I, for one, am ready to wipe it off...

Only a game you say?

Like hell it w
as.

Thanks, Chris.

Now, Reggie, Deuce and Drew are the patron saints of New Orleans' spirit. They hold services every Sunday.

Michael, Mary and Joseph have some stiff competition.

Best,

Robert



To purchase 1 Dead in Attic
go to www.chrisrosebooks.com

To Read A Night to Remember in full, cut and paste the thread below:
http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-6/1159337420130960.xml&coll=1



Monday, September 10, 2007

Normal in New Orleans?

Audubon Park,
Uptown
September 9, 2007

New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

In K-Ville, nothing is easy.

Post-Katrina normal has returned since the two-year water mark came 12 days ago.

During that week, Senators and Congressman, Presidents and Prime Ministers flew to New Orleans to deliver messages of hope.

Senator Barack Obama said, “I can promise you this: I will be a president who wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night with the future of this city on my mind."

President Bush said, “This town’s coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday and it’s going to be better tomorrow than it is today.”

Senator Hilary Clinton said, “Rebuilding New Orleans is not a local obligation, it is an American obligation. And we must finally begin to fulfill it.”

John Edwards said, “America is better than this. We need a national effort to end poverty in America, and we need every American to take action in our fight to build One America. And we need to make sure another Katrina never happens again, in New Orleans or anywhere in America."

Mike Hukabee, the Republican presidential candidate and current Governor of Arkansas said the country needed to put “people first, paperwork next in a disaster the size of Katrina.”

The fingertips of the Newsweek writers and the voices of the CNN reporters came too. They switched interchangeably from New Orleans to the Big Easy and the Crescent City.

New Orleans, the word, started to sound redundant. The amount of material published was massive. For two days, the Big Easy was on everyone’s mind.

Then it was over.

Back in Ohio or Oregon or California, you picked up the kids and snuck in a round of afternoon golf--everyday American life.

That life isn't lost and gone forever in New Orleans.

Last week, your alarm clock still wasn’t a welcome sound.

Same here.

Last week, you sat in traffic on your way to work.

Same here.

Last week, you bought your coffee at Starbucks.

Same here.

The Anderson family has cruisers. Their bikes are stylish and hip. The youngest daughter even has the ribbons on her handle bars.

The ones that stream when the open trail warrants straight-away biking. Jasmine, the mother, says the only thing normal these days is her daughters’ school. Their eighth-grader went to four different schools during the chaotic months after Katrina.

Her husband Eugene owns a furniture refinishing company and has “more work than he can handle.”

They, like hundreds of others, are playing in Audubon Park. A highly-rated golf course is kept in immaculate shape. People run, jog and play Frisbee and football.

People also barbeque at the “levee.”

In K-Ville, nothing is easy; the school and health care systems are starting from scratch. Thousands are still in trailers. Everyone here knows the length of the "K-to-do-list."

Even in K-Ville though, there are still days at the park.

Best,

Robert.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years Later...


August 29, 2007
Midnight
5223 Basin View Drive
New Orleans East





Dear Family and Friends,

It's midnight in Katrina's garden of ups and downs. Yes, two years ago Michelle Mohammed, like so many other New Orleanians watched her city drown.

She lived in Portland, Oregon for over a year after the storm. In October, 2005, she flew from the Northwest to see the home she'd owned for 11 years for the first time.

"There's nothing else you can do when you see that, I broke down and cried."

I work with Michelle. I went to the University of Oregon so we had a connection from the first day. Over time Michelle and I grew closer. She has a 23-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son.

One day Michelle said to some co-workers, "Look ladies, that's Robert, that's my son!" We joked about it. A black woman with a white son. We joked about going to restaurants and telling the waiter.

And then something real happened. On my 24th birthday, Michelle showered me with gifts. Like only a parent gives kind of gifts. A new shirt, a tie, a pair of pants, and a bottle of cologne.

"I wanted my son to look sharp on his birthday," she says. Later that week, a friend and I spoke of the gesture. What started out as fun had become something much more for the both us, my friend said.

"Robert, you know she's really adopted you. You're her son, she tells us that when you're not around."

Mohammed's house took eight feet of water. Her husband still lives in Portland. The 21-year-veteran of the New Orleans Public Schools was without home or career because of Katrina.

She's shown me that people overcome obstacles and do it with grace.

"It's been a struggle."

It's close to 1 a.m. She walks me back to my car.

"I love you," she says. "I love you, too."

"You know I pray for you, Michael and Aryanna every night. It's the only way I can go to sleep," she says.

I drove home.

And slept well.

Best,

Robert

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Katrina's eve. How about something good?


August 25, 2007

Circle Food
1522 St. Bernard St.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Wherever you are, New Orleans will be on your tubes and your screens, your breakfast and coffee tables this week.

Whatever you read in the big shop media this week--read it with a critical eye.

There will be stories of struggle and heartache. The ones that tug and make you say, “Oh my.” It’s what writers want you to feel. It’s what writers dream you feel.

These are good writers. Human interest is what we--humans--are all
about.

And then you’ll read about the crime. And the still partially sutured status of what The New York Times calls our “Patchwork City.” You’ll read about the lack of this and that and slowness of here and there. And the “Two years later the Big Easy struggles to Recover” headlines.

It’s all true.

But, know that buried underneath the stories of struggle and patchwork, stories of strength and persistence are here, too.

And I’d say: Where are those stories?

Take the Circle Food, a grocery store in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, which had been in operation since 1938 until Katrina. This weekend, the owner, Dwayne Boudreaux opened Circle Food in its parking lot to test the viability of reopening.

“We were the original one-stop shop,” Boudreaux said. “We tried to provide what the community wanted and needed.”

I met a woman and her mother at the parking lot grocery store. People came and shopped, I asked them whether they’d shop at Circle Food if it reopened.

I must have seemed out of place. After all, I had a clipboard.

The interactions with a few discrepancies went like this,

Excuse me, mam, may I..?”

“Oh, Baby yes, bring my Circle Food back!”

“Well, why?”

“Because I’ve been coming to this store my whole life. It’s the only place in town where you could get five peppers for a dollar and pay your utility bill too.”

I think Circle Food will reopen, insiders tell me so. Boudreaux wants to do a few more one-day sales to gauge the community need. Again, he’ll bring people in for a make-shift block party where people leave with peppers and seafood, toilet paper and iced tea.

Saturday was hot like everyday. A sheen topped the parking lot. People without sunglasses looked funny, really. One eye open or squinting, saluting the sun while they shopped, socialized and listened to a DJ underneath a tent.

If Mr. Boudreaux has anything to say about it, they’ll be inside the store soon enough.

Chalk this column up in the Boring Category. Circle Food is a solid this is happening but not quite amazing enough or sad enough or despicable enough story for a headline. But it's good enough to know New Orleans will be ok kind of news.

And I’m ok with that.


Best,

Robert

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Day 163



Day 163
New Orleans, La
August 16, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

You could call my 163 days a whirlwind. The nights are long, days are bright and it often doesn't matter if my eyes realized the transition. People in New Orleans a
re saying more and more, "New Orleans got you didn't it?" Yes--like an addiction--New Orleans has me.

But no one ever said honeymoons last forever.


There have been days filled with frustration. What is frustration for a healthy-white-24-year-old with a degree, a job and a place to stay anyway?

It's nothing like what the people here experience daily.

Maybe Webster could condense the word for the rest of us--we could call it "frust."

Or frustralite.

For the transplants, these are the days you look around at mothers with children, dirty and unhealthy. You drive by vacant residential and commercial real estate. You listen to stories of struggle and heartache. The ones that begin the same, but always take unique twists, making each increasingly harder to hear than the previous.

And then I go home to my ap
artment, which I'll never have to rebuild. Or I go to the romance of the French Quarter and refuel my affection.

"Frustration" should only be used
by New Orleanians.

People down here call i
t "Katrina fatigue." Everybody gets it. My friend at work lives in a three-bedroom ranch house with 11 people. She sleeps in a twin bed and jokes that her seven-year-old doesn't realize, "Mommy doesn't like legs in her face, honey."

But she remembers
the king bed she used to have. She remembers the home she used to own.

"How long do you think it will be until you have your own spot," I ask.

"Probably another couple months," she says.


Like I said at day 77, the human spirit is stronger than I initially imagined. But
people are tired and more and more I hear, "I don't even want to hear the word Katrina."

I ask my co-worker how she does it.

"It's what you gotta do," she says.

Best,

Robert

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baseball and levees



Lower Ninth Ward
Intersection of Roman and Reynes
New Orleans, La.
July 30, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Ray Chang’s professional baseball journey started in stop-light towns like Beloit, Wisconsin where mayors double as maintenance men. But with every promotion, Chang, a 23-year-old with a gregarious school-boy’s demeanor in a Major Leaguer’s body, plays in bigger, more glamorous cities.

He isn’t quite two full seasons into his professional career, but the undrafted, a-scout-found-me-at-an open-tryout-shortstop, finds himself playing for the Portland Beavers, one call away from becoming a San Diego Padre.

Recently, he played in New Orleans, a City, it seems, in the eternal international consciousness. His travels have never taken a turn quite like this, he says.

Storm surges sometimes topped 20 feet in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. City-owned street signs rarely exist. At the intersection of Roman and Reynes, a centerfield to home plate’s throw away from Hurricane Katrina’s Florida Avenue Canal breach, a house sits doorless, a house sits roofless and a foundation sits houseless.

Several foundations on this block idle in the Louisiana heat. So Chang brought his glove. At least for a day, this former kitchen floor served a purpose. As he plays catch, the only returned resident on the block stops his yard work and stares.

Leaving the Lower Ninth for the higher ground of New Orleans, where the romance of the French Quarter and the majesty of Garden District mansions are, Chang turns back.

“That was mindblowing,” he says.

He went 3-4 the night before, but he’ll never remember New Orleans for the baseball. He’ll remember this stop for the nights in the French Quarter socializing in buildings nearly 300 years old, and for the disparity of existence between the haves and the have nots of the Big Easy.

The Lower Ninth Ward is nothing like he ever imagined, he says.

“I’m glad I came.”

We talked about the lack of residents in the neighborhoods closest to the Florida Avenue Canal breach, and the flow of outsiders driving around in taxis stopping in intersections and snapping photos.

After all, Ray and I are them minus the taxi.

The resident who watched Chang play must have been confused. Baseball? On an empty foundation?

This time at least, the gawker wasn't a visitor.


Best,

Robert

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Face #3 New Orleans Mental Health Crisis. Meet Raymond Hall

Duncan Plaza
New Orleans, La.
July 2007

Dear Family and Friends,


Raymond tried to eat the slice of pepperoni pizza. He really did. Problem was, his teeth are falling out. But before they leave, he says, the teeth break off in pieces.

Hall was one of the first homeless New Orleanians I saw who came to protest the inadequate public housing in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Over 100 people night after night sleep in the shadow of City Hall at Duncan Plaza. They sleep in the gently elevated grass and under a statue of George Washington. And next to a boarded and vacant state office built the same year as City Hall.

As I walked by them the other evening, the air had cooled, many people were up telling stories, smoking cigarettes. The main branch of the New Orleans public library is next to Duncan Plaza. About 30 people sleep under a library canopy too. An electrical outlet is used by a woman’s boombox. It’s not quite a nightlight, but she seemed peaceful.

Hall, 56, wasn’t here for KATRINA. He’s one of the few, I’m sure. But, as a Vietnam veteran who lost two young children, ages three and five, in a house fire, he deals with his share of psychological trauma.

“In less than 30 days I was back on a plane to Vietnam.”

He, like many homeless, are in “as is” condition. His chest is ribby, with wispy grey hair. He could use 25-30 pounds. A crucifix hangs from his neck. Hall isn’t the only one who sleeps outside with a faith in a god.

He came to New Orleans after losing federal disability assistance in Florida. He tried to explain what happened, but it was tough to follow. It’s a similar story for many I’ve spoken with. Hall couldn’t remember dates, he jumped around, didn’t know names of lawyers instead beginning with “The guy said…”

Carl Davis was the same way. “He’s out of DC, ah, I can’t remember the guy’s name” kind of thing.

It’s one of the most difficult things about learning their stories. Truth is, often Davis and Hall probably remember only half of their own.

But, Hall came here as a musician. A percussionist, he says. Like Davis, Hall hears voices, “They say different things, like spirits” he says. He’s diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, but has no prescriptions to tame anxiety.

When he feels bad, Hall says he just wants to go away. He understands his problems.

“I need medication,” he says.

Problem is, there aren't many here to prescribe it.


Best,

Robert