Sunday, August 17, 2008

Year Three

August 29, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The calendar is still valid here. Modified, of course.

Post-K New Orleans turns three today, and the City still carries the markings of its embattled recovery. Over 100,000 people have left, one in three residential addresses is vacant or blighted and its crime rate has passed casually guarded on its way to "Wow, I really do have to think about my safety."

Government-dispensed spray paint still lingers on many homes' facades. The X's are as common as mailboxes around these parts. "They're memorials," my friend says.

But, we, as Americans, shouldn't give up on New Orleans.

You'll read a lot about the bad today. And you'll read a little about the good.

For that, a buddy of mine decided to round up the 100 best things to come out of New Orleans since Katrina to balance the good versus bad scale. Like never before, thanks to the internet, bottom-up information gets the same street credentials as the stuff delivered to your doorstep.

He calls the list the NOLA 100.

New Orleans blogosphere is filled with citizen activism. No grants, no awards. Nothing but concerned citizens in love with their City. Likewise, neighborhood groups have been and continue to be the leaders of recovery. Caring for returned neighbors and the resurgence of one's neighborhood now comes right behind family, food and church.

They're paying it forward too. A contingent of neighborhood organizers went to Cedar Rapids in the weeks after the Iowa floods to give best practices on mobilizing neighbors.

Observing neighborhood resilience is enough to for me to know New Orleans is going to be fine. People who came back right after the storm will tell you that the City has progressed in many ways.

My co-worker Loretta, she uses military-issued "filtered drinking water" on the office plants.
We still have a case of the stuff.

She spent three months on the floor of a college basketball arena in Lafayette, La.

Talk about progress.

Now that I feel like I've got one foot in here, I sometimes forget about Loretta's story. The everyman story here, actually.

I watched the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke the other night. My friends and I, who've come here post-Katrina, we should be obligated to re-watch and re-read the accounts of New Orleanians who watched their City drown.

Because sometimes when we're partying till sunrise, New Orleans without the baggage feels too damn good.

My friends in DC, policy kids, capitol hill kids who get chided for their insatiable need to be inside are sending similar criticism towards New Orleans' transplants.

"You're using New Orleans," they say.

And now I wonder aloud. Is New Orleans becoming a frontier for socially-conscious opportunists? An it phrase on a resume?

I must disclose now that I didn't move to New Orleans with its professional benefits on my mind. I thought a year here would do me good. The "you're only young once" mentality.

Tulane University had more applicants for this year's incoming college class than ever. They stopped taking applications at 34,000. Shut down for an entire semester after Katrina, Tulane is now the most selective school in the country.

Seventeen-hundred new Tulanians began class on Wednesday.

People say the flood of applicants to Tulane is a direct correlation to the service trips by church groups and other organizations since the storm. Talk to any neighborhood activist and they talk about service volunteers like knights in shining armor or guardian angels.

But the need for unskilled grunt work is nearly gone now, any houses that still need gutting should be demolished. Volunteers are being used nicely to help curb neighborhood blight, however. Because, as I said earlier, one in three residential homes is vacant.

I sometimes question how people still coming to help view this place. Is it a pity trip? Is New Orleans like a kid whose black eye is seemingly still swollen?


The black has turned though. Kind of yellow and brown now. Just give it awhile.



No comments: