Monday, September 13, 2010

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived for our 13th trip to our adopted hometown on August 18th. We came to help Rebuilding Together execute their 50 For 5 project to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Their project encompassed 50 homes in the Gentilly neighborhood, which is located immediately west of the Industrial Canal that destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward. Curiously, the Industrial Canal did very little damage to Gentilly. The flooding that destroyed large portions of Gentilly came from the London Avenue Canal to the west. The water in many areas of Gentilly was 10-12 feet high, and the destruction, while not as explosive as that done to the Lower Ninth, was every bit as total in many areas.

We got to lead a project to help finish the rebuild of Mr. Enox Ragland's home. He purchased his Pauline Street home in March of 2005, just in time to get ready for the floodwaters to top his roof. 5 years later, we helped finish the siding, apply paint, build a porch and stairs, and tile his kitchen counters and bedroom floor, all while he lives in his small, unfinished home.

The 50 For 5 Project is the largest ever undertaken by Rebuilding Together, and included volunteers from Rebuilding Together affiliates around the country. A number of very generous corporate sponsors participated, and the project was showered with a lot of media attention, which was especially useful, given that we are 5 years past the storm with years of work still to go. Ann and I are grateful for the work Rebuilding Together New Orleans continues to do, and we are really happy we have such a great organization to plug ourselves into when we come to work.

Coming to work here in the late summer, as we've done three times, is a great opportunity to not only reflect and remember the damage and the loss caused by the storm, it's a first-hand chance to live with the same insufferable heat and humidity that thousands of New Orleanians had to live with in the aftermath of the storm. We think we are suffering until we pause to remember that they lived with it on their roofs, and in the Superdome, and on top of Interstate 10, and many did it without food, water, or necessary medicine. These people are tough.


Over the four years Ann and I have been coming to work here, a common theme has been how much needs to be done vs. how much IS done. The corollary of that theme, of course, is always how much ISN'T done. On this trip, we reflected quite a bit about what we've seen, and how now compares to then. Every individual story has its own nuance, of course, and for every step forward for someone, someone else has a story of being left behind.

Despite injustices and sorrows that can be witnessed and mourned, though, progress is being made here. We looked for milestones, for signposts that illustrate movement, even grudging movement, forward. Here are a few of those stories.

That House on Jackson Street

On our very first day here in September of 2006, as our van returned to the Bunkhouse, we passed a home on Jackson street that was nearly completely destroyed. A metal spiral staircase hung from the front of the home, but was no longer connected to the second-story balcony because the balcony was badly damaged. Out front, a sign proclaimed "I AM Coming Home. I WILL Rebuild." That statement, to me, was one made more of faith than cold-eyed reality. In March, when I returned for my second trip, the home had been partially destroyed by a fire, not an uncommon occurrence in abandoned structures here. The sign remained, as did the metal spiral staircase, which was now connected only to its concrete pad because the second-story balcony was now, well, gone. It seemed like a good breeze would finish this home off. One year later, we saw signs of life. A temporary power pole and meter arrived. Siding disappeared from one wall, and new framing appeared. As we came back for each new trip, this home rose from certain ashes, and now is nearly ready for occupancy.

Carrollton Street

When you look at the picture below, try to figure out why I took it. It looks like a street scene you could see anywhere. And that's exactly what it is, except for the fact that it didn't look at all like this a year ago.

It's the street itself. Newly paved, actually smooth, wheelchair cut-outs at the corners, striped, including a bike lane. Until it was completely torn up and rebuilt last year, it was a boulevard to be reckoned with. The pavement was dangerously interrupted by sinkholes and leaking water lines. The sidewalks were unlike any I have seen in this country, nearly impassable for the bodily-able, impossible for anyone with even a minor physical disability. And we took it for granted. This public works project was a long time coming, and it is, to me, a sign that perhaps, finally, maybe, possibly, the City has figured out how to deliver on one of its fundamental responsibilities to its citizens. New Mayor Mitch Landrieu may not have been in office long enough to be responsible for any of the Carrollton Street project, but it sure got completed at a time that extended his mayoral honeymoon and put the Ray Nagin hangover a bit further back in our memories.

Our Own Truth and Reconciliation Committee

For over a year after the failure of the floodwalls damaged or ruined 80% of the homes in New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers stonewalled, obfuscated, or lied (pick your position--there are really only about three to choose from), then finally fessed up to inferior work on floodwalls and levees our tax dollars purchased to protect the city and its people. was formed with the mission to hold the Corps accountable and to tell the truth about why and how New Orleans was nearly destroyed. Katrina largely bypassed New Orleans proper. Storm surges lifted and removed floodwalls that were not built to the Corps' stated standards. These floodwalls were designed to withstand surges in excess of those that Katrina delivered.

As part of their work, the folks sought official recognition and admission of responsibility. Further, they worked to ensure that the true story would be told to future generations. Ann and I got to attend the ceremony at which the official historical marker was unveiled at the site of a catastrophic failure on the 17th Street Canal Floodwall. To many, this effort may seem to be tilting at windmills, an insignificant little marker telling us what we already knew. But, that marker is a government marker, established by the state to tell all of us, presumably in perpetuity, what happened there, and why. And it belongs to all of us.

The Projects

Several of the public housing projects in New Orleans are now, finally, in the process of redevelopment. And not without a lot of controversy. Like every large American city, these projects engender strong opinions. After Katrina, they were closed, and people were not allowed to return to them, even to those buildings that sustained very little damage. And there they sat, empty reminders of both the failed ideas that spawned them in the first place and the sorrows of thousands of good, if poor, fellow human beings who lost their homes.

The new thinking is to redevelop these properties into mixed-income apartments, with some units reserved for public housing, some with rent subsidies for limited-income people, and some for market-rate housing. Streets were daylighted through the properties, reconnecting them with the neighborhoods they belong to, amenities like swimming pools were added, and new buildings replaced most of the old.

I don't know enough about this issue and the policies and realities that surround it to say anything more that this: they look great, they represent a physical improvement to the area, and I hope they lead to greater dignity, less human warehousing, and a brighter future for all who live there. They by no means solve every problem for those who lived there before. Indeed, the number of units available to public-housing clients is nowhere nearly equal to the number available before the storm. Further, the designs themselves seem to have come without much input from former inhabitants, or even from any New Orleanians, if only evidenced by the lack of front porches on many units. Front porches are the social center of many neighborhoods in this city, and they seem to have been left out of these new designs not out of malevolence but out of ignorance. Nevertheless, units are opening, and people are coming home. Welcome home.

The Hollygrove Market and Farm

Throughout the City, vacant lots and blighted properties dot nearly every neighborhood. One of the great challenges facing the people of New Orleans is what to do with them, and who should do it. Dedicated organizations and people are busy teaching citizens how to turn vacant properties into community gardens. With the help of people like Macon Fry, who used to help run Parkway Partners and now works with organizations like Hollygrove Market and Farm, people are learning how to start and operate their own neighborhood gardens. Macon handled the delivery and distribution of over 3,500 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds that have been donated by the Ed Hume Seed Company over the past three years, and that effort continues. When you see a community garden, you not only see a formerly blighted property that is now beautiful, you also see neighbors of all ages and races, working happily together on their project. It's one of those sights that universally raises a smile. There's a lot of vacant property in this city, and I think Macon will take a day off just as soon as it's all put to productive use.

The Falstaff Brewery Apartments

Back in the day, the good people of Falstaff Brewing made thousands and thousands of gallons of watery 3.2% beer for thirsty workers and high school kids nationwide. Their old brewery sits in Mid City, and until recently was a hulking, abandoned shell. It has now been renovated and converted into apartments, kind of a mini Pearl District of its own in the midst of a recovering Mid City. I cite this as a sign of progress because I had no idea this much private capital could be accumulated to undertake such a massive project to provide concentrated market-rate housing in New Orleans. By itself, it's a sign to me that demand of a normal kind is returning. It's a joy to see such a great building return to productive use, especially now that new NOLA Brewing is in New Orleans, making much better beer than Falstaff ever did.

So, you see, things are happening. Not always in the order we'd like to see, and certainly not always to the benefit of those New Orleanians still scattered around the country, wishing they could return home but having no legitimate prospect of doing so anytime soon. But progress begets progress, and the winds that are blowing through New Orleans these days by tireless people like Davida Finger, Macon Fry, and countless others who are doing something magnificent every day as they bang away on their nearly-destroyed homes give me hope that maybe, just maybe, we were right about it taking just 10 years to rebuild.

My Love to All,


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Song Remains the Same

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Figuratively, I've been sitting here at this screen for the past 5 months, staring at the salutation, trying to find the inspiration to write. Ann and I were here in New Orleans last fall, and I just had nothing to tell you that I hadn't told you many times before. Rather than phoning-in something just to say I'd written to you, I just put it away. I feel badly about that, because even though the story may have become a bit repetitive when I try to write it, that's only because I'm not very good at this.

Here we are, 4-1/2 years past the storm, and 61,000 homes are still officially blighted. If anything, the story here is more urgent and compelling now. Yes, the debris piles are pretty much gone. Yes, a lot of rebuilding has occurred, and many families have come home and life has returned to normal for them. But as you see how much work is left to do all over the city, it becomes clear that time has played a cruel trick on us. It has become so normal to see homes that are not rebuilt that it's sometimes difficult to notice them as the tragedies and sorrow each of them represent. We should be shocked when we see them, but they are so omnipresent that our brains have reserved a place for them in the space where we remember things as they are, and they are no longer unexpected or out-of-place.

On this, our twelfth trip, Ann and I got to work on the home of Miss Denise Henry. Miss Henry's Banks Street home is a double shotgun that prior to Katrina was home to Miss Henry, her brother, daughter, and granddaughter. The area took nearly 10 feet of water from the 17th Street Canal breech. The family escaped initially to the Astrodome in Houston, and then on to San Antonio for a longer stay. Miss Henry successfully navigated the Road Home path, and used that money in addition to insurance proceeds and savings to hire a contractor, who did not do the work and ran off with the money. Rebuilding Together took on her project, and when Ann, Bill Goslin and I showed up to work, the house was approaching the final stages of construction. Bill went to work rebuilding the back entrance to her home, sealing up holes in the framing and sheeting, re-hanging the back door, and building a new soffit above the back door. Ann and I worked inside. Ann got to work with some of the new leaders, showing them how to lay ceramic tile, this time in a very tiny, not square shower that was shoe-horned in under the stairs. Ann and I got to do odd jobs upstairs, hanging and trimming doors, plugging holes in the walls and floor, and building custom trim in the bathroom. The Rebuilding Together team, as always, was organized and determined. By the time we finished our time there, the home was much closer to completion.

One afternoon, Bill, Ann and I drove out to the Bayou to visit the home of Mr. Ted White, who is a client of Davida Finger at the Loyola Legal Aid Clinic. Mr. White had a very leaky roof with no apparent leaky spot. We searched the roof and found several possible points of entry, and plugged them with a very effective roof patching material. After the first serious rain, Mr. White reported that the leak had all but stopped. We weren't very happy to hear that there is still a small leak somewhere, but short of stripping the roof off and replacing it entirely, we shot all our ammo doing our patch job. It's 99% better, anyway, and we did what we could.

One of our great March pleasures has been that we typically run into the students who come annually from The Juilliard School in New York. During my first March trip 3 years ago, I got to work with these gifted and huge-hearted people, and they bring me joy every time I see them. This year was especially great because one of my 2007 team members, Meredith Lustig, was back as a Masters student and mentor to this year's group. Meredith and I got to frame the bathroom walls at Miss Peggy Severe's home in the Hollygrove, and we had a great time doing it. That group was and is very special to me, and Meredith's million-watt smile took me back to that great week we all spent together.

The Saints won the Super Bowl while we were there, and the City was awash in joy. No cars were tipped over and burned, and crime virtually disappeared for a day or two as people celebrated. I heard more than a few commentators boil the Saints' win down by saying, "Now, finally, Hurricane Katrina is behind New Orleans, and life can go on."

Oh, were it so easy. But, the Saints did provide an incredible amount of happiness to a City that sure could use it. It was a great pleasure for us to be here for the game and the celebration that followed.

In the midst of all the rebuilding, there are people all over the City who go about their daily business of trying to make their neighborhoods and the lives of the people who inhabit them better. One such person is Reverend Lance Eden, who recently left the First Street United Methodist Church to start his own independent congregation in Central City. First Street was the site of our beloved bunkhouse, which was home to thousands of us volunteers over the course of nearly two years. The Rev was assigned to First Street only two months prior to Katrina. It was his first assignment following his ordination. Following Katrina, The Methodist Church hierarchy offered him another parish, outside New Orleans and away from the damage of Katrina. The Rev said no thank you, and went about cleaning the church and serving the people of Central City. Nic and Bri and others showed up from distant cities, armed with water, blankets and other supplies for people in need. Between them and the Rev, a partnership was born that spawned Hands On New Orleans. The Rev talked his superiors into converting the church's Social Hall into the Hands On bunkhouse, and for the next two years, we volunteers called it home, 100 volunteers at a time. Reverend Eden made it our home with his commitment to his congregation and to his neighbors in Central City. In doing so, he performed a loving and generous service to those we were able to help. He also performed an equally-loving and equally-generous service to those of us who came to help. His example and tireless efforts on behalf of his people set the table for us volunteers to share the lives and joys and sorrows of what became our neighbors, our friends, our families away from home. Every single person who has come and labored here knows exactly what I am talking about.

And now we have a chance to help the Rev, our Rev, take the next step for his people and for Central City. His new, non-denominational congregation has begun a Building Fund to help them find and acquire a small church building of their own. At this time, they are borrowing space from a small Baptist church which has generously allowed the Rev to temporarily set up shop. Through their own efforts, they have already banked $10,000 toward this goal. They need $50,000 in the bank to establish their bona fides as a serious, if young, congregation. That number is thought to be sufficient to post as a down-payment on a piece of Central City property, hopefully with some structure already on it suitable for developing into their Church and other future structures that would help them live their mission of service to the poor people of Central City. Their goal is to raise this amount by the 1st Anniversary of their founding, which will occur in August of this year. They are already organized as a charitable organization, so all contributions are tax deductible.

Ann and I, along with our long-term volunteer partner Bill Goslin, decided to get involved in this effort, and to hopefully bring along each and every volunteer who ever set their head on a pillow in our First Street Bunkhouse. We're reaching out to as many of them as we know, and asking them in every way possible to reach others they worked with, until we've networked our way into contacting every one of them. Ann spent a considerable amount of time getting a non-profit PayPal account set up for this purpose (If you click on the buttons above, that's where you go. Trustworthy and easy.) If each of us made a small financial contribution, in addition to a small time commitment to contact their fellow volunteers and all family and friends who didn't volunteer but have followed the rebuilding effort, we as a team could provide substantial assistance to the Rev's effort to put his stake in the ground and build his Church.

To be honest with y'all, I'm not much of a church-goer anymore. But I do go to church when I'm in New Orleans, and that's because Reverend Eden spreads the Gospel in such loving and tangible ways. He does it in the pulpit, with his gifted preaching skills, making his biblical readings relevant to the realities of Central City life for his congregants. It is a gift I have witnessed and absorbed many times. As important to me, he has done it in so many ways outside the pulpit. Defending the bunkhouse and the volunteers from his superiors and congregants when they wondered what this young preacher was up to and when would they get their church back was just one way.

As we arrived here for this latest trip, we dropped in for Sunday services with Reverend Eden, and in the three weeks we've been here, we seen him three times in front of his congregation. Seeing what he has already accomplished, I have every confidence that he will lead his congregation to their own church building soon. There isn't much room in their small borrowed space, especially when you consider the size of the Rev's heart.

My love to all,