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,