I've been in New Orleans several times since Katrina...and spent much of that time in communities hardest hit by the hurricane. What surprises me every time I'm there is that, no matter how much time has gone by since that fateful day in August 2005, little has changed since the floodwaters subsided.
Driving through the Lower 9th Ward, the site of the first levy break and possibly the most famous scenes from the aftermath of Katrina, one thing hits you. There are no houses. Foundations? Sure. But no houses. Just stone steps that lead to nowhere. There are signs here and there, promoting the organizations helping to rebuild--the Menonites, Catholic missions, Habitat for Humanity and, perhaps the most famous organization--the Make it Right Foundation or, as it's most often referenced in NOLA, "Brad Pitt's Project." Make it Right is rebuilding in the Lower 9th with eco-friendly housing, offering the families hardest hit a chance to start over. Any way you look at it, having Brad Pitt around is a good thing for that area that we all heard so much about in August of 2005 and then forgot.
But then there are the places where the celebrities aren't. Places like the 7th Ward, which has the highest crime rate in the city and one of the highest crime rates in the country. I spent two days in the 7th this week, talking to kids and adults who live and work in the neighborhood. I heard stories of young fathers being murdered outside of schools, of uncles and cousins being shot in drive-by shootings, of robbery and mugging and hopelessness. One person's upbeat statement shocked me to my core: "Rapes are up, but murders are down!"
Kids in the 7th Ward walk to school past houses that have stood empty since the hurricane, houses that still bear the spray-painted markings of the National Guard teams that searched the neighborhood in weeks after the hurricane. And, while there is a huge truancy problem in the city, the kids who do show up to school do so for one of two reasons. Either they have family that is deeply committed to education, or they go to school to escape to a place where they feel safe. Teachers in New Orleans are parents, friends, and counselors as much as they are educators.
Driving through New Orleans, it's hard to believe you're in the United States. I live in New York City--where there are high rates of urban poverty and, certainly, a fair amount of inequality. But here is a city where the poverty is so pervasive, the inequality so extreme, that you can't even imagine where you would begin to fix it. There are thousands who still live in condemned housing--much filled with black mold and infested with rats, hundreds who live in tent cities under highway overpasses, and who knows how many who are off the grid--completely forgotten.
For all the emotion that you feel when you spend time in New Orleans, which often translates into a deep feeling of ineffectiveness, it's an incredible city...filled with hope and resilience and strength of which I am in complete awe. I count myself lucky that I get to spend time there--meeting the people who live there and talking to them about their experiences, their hopes, their plans. It reminds me of the impressive power of the human spirit, and puts the little things that get under my skin into stark perspective.
Here's to NOLA...someday soon, les bon temps will roullez again.