We finished our placements in New Orleans on Friday and we got home early yesterday afternoon. It was a pleasurable trip. I don't want to say it was "fun," because we were busy working with and for people who were in a desparate situation, and I do mean busy. I averaged about 13 hour days this week with my busiest starting at 6:30 and ending at 11:00, with a three hour break for dinner/walking.
We got to see ALL of New Orleans, from the "tremendous progress" of rebuilding in the Garden District and the French Quarter all the way to the lower 9th, where the scene is almost unchanged from 15 months ago, to the Lafitte projects, where the housing authority barred the homes with metal shields, cut the power lines, and posting signs announcing that nobody but HANO employees and their families were authorized entry onto the land. The city apparently wants to take these projects, formerly home to (I think I was told) 1600 families, tear them down, and rebuild either middle income homes, which would house fewer people in the same land area, or use the land to build a film studio to lure in filmmakers from LA to generate more big money for the city - with no mention of where the residents would live. The Housing Authority apparently alleges that the projects sustained too much water damage from the flooding, and they need to be torn down, but, frankly, that's a load of shit. The water line didn't even extend beyond the foundation, stopping on the second to top step; the apartments themselves received no water. It's easy to see why the local population feels like they are being mistreated by their city, the city they work for to bring in the tourists who bring the money to the city.
Our team also rode the LA Swift, speaking with the bus riders, hearing stories, discussing the situation with the commuters. I was not a part of this, however. I was the navigator of the van that picked up the riders at the bus stop in Baton Rouge to bring them home. Our driver was Jeannie (sp?), and if you happen upon this Jeannie, you were terrific, driving people all over a foreign city, and then going on a cross state trip in a rented van at night to another city to which you'd never been in a state you'd never been, in a thunderstorm.
Because we stayed as busy as we did, I didn't have gobs of time to go touring the city, but I did manage to get out and get around. I never made it to Cafe Du Monde, so I have a reason to return to New Orleans, but I did get to eat at some local places (e.g. trolley stop cafe, Mulate's) and a couple "gotta eat there" places (e.g. Cafe Maspero, Acme Oyster bar). We also spent three days trying to get in to a restaurant called Bacco's, which apparently doesn't serve law students from Texas. We got there while the restaurant was still open on three separate days, but after they had stopped seating for the night. We're convinced it's a conspiracy to keep Texans hungry.
We walked all over the warehouse district, the Irish Channel, and the French Quarter. We walked down Bourbon street, which is narrower than I'd imagined, Rampart Street past Armstrong Park (I don't recommend walking that stretch at night in a pair - scary), Magazine, St. Charles, Peters, Tchoupitoulas (or however it's spelled; it's pronounced Chop uh Too liss), Decatur (past St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square), and others.
I can easily see why people fall in love with New Orleans. It has an old-world charm to it. But once you get out of the tourist section, you see that the city hasn't bounced back yet. 2000 people commute each day from Baton Rouge FEMA parks because they haven't had time to fix their homes and nobody else is working on rebuilding, and given the choice between rebuilding their homes and having a job for necessities, guess which has to lose. There were literally blocks upon blocks at the spot of the levee breach where the 9th Ward had been devastated, as if God stepped aside and let Mother Nature reclaim the land that had once been hers. I don't know that I could adequately describe the scene, the scope of it all. When you recognize that these blocks were the home to multigenerational houses, old-time neighborhoods where everybody knew you and your parents and children, and that those memories are too trivial for the city to put any motivated effort into helping the families get them back, you can't help but feel your heart break a little.
It was little different seeing how the police and contractors treated the "mexicans," the undocumented immigrants from all over Central America who were rused into coming to help rebuild New Orleans. Tracie, who was perhaps the smallest person in our group, but who had perhaps the biggest heart among us all, phrased it the best, which I'll paraphrase here - It's so disgusting to think that here in America we have a situation where people are treating other human beings as construction equipment - you go to Lowe's, pick up your 2x4s, your nails, some Caulk and dry wall, and then pick up a couple "mexicans" right outside to put it all together. We're supposed to be better than that.
So I got to see some of the best and worst that New Orleans had to offer. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to go down and do my little part to help out. There is still A LOT to do before New Orleans can return to the city it used to be - there's currently only 45% of the pre-Katrina population in the city, and the city needs people to tell its story, and to go down to share in its renaissance, and to ensure that those who made New Orleans the city nestled in the hearts of millions of tourists are not shut out of the new vision.