Rebuilding New Orleans Post-Katrina, 8 Years Later

Part of the reason I wanted to visit New Orleans was to see how the city has re-built itself after Katrina.

I didn't do any structured observations or in-depth ethnographic interviews, I just kinda ended up taking a visual tour mixed with incidental conversations induced by waiting around in public spaces or commercial transactions.  Though I have heard about the privatization of schools and other issues, I didn't interact with any people firsthand who would make a comment about this.

There's no real verdict I can make other than to say that people have their stories before and after Katrina, and that people are resilient and will try their darndest to recover. 

The physical condition of the city is hard to really categorize as one thing or another.  While some utility poles look like they were knocked over as a result of Katrina, some things simply look old and perhaps "historic."

Some houses were really re-built, especially in the Lower 9th, others left in disrepair.  I felt that in my district, the Bywater, with much less attention, there were a lot more vacant houses left for dead rather.  Perhaps it is the deadness that has awakened the creative minds, a lot of them white.  

Though the neighborhood we stayed in (Bywater) is mixed, it feels somewhat less integrated.  By "less integrated" I mean that different people didn't seem to interact with each other so freely.  Black with black, white with white.  St. Claude Ave. the main road was full of black folk, whereas in the smaller streets we would see bicyclists, license plates from other states, the art, and the sometimes-political messages.

Katrina is still something people talk about.  And why wouldn't you talk about something that might have or actually did take away your material possessions, your family members, or your ability to "go on as normal."

When we first got into New Orleans from LA, someone was already talking about how since Katrina, bus service had simply gotten worse.  According to her, everyone bought a car to get around.  In the absence of public transportation, I observed lots of taxi cabs, charging upwards of $45 to get to the airport, whom another bystander remarked that they were simply looking for tourists.

We avoided taxis as much as possible and experienced the inconveniences of public transportation first hand:  we had to wait 30 minutes for Bus 88 to take us to where we thought we could catch the bus that would take us to the airport.  However, that bus, the E2, did not run to Downtown New Orleans on the weekends, and we would need to take yet another bus to that E2 bus.  We waited another 1 hour for that bus.  And then 20 minutes for the the bus that would take us to the E2.  All in all we had to plan to spend at least 4 hours to make sure that we could get to the airport.  

However, overall, with a modest itinerary each day, we didn't need much motorized transportation during our stay.  With a flat landscape, sharrows, bike signage, we were able to bike around somewhat comfortably on our cruisers. 

Our interactions with people were mostly short, but usually welcoming, which was a pleasant surprise to this Angeleno accustomed to the UCLA Bruinwalk-type of interaction (i.e. non-acknowledgment and avoiding eye contact).

One of the first conversations we had was a new transplant to New Orleans from Compton.  He talked about how he had been eying property to buy in New Orleans before Katrina and how lots immediately after Katrina, even near the tourist-heavy French Quarter, were going for cheap.  Not as much anymore, but still, a lot cheaper than LA.  I noticed that (re-)construction seemed to be alive and booming in the 7th and 9th wards.    

One chance conversation alerted me to the fact that Katrina robbed people of not just their material possessions.  

We talked to a man named John whom I ended up buying a lunch of jambalaya.  He was a man looking for a meal.  Testing this proposition, I offered to take him to lunch instead of accede to his demand of $2.

I learned that he was a repairman who as a result of Katrina, had become temporarily paralyzed.  He'd lived in New Orleans for a long time.

Apparently, he was able to shake off his paralyzation, contrary to what the doctors' had diagnosed for him.

He was now walking, and was simply happy to do that.  However, he was unable to resume his day job and we found him begging at the French Quarter for change. 

One of the most memorable interactions was at the French Quarter with a black elderly vendor lady named Mable.  She sewed dolls and sold incense on the weekends.  We learned that she worked for the New Orleans public school district for 30 years and was now retired.  She came to the Market to make some extra money.

We told her that we were just visiting and happened to be staying in the 9th ward.  She said that she'd lived in the Lower 9th Ward her whole life.  She was part of the 9th Ward Homeowners Association and its Crime Prevention team.  

She told us that there were a lot of people volunteering and helping to make the neighborhood better.  I got the sense that the volunteers, mostly non-black, were a new fixture of the city, as my significant other and I were asked us if we were volunteers.  

However, Ms. Mable noted that these volunteers were more so in the first 4 years after Katrina.  She'd be booked for meetings and interviews.  She traveled everywhere including to New York.  Nowadays she'd spend her day sewing, while making her hand-sewed products.  She wasn't doing it for money, but simply to get by.

I only got to stay for 6 days and got to talk to a chance few, but I feel that I needed to see it, not to diagnose what went wrong, not to pass judgment on agencies, or groups of people, but simply to be at the level where I too, could temporarily feel, see, and hear the rhythms of a daily life where people are trying to make it back.

The Upper 9th Ward

7th Ward
The Lower 9th Ward

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