Wandering Home, the introduction from Homesick: The Search for Belonging in New Orleans’ Landscape of Loss

The ride West from Tallahassee, Florida was a blur. A heavy tropical storm was directly over head and on the horizon was a gathering of ominous grey, green clouds, interrupted only by the pounding of heavy raindrops against the windshield. It was the middle of hurricane season and the traffic on highway ten was a slow crawl; the cars ahead were barely visible. Many had pulled over and parked beneath an overpass, their hazard lights blinking an incessant warning. People around here had learned to be wary of storms.

As a Northern California native, anything more than the drizzle of a foggy
rainstorm made me uneasy and so, for the duration of the five-hour drive to New
Orleans, I sat silently with my eyes closed and my body stiff with worry, despite
reassurance from my traveling partner that this weather was normal. The storms’ eventual passing made visible the tenuous relationship between the open road and the expansive and foreboding water of Lake Pontchatrain. From the car window a haunting landscape was revealed: cypress trees with trunks frozen horizontally, scattered debris, and abandoned car after abandoned car—evidence of attempts to flee a storm that began not unlike this one, yet ended with devastation.

New Orleans is a city I came to know only through the catastrophic aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina. I arrived in New Orleans nearly one year after the hurricane to work as a volunteer with Common Ground Relief, a non-profit organization that emerged in response to the lack of government sponsored relief efforts. My trip to New Orleans was a pre-planned destination on a cross-country road trip. I was twenty-two years old, had recently graduated from college and had moved from the small California beach town of Santa Cruz to the city of San Francisco. Like many recent college graduates, I left behind a network of peers and a familiar place of belonging and was adjusting to the first time in my life when I was truly on my own. The cross-country road trip was a temporary solution to the restlessness of this time. It was an exploration into the unknown: geographically as I traveled through vast deserts, mountain ranges, small
country towns, and large cities and emotionally as the open roads provided space for reflection and the experience of travel encouraged self-knowledge. I was seeking an education that comes only with leaving behind that which is familiar, a perspective that comes with distance, and an education about the country in which I was born and yet knew so little about.

I was raised in the suburbs of San Francisco to two middle-class, white parents
and rarely left the sheltered environment of the Bay Area. My mother and father are East Coast transplants who followed the now legendary exodus of their generation to the 1960s promised land: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Having moved from New Jersey and Pennsylvania respectively, my mother and father fell in love amidst protests and free concerts in Golden Gate Park. The phenomenon of thousands of young twenty- somethings moving to San Francisco was not only indicative of an impulse to explore, but the ability to imagine an alternative to the status quo. The communities established through free love, rock and roll concerts, and nonviolent protests were forms of
resistance and survival during a decade plagued by the Vietnam War and the self-imploding presidency of Richard Nixon. The counterculture “hippy” movement transformed the city of San Francisco into a center of political and cultural rebellion. As their daughter my life has been lived in the light of this legacy of social and political responsibility and self-exploration. My search for a place in society and ability to imagine alternative ways of living was fostered at a young age.

When I arrived in New Orleans at dusk on August 9, 2006 I went directly to 2225 Congress Street in the Ninth Ward; the former site of St. Mary of the Angels Catholic elementary school that being used as Common Ground Relief’s volunteer center. The building was swarming with energy; volunteers had gathered on the front steps, unwinding after an eight-hour day of gutting houses in the sweltering, sticky summer heat. They devoured heaps of food from paper plates and entertained each other with conversation and guitars. I was directed to a classroom on the third floor that was to be my home for the duration of my stay. The hallway leading up to the classroom was dark with stacks of small chairs and desks lining the walls and out-of- order signs placed on the water fountains and toilets. Hanging delicately on the walls of the classroom were faded posters of multiplication tables and portraits of famous African-American leaders. On the shelves were piles of textbooks: dusty, tattered, and untouched—traces of one year prior when flocks of students coursed through the halls
and classrooms and teachers busily prepared the day’s lesson. The room was crowded with makeshift dwellings; blankets, pillows, alarm clocks and duffel bags. The comforts of home were arranged in clusters throughout the classroom. They were symbols of a transient presence.

As a three-story brick building, St. Mary of the Angels elementary school was a
critical resource during hurricane seasons. In 1965, Ninth Ward residents gathered there seeking refuge from the floodwaters of Hurricane Betsy. Forty years later, in the days following Hurricane Katrina, during what would have been the first week of the 2005 school year, the building was used once again as an evacuation site and temporary shelter. The walls were decorated and classrooms organized in anticipation of the return of students and yet instead, the classrooms overflowed with desperate and traumatized residents. Hundreds of people were brought to the school for safety after being rescued from their flooded homes by their courageous neighbors.

On the olive green chalkboard above the haphazardly placed cots and sleeping
bags and below the large clock that had long since stopped ticking was a message that began with the date, September 2, 2005, 9:13 a.m. It was an elegy of sorts. The words, at once urgent and mournful, appeared untouched since the day it was written. “We are sorry for the school, but the shelter has been a blessing.” The narration continued with an unfiltered account of the disregard of the Ninth Ward residents, “we had to bring over 200 people here with no help from the Coast Guard boats. People died and are still in their houses.” Stretched across the entire span of the chalkboard, the final sentence written in capitol letters and underlined rested just above the chrome chalk tray. It read: “They left us here to die.” In the realm of post-Katrina, the classroom was layered with histories—its contents signaled to the past of the school, the past of the storm and a present in the process of making. The chalkboard was a haunting backdrop to the beds and belongings of the volunteers. Its message served as a reminder to myself and the many volunteers now residing in this classroom that those who once brought this neighborhood to life were present only in their absence. It was their absence that brought us to the school, to the Ninth Ward, and to New Orleans. We were here because they were not.

My work as a volunteer was brief in comparison to the many who established their lives there; I didn’t stay long enough to get comfortable. My time in New Orleans was plagued with a tension that the volunteer’s presence was both hopeful and with the hope of returning residents to the Lower Ninth Ward. The fact that so many everyday citizens responded with action, devoting their lives to help people and families in a city they had no prior connection to, was and remains a remarkable act of altruism.  Yet, there was a seed of discomfort hidden within these feelings of goodness. The nonlocal volunteers, predominately middle-class and white occupied the space of a historical community of color, their attachments to New Orleans deepening as they simultaneously attempted to return residents while contributing to the city’s changing racial demographic and social fabric. Their presence signifies a double edge sword. It is this unresolved tension has held my attention since my initial trip to New Orleans and served as the impetus for this project.

As a visual event, Hurricane Katrina revealed the severely dysfunctional
underbelly of America: the huge economic disparities suffered by people of color. In doing so, it created New Orleans as a destination that called many young people to action. The volunteers were first introduced to Hurricane Katrina through mainstream media coverage that depicted the suffering of the predominately African-American population of New Orleans and the drowned neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.  While these images made visible the long-standing injustices through the social and political disaster of Katrina, as highly mediated images they constructed a limited perspective of not only the identities of the hurricane victims, but also the location of New Orleans itself.
Hurricane Katrina created an opportunity for a whole host of people to travel to
New Orleans including political activists, undocumented laborers from Central and South America, and real estate agents and investors. At the time of my trip I was unaware of how significant the experience of volunteering would be for my generation.

At Common Ground Relief I joined hundreds of other volunteers with backgrounds similar to mine—people in their twenties, from middle-class families, well educated, politically active, and mostly white. Their stories mirrored my own—they were restless and without direction and following an impulse to show political solidarity, they made the journey to New Orleans. While the community of relief workers represents a myriad of backgrounds and experiences, I chose to focus on the large influx of young, white, economically mobile volunteers. In focusing specifically on the volunteers of the landscape of New Orleans, specifically the visbility of the volunteers and the perception
of whiteness.

Through volunteering in New Orleans many young people engaged in a network
or community of their peers. This journey to New Orleans was not dissimilar from the mass exodus to San Francisco in the 1960s. Although there was no natural disaster that drew my parents from their conventional, daily routines in small East Coast towns to the city by the bay, New Orleans, much like San Francisco, had become a destination and center for identity forming experience and personal growth. The landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans is a complex backdrop for this experience of coming of age and community building. Despite the progress made in rebuilding New Orleans in the year following Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward, a historically marginalized, African-American neighborhood, remained one of many areas that still bore the wound of the storm. This once densely populated neighborhood remained a landscape of demolished homes and piles of belongings—a sewing machine, a child’s playground toy, a birdcage, a lamp—objects both intimate and yet seemingly lifeless as they lay heaped in piles on otherwise vacant driveways and
sidewalks. The poignant and haunting message written on the chalkboard framed my experience of this vacant neighborhood. Its words spoke of the displaced residents and the many voices that were missing. From this perspective the piles of belongings acted as informal memorials to the now deceased or displaced residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. Their absence was made visible through these remnants and by the act of imagining where and to whom these objects belonged. Just as the Lower Ninth Ward had been emptied of its longtime residents through the inefficient response of the government, it quickly became the destination of the nonlocal volunteers of Common Ground Relief. I was struck by the ease with which the volunteers maneuvered within
this space. Cliques had formed through long hours spent working and nights spent drinking. Nonlocal volunteers had grown familiar with the neighborhood despite the absence of street signs and conventional methods of navigation. For the volunteers who stayed for the entire year, the devastated neighborhood and makeshift volunteer center became their home, a place of comfort shared with a community of friends.

I returned to New Orleans in September 2008 to conduct research for this thesis
project. My time was spent interviewing former and current volunteers, exploring a city I have been researching from afar and returning to the neighborhoods where I worked. I returned to St. Mary of the Angels to discover that the Lower Ninth Ward had not yet experienced a rebirth; deserted and boarded up houses lined the street, culminating in an eerie stillness. Common Ground Relief’s volunteer center moved several blocks away to Deslonde Street and it quickly became apparent that the building was still not functioning as a school. High grasses had grown around the otherwise unscathed brick façade. A man was reclining on the front steps, wearing dark clothing and a baseball
hat, and as my car approached, his posture straightened. He was the only person I had seen for several blocks. As I drove slowly over the speed bumps and cracked asphalt along Congress Street his eyes followed me. Perched outside the abandoned school, this man appeared as its guardian or as though he had been there for years in a state of perpetual waiting. From the car window I could see a familiar sign resting on the inside window of the first floor of the school, “We will never forget. Justice and aid for the hurricane victims.” Faded Mardi Gras beads were caught in the protective grate covering the air conditioner. With the exception of the man on the steps, the building was empty and still. As I turned back the way I came, I wondered about the classroom on the third floor—had the message on the chalkboard been erased? Were the traces of the volunteers who once made their home in the corners of the classroom still visible? Or was it a shell, a container that held the memory of hundreds of people who, over the past fifty-five years, filled the hallways and classrooms at different moments and for different reasons? Were the brick walls of this building thick enough to hold all of their stories and protect them from being wiped away?

As a participant-observer within this project, I rely on both my first hand experience as a volunteer, primary research in the form of interviews, and the critical lens of theory to illuminate and problematize the presence of the nonlocal volunteers. Specifically I focus on the population of young, middle-class, economically mobile, white volunteers and in doing so I interrogate my own implication within this demographic, while also taking a pulse of the significance of this experience for my generation. Furthermore, the palpable presence of loss within post-Katrina New Orleans is hard to shake from memory; it demands sustained attention. Today, more than three years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains a city delicately balanced upon a traumatic past and an undetermined future. Within this space are the nonlocal volunteers, many of whom have somehow located within the desolation and incomprehensible loss, their own idea of home.

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