I do. I just returned from a week of dancing the night away to funk and zydeco, from eating my weight in gumbo, boiled crawfish and jambalaya, and from listening to some of the best jazz I’ve ever heard in my life. I just returned from a week of seeing entire neighborhoods still empty and destroyed nearly four years after the events that caused this damage. I just returned from a week of hard work and learning in communities that have been traumatized fragmented and displaced. My teachers were people who come from some of the oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods in this country and who are committed to reconstructing their lives and their city. My teachers were the strong residents of New Orleans and those who are still working against many odds to help them come home.
The work of repairing damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita continues, even though it’s no longer in the media spotlight. I traveled with a group from All Souls Church, Unitarian that has worked for the past three years with local organizations, including the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center housed in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I heard from New Orleanians who appreciate knowing that the rest of their country has not forgotten about them. They wanted me to come home and tell everyone I know what I saw, and that at least, is something that I can do for them.
I started the week at a community center in Treme, one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans and the main neighborhood of free people of color during the antebellum period. Treme remains an important center of the city’s African-American and Créole culture, and many musicians live and work there. It was also the location of a large public housing development that was dismantled after Katrina, even though it was left undamaged by the storms. The people of Treme have not experienced the same level of media attention and support as those from the lower ninth ward, and many houses in the neighborhood, though still standing, are uninhabitable.
My crew worked to help paint a community center kitchen, and although our counterpart representing the local organization working on the center was pleased with our work, I couldn’t help but notice the mold and peeling water damaged walls that would not be remedied by a coat of paint. The community center in Treme is one of 20 damaged by Katrina. Three of those centers are currently functioning, but they have by no means resumed providing all of their pre-storm services. I watched dozens of people file in for the meal after a funeral, an almost daily occurrence according to neighborhood residents. Looking down from the second floor I saw the pool where area kids used to have swimming lessons waiting to be restored.
The rest of my week was spent at a community garden that’s being built by a nonprofit called lowernine.org . In response to people’s expressed needs for fresh vegetables, (there are no grocery stores currently open in the lower ninth ward) lowernine has leased a plot of land where they plan to grow vegetables to be sold at a farmers market and distributed to community members in the neighborhood. As we worked to build a tool shed, planting and the irrigation setup were being finalized, and the garden should be producing food within a couple of months. You can learn more and stay updated about its progress on the garden’s blog and read more about what’s happening in Holy Cross, another neighborhood where some members of our group helped to rebuild homes.
The work is far from done and the devastation from the 2005 hurricane season continues to affect peoples’ lives in New Orleans and many other communities all over the Gulf Coast. Please follow the links in this post and sign up for Gulf Coast Updates, a joint project of Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, by clicking the link above, entering your information and checking the box next to Gulf Coast. We can all contribute to the work of Gulf Coast rebuilding and recovery.