Monday, September 24, 2007

New Orleans Gave Me Paciencia y Passión

OK, so, the title here is not exactly accurate. This is something which is spray-painted on the levee near where I am living now. These actual qualities come & go, but it would do me a lot of good if I had them on a more consistent basis. So, maybe having this as the title of my first new blog entry can help to remind me of 'em.

I am now living in New Orleans, in the lower 9th ward, volunteering with the Common Ground Collective. I've been here for about 3 weeks now, with a road trip in-between to go to an anti-war protest in D.C. (see my article after this for more info on that).

My time here... Well, let me paint you more of a picture here first.

Common Ground Relief, right now, is a semi-formal organization of about 30 people, a rented floor of a house in mid-city New Orleans and a bunch of houses in various states of gutted-ness indefinitely on loan by the owners in the lower 9th ward. Common Ground was started shortly after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it used to be very different in the recent past and it will be very different in the future as well. Things change very fast here.

The Common Ground houses in the lower 9th ward are all on the same block, on the same street. A picture of one of these houses was on the cover of the September 10th issue of the Nation magazine recently. This area is where the levees first broke (referred to as "ground zero" here) and flooded the area, and where a barge came in and demolished a bunch of houses before ramming to a halt against a large two-story house owned by a 100-year-old woman. That house, and that woman, stand strong and remain cherished by all, and we hope to fix up that house to show appreciation to her.

Always in the background, and what I am looking at right now as I write this, is a large multi-lane draw-bridge that goes across the canal from the lower 9th ward to the upper. The bridge is many stories tall, with an operating room up high and gross but impressive brown & tan rust stains all over. There is constant car traffic on the bottom & pigeon traffic on top. Also always in the back-ground, and below & to either side of the bridge, is the levee (technically a "flood-wall"). In big block-letters, visible from the the bridge & the upper 9th ward is the word: "HINDSIGHT".

The houses all around here are mostly in various states of disrepair. There are also many lots where there used to be houses, were bull-dozed, and now there only remain concrete slabs where it all once was. The Common Ground block has an empty spacious feel because there are so many vacant lots where houses once stood. This used to be a vibrant neighborhood with families, churches, activity of all kinds. 1600 people died here because of hurricane Katrina and Rita.

The neighborhood here is a poor black neighborhood. Most of these people owned their own homes and had these homes in their families for generations. Some 250,000 people are still evacuees living in other states waiting for some kind of government or insurance-based financial assistance in re-building their homes.

Apparently it used to be odd to see white people here, before Katrina and the subsequent influx of white volunteers and aid workers. Another source of white skin is the national guard, which patrols this area in humvees and camouflage uniforms. Many of these people recently returned back from Iraq, and where immediately re-deployed to New Orleans.

To generalize a small group of people that I live & work with - the volunteers here are a mix of 20-somethings unsure of what to do next with their lives, older people whose lives were at a breaking-point and they needed to have a change, and residents & other local affiliated people who needed something to plug into. Before coming here this time I was under the impression that Common Ground was an anarchist/activist group of primarily white 20-somethings. That once was the case, a couple of incarnations ago, but is not the case now. There certainly is an activist element to Common Ground, and a community organizer element, and a whatever-else element, but all of these are parts of a multi-faceted social organism. No label or term entirely describes what Common Ground is.

This is partly because of the changing nature of the place. Volunteers are constantly going in, and going out. The coordinator people also all seem to be juggling a million different projects at once. Also the various properties that Common Ground is associated with seem to always be changing and in flux as well. The alliances and associations that Common Ground has also seems to be in constant transition. New friends and enemies seem to be created every day.

So what does Common Ground actually do? A lot of different things. To name a few: construction, demolition, food preparation, supplies distribution, job skills training, bio-remediation, legal aid, yard-work, independent media, political activism, social networking, research, lending tools, operating a community computer lab, and tech support. All of this is free to the public. There also used to be a bike shop, some health clinics, and a women's shelter that were all a part of Common Ground and have gone off to become their own entities.

Common Ground seems to be a gathering spot for ADD people. As well as drunk people. Sometimes these are the same people. As with my last time in New Orleans, the omnipresence of alcohol consumption in this town is a continual challenge for me.

So what have I been doing in New Orleans, if not drinking? Yard work, I love it. I particularly enjoy using the machete. There's nothing more satisfying than standing in a jungle, formerly somebody's home, chopping down weeds that have become small trees. And this isn't just for the sake of prettiness either. There is a law here in New Orleans that if someone has a lawn that is unmanaged, they can have their property confiscated by the government. This is called "the Good Neighbor Act". Here in this crazy town, mowing lawns saves homes, and using machetes clears the path to salvation.

I have also become a part of the Common Ground media team, where I wrote about the recent protest in DC and have edited some articles written by others. In the future, I could be doing some investigative journalism, be a part in helping to start a community radio station, and edit the Common Ground web-site.

Another job that I am transitioning into is that of volunteer coordinator. This involves corresponding with new applicants, keeping tabs on who all is present, and who's doing what, and making sure that everyone is happy. This is an area where Nonviolent Communication ("NVC") skills can be useful.

I largely have been out of NVC consciousness though. Like, just, out. This is because I don't know anybody here that has NVC skills. The common way to deal with emotional pain here is to drown it out with alcohol, television, joking, or computer games. My own general tendency is to repress shit, to the point where I feel the strong urge to just cry intensely for a while, but don't. There are some NVC people here in the New Orleans area, though no organizations or practice groups exist. Hopefully I can get something new started, and get some empathy.

One thing that I would like to get started here in New Orleans is some kind of Restorative Justice something-or-other. This is partly because of my meeting Dominic Barter earlier this summer and seeing so many of my friends inspired by his work. Also, talking about our collective pain, trauma and drama seems like a good way to build community. Violence sells, after all.

Lastly, there seems to be an urgent need here to find new ways to address crime. The whole city is talking about it. Everybody is constantly being stolen from, and the cops here are fuckin' brutal. The other day I walked by some military police who were taunting some guy who they had hand-cuffed to a large concrete slab on the ground. Abu Ghraib shit. Nobody wants that.

The thing is, what immediately comes to mind with this, and other issues, is the topic of race. In other words, I don't want to go in with some kind of race-based arrogance blinding me. "The Great White Savior" coming to save the day. Because of my skin color, there is an automatic barrier to how much the residents trust me, and because of my white cultural (and sub-cultural) back-ground, I don't think that I understand the lives of black people that well to begin with either. I believe that I have much to learn.

The other day, I was walking down the street by myself in broad day-light, and some black kids started throwing some rocks and glass bottles at me. They did not say or shout anything at me, they just started throwing. Luckily I didn't get hurt. Was this some kind of race thing? I was wearing a Common Ground t-shirt - was this the by-product of some past Common Ground conflict with somebody? Were they just fucking bored? I don't know.

I do know, however, that I have a certain love for New Orleans. Perhaps it is the shitty accommodations that remind me of living at that squat house in Oakland, California, the mosquitoes, fleas and ants biting me that remind me of living in Florida, or the standing in line waiting plate-in-hand for a meal that reminds me of living at Twin Oaks Community.

Or, perhaps, it is the totally unique culture here. A "Deep South" so deep that it goes through and comes out into another world. A world of Napoleonic Code, alcoholic slurpees, and funerals where people dance down the street.

What I think that I like the most about New Orleans is the blatant confluence of signs-of-the-times. Here you have it all, right in your face, out in the open - all that ails us. Gentrification, violence, the effects of global warming & the Iraq War, martial law, drug addiction, devastated lives, fragmented communities, racism, poverty, refugees, political corruption (in Louisiana, corruption is just expected), and patriarchy (I invite you to a take a walk down Bourbon Street). Oh, and bad diet. There seems to be a state-wide epidemic of poor diet here, and I'm sick of eating white bread. I miss hippie food.

To me, all of this stuff, all of these problems are inter-connected. It is all connected, and these problems go down to the depths of our psyches, how we relate to each-other, and how collectivities of people interact. It's all a big tangled mess, and I feel stuck in it. I see New Orleans as one big gordian knot. And out here, I enjoy using machetes.


Hunter said...

Well put, well posted.

This is what struck me, the flagrant and pronounced social inequities of New Orleans. The gentrification, the crime, the corruption. New Orleans is the world contracted and compacted into 350 square miles of sinking, shifting land. Sliced and seperated. Segregated.
The lower ninth, the up-town. Black, white. Poor, rich.

There are so many possibilities, but history allows only one path. There are things to be done, ways to fight the inevitable. I appreciate what you are doing, and i hope your new position as volunteer co-ordinator can sway the direction of common ground.

I am in no way through with this city. I too got this love bug. You know it took me two days to leave (and that second day 'twas after sunset).
School will be demanding. But I hope on organizing some students to promote awareness and perhaps raise resources. The first items on my list are water filters. I've heard some higher ups complaining about the residents taking bottled water from distro. They claim the water was for common grounders, even though we have a water filtration system and no need for such.
Potable water is a necesity for residents, though bottled water is not. If we were to provide filtration systems we could cut the accruing monetary costs and mounting material waste.

Anyways, times up on this internet.
Let me know what's going on if things change.
Hope i can still help.

Angela said...

I have a plate full of hippie food, a heart full of love and armsloads of empathy for you. Just tell me where to send 'em.

paxus said...

Nice Start, why did you not end up at Emerging Community (?) the rainbow group?

lucy heart star said...

yo, thankx for all your writingn & insights.

what ever happened to that group "circles of hope" that you were going to work with in nola?

Lee Mayes said...

You know...i wonder if the sons of our mother have some sort of genetic PREDISPOSITION to blades...There's you with your machete wielding, myself with the more refined practice of knife-fencing/fighting, and even our youngest brother is fascinated by his tiny swiss army knife...maybe if we ask our beloved family chonicaleer and historian uncle Allyn we can find some sort of deep dark "Weinert the Blade" buried in our collective ancestry...

Editor B said...

Welcome to New Orleans, and thanks for being here. We appreciate your help and all the great work Common Ground has done.

Lawanda S Smith said...

Get the fact straight 1800+ people died in the whole metro N.O., St Bernard area. St. Bernard predominately white lower and middle class was 100% percent destroyed. Who cares? Katrina is a lie! Corps of Engineers design defect destroyed NOLA. Corps of Engineers levees melted destroyed upper St Bernard! What you stated about the corruption and the terrible condition of the city was stated best by Lafcadeo Hearn, "No matter how bad it is in New Orleans it's better to live here in sack cloths and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio! Race: JIm Crow laws started in the North (Woodward Yale)and then came south. Some of the richest people in America before the civil war were the free people of color from New Orleans and they owned slaves and plantations and slavery was color blind it's was simply economics! The fleur de lis was stamped on all convicts not slaves the laws protected the slaves from abuse! This was NOT America this was FRENCH/SPANISH Louisiana. In 1808 25% of all cases held by the supreme court were over slaves. Many were slaves suing their masters for their freedom or abuse! Misinformation or too little information lives on and distorts history!