"That rain's gonna come down, mhmm..." Hearing these words spoken to me as I walked through a Central City neighborhood during my first week in New Orleans, I looked up toward a porch to see a woman in her seventies, eyes on the horizon, sharing with me her watery forecast despite the hot sun shining overhead. And sure enough, ten minutes later, the sky opened up. Fresh from the Midwest, I was already struck by all that was new about this place—crows had become parakeets; pines had become palms; and earth-toned houses had taken on colors as bright and varied as the beads strewn in the trees—but here was the most mysterious thing to me yet: a woman who has had her roots here long enough to be able to look up at the sun and see the approaching rain. And I guess that got me to thinking about what it means really to know a place.
Walking through most New Orleans neighborhoods, it is easy to identify the joyful details that, for people who live here, are simply an integrated part of their understanding of place: the omnipresent music, the unwavering friendliness, the easy-baby attitude. I even know of one resident who wants his ashes scattered at Second and Magnolia, the corner at which he has planted his life. Knowing this goodness to flow through the streets on which you live, it is natural and easy to care deeply about them. But in the neighborhoods specifically of Central City, there is a complicating layer to this sort of placed-ness. As a "Neighborhood Coordinator" for one of Central City's neighborhoods, I have spent my last week of work going door to door conducting a "perception survey," or, in reality, sitting on people's porches and chatting with them about their lived experiences in the neighborhood. While many residents have roots that go deep in this place and express overwhelmingly positive feelings toward their neighbors and their block, many people also express that they have known tremendous hardships and losses on these blocks. So what if really knowing a place, then, means knowing both, who to ask for a cup of sugar and who is slinging dope, where your parents' parents played as children and where your old classmate was shot? What if raising your eyes to the sky can reveal both the particular sun you know to portend rain and the sneaker-strewn telephone wires you know to remember crime?
Still very new here, I am grappling with this seeming paradox. My supervisor always encourages me to know my assumptions, so I suppose this is what I assume thus far based on these conversations: while nobody wants their neighborhood knowledge to have to include details that are grim and unthinkable, it might just be knowledge of both sorts, the good and the bad, which enables residents to work responsibly toward change that is appropriate to the unique fiber of where they live. One side brings motivation for change, the other, wisdom. Perhaps knowing your community's stories and histories and weather patterns, as well as its hard human realities, fosters a complex love that is born of experience, a cautiousness that can become constructive, and a patience for setbacks that is learned from a place where change comes slowly.
I received my own lesson in setbacks and patience with the late-August arrival of Hurricane Isaac. My first four weeks of work at Jericho Road were devoted to the construction of an updated Central City Resource Guide that volunteers from Tulane University would distribute as part of a larger day of service called Tulane Labor of Love. I poured my time into verifying resource information, constructing dozens of different distribution maps for the volunteers, confirming resident involvement, and helping solidify the details for the after-party. The day as a whole was going to see hundreds of Tulane students clear five targeted lots of dangerous debris and overgrowth. I walked out of our finalizing meeting with a genuine sense of anticipated accomplishment; everything was set to go. And then, in the days leading up to the event, Jericho Road, along with the rest of NOLA, had to make the decision to shut down and place everything on hold as a force beyond anyone's control came straight for the city. Tulane Labor of Love was suspended. As I passed several days sheltering inside, I found myself thinking about the residents and organizations I had gotten on board for the Labor Day project who would also be receiving the news of its deferral. A stumbling block, it was a lesson in patience and flexibility.
Tulane Labor of Love, despite these temporary setbacks, is now rescheduled to happen on the day I send this piece of writing on its way. From this side of it, I cannot yet say what precisely will come of the day. But I can say what I hope. I hope that upwards of one thousand Tulane students—students who have converged here from their own sundry corners of the world, corners which they care about and know like they know breathe and time and gravity—will come away with a new corner of the world being a little less abstract, a little harder to over-simplify as all bons temps or all trouble. I also hope that the paradox of place will tilt, even if only for a moment, a little more toward the positive. Where residents had known there to be overgrown lots conducive to crime and contamination, they will discover there to be plots transformed into much safer spaces by labor and by love.
While this sort of special project has its required place in the scheme of things, the type of change that I am trying to help the residents work toward is a change that they ultimately engineer. At the end of the day, it is the conversations I have with people who live here—conversations full of pride, conversations full of pain—that convince me that things will slowly change and improve. At this early point in my year, it seems to me that life in this neighborhood is about a tenuous balance, a balance struck by knowing a place for what it is, the joys and the troubles, taking care of it responsibly by holding on to both, and, at the end of the day, being able really to read it and stick with it, whatever the forecast. And I am increasingly certain that for each day that my previously mentioned friend reads the sky and says that we are due for rain, there is a day she can say with the same utter certainty: it's not gonna rain today.