REPORT 1: The Bipolar Honeymoon
People fall in love with New Orleans: Locals who can’t imagine living anywhere else, outsiders who visit again and again, and temporary residents who extend their stay until NOLA and home are synonymous. In the months before moving here, the number of times I heard that I would inevitably fall into this third category made me nervous; what if I didn’t like it? What if life without Grinnellians proved miserable? What if I couldn’t translate academic success into practical workplace skills? What if I realized I hate Jazz and football and Southern accents? I gave myself pep talks, put on a smile for my jealous and excited friends, shared my worries with those closest to me, and got on the airplane.
Now three months into my New Orleans year, I can recognize the city’s magnetism; it is more demographically diverse, aesthetically distinctive, and culturally vibrant than anywhere else I’ve lived, not to mention outrageously fun. “Y’all” has slipped into my vocabulary, and I am greeted every day by the cheerful sun and palm trees and colorful rows of shotgun houses—no Seattle rain or Iowa snow to be found! I have made friends and a routine here, including welcoming Craig’s List house-mates, the local open mic night, a soccer team, and live music at least once a week. In short, there have been challenges, but my fears of misery have proved wildly unfounded.
I am, however, far from infatuated with NOLA. It has been a tumultuous “honeymoon” phase. Despite the superficial tourist experience that New Orleans is known for, the rapids aren’t far below the surface here, and the pervasive socioeconomic inequality maintained by Old Guard influence makes for a disheartening status quo. The inequality is visible, as the urban landscape of New Orleans changes strikingly in a matter of blocks. Along my ten-minute evening bike ride home to a more affluent neighborhood, the number of abandoned and blighted properties drops dramatically, the roads become smoother, streetlights become functional, and the corner bars with their loitering customers disappear. Just on the edge of the neighborhood where Jericho Road focuses its revitalization efforts, I pass an overgrown vacant lot. Twelve concrete steps rise from the sidewalk to a sharp drop—the house is long gone—with a spray-painted message: “You can only go up from here.”
Cliché though it might be, this sentiment has stuck with me. Central City, and the smaller neighborhoods of Delassize and Lafayette in particular, are on their way “up.” As the coordinator for these Neighborhood Associations, I am searching for ways to empower residents to help design and build the staircase that leads to a vibrant neighborhood where their needs are met. Neighborhood Association members are currently leading both creative initiatives to address the community’s needs, as well as facilitating responses to existing revitalization efforts. For an example of the former, take the recent success of the Central City Home Tour event—a creative neighborhood initiative. Over 125 hours of resident planning and execution resulted in an event that showcased the unique strengths of the neighborhood, inviting over 200 visitors from all over the city as well as within our borders to see the neighborhood operating as a vibrant and dynamic community. The Home Tour effort built capacity for resident leadership through volunteer recruitment, strategic partnerships with other organizations, and self-reflection and affirmation. In the latter type of efforts, the Neighborhood Associations are practicing the skills necessary to respond to outside influences on their neighborhood. The City of New Orleans is actively working to combat Blight in many areas, and Central City is a priority. Too often, though, decisions regarding the use of property and other community assets are made in the City Council chambers, without the voices of neighborhood residents. In an ongoing effort to demand the respect of these powerful institutions and assert control over their neighborhood’s future, residents are initiating a Property Campaign to address blight themselves. Neighborhood Association members have conducted surveys to determine which vacant lots are most problematic for their neighbors, circulated petitions for and against demolition of particular structures, and gained access to the planning processes for new developments along the commercial corridor. These efforts allow residents to stand before City government as educated and persuasive constituents, and empower them to speak on behalf of their community.
Celebrating the successes of efforts like the Home Tour and the Property Campaign is essential. Recognizing the efficacy of residents and improving the visibility of the Neighborhood Association will increase the impact we are able to have over time as membership grows. This growth in numbers and strength is a main focus now; the more individuals who identify as members of a cohesive community, the stronger that community’s voice will be. Increasing the numbers of residents involved will also hopefully lead to a more sustainable model. By sharing knowledge and skills among a large team of resident-leaders, the hope is that external leadership will become obsolete—if I can sit back and watch residents do my job, I am doing something right!
This has been a hard lesson to internalize, however. The “golden rule” of community organizing—don’t do all the work yourself, even if it’s easier that way—doesn’t come naturally to me. Fortunately, Jericho Road fosters a highly academic and analytical work environment, and encourages staff to consider the specific outcomes of every activity we undertake. In my regular meetings with my supervisor and with the executive director of the organization, I have been surprised at how open these leaders are to my questions about our strategies, and how carefully they consider each effort in order to best support neighborhood residents—even when this means flexibility with our expectations of ourselves and others.
Flexibility, then, has been a key lesson for me in my time here so far. I arrived with months of pent-up anticipation, anxiety, and expectations—but the reality is that the experience is overwhelming in ways I could not have imagined, and underwhelming in others. I am working on letting go of my ideas of what this fellowship year “should” be, and focusing on what I can get out of the experience as it is. That is not to say that I am settling for a lesser experience, however. Rather, I feel like I am coming away with an authentic understanding of the patience, perseverance, and endless energy necessary for social justice work. This is a perspective that’s difficult to gain in any classroom, and I am so glad to be continuing my Grinnell education into this fifth year—outside the bubble. I left Grinnell with a solid foundation, and my ambitions set on making an impact. My work with Jericho Road is simultaneously encouraging me to maintain those lofty ideals of social change in Central City, while making an honest analysis of the staircase we’re building to get there. How can we insure universal accessibility so that everyone can climb together? How many individuals can we engage, brick by brick? How steep a pitch can we climb? One thing I am convinced of: the vast majority of the necessary tools, materials, skills, and will already exist within the neighborhood—and the right combination can be immensely powerful.