I tripped while walking down the sidewalk at least ten times my first few days in New Orleans. Taking a stroll in this City is no small feat. You have to keep one eye on the ground because the sidewalks resemble miniature mountain ranges and the streets with their tire-bursting potholes are no alternative. Keep your other eye straight ahead so you don’t walk into the low-hanging tree branches sprinkled with Mardi Gras beads. And then, if you are coordinated enough, try and take in the houses, cars, pedestrians, and front-porch-dwellers that make New Orleans so unique. The sights and sounds of New Orleans remind me more of the Latin American and African cities that I have visited than of the American cities I know. Unlike most intentionally planned American cityscapes, New Orleans is overwhelmingly incongruent. Self-contained neighborhoods, each with their own unique personality, bump up against one another while trying not to interact. One-way streets collide in opposite directions. And tucked behind a ritzy, suburban-looking avenue one often finds a run-down block with blighted and abandoned properties. Visually, New Orleans is all color. Instead of the long lines of homes of varying shades of beige surrounded by green lawns, that I have come to identify as American, most of New Orleans streets have highlighter-bright colored homes packed tightly into rows without much of any yard space. To add to the color crayon box look, Mardi Gras and Saints Football yard decorations are everywhere. New Orleanians themselves make up the scene too. In the North, I am used to people occupying just a few assigned spaces—hidden inside of homes, schools, or workplaces, in common spaces like parks or movie theatres, and maybe in their backyards. But New Orleanians challenge my notions of place by decorating the entire landscape; people almost permanently occupy their front porches, and when the heat of the day has passed, you will find them sitting on folding chairs on the medians (“neutral grounds” here), standing in groups on the sidewalks, or holding a party in the middle of the street. The sounds of the City also give me that sense of being in a foreign country. I could be studying abroad in Ecuador again, judging by the commotion I hear as I walk or bike down the street. If you closed your eyes and just stood still for a minute, you would hear probably fifteen “how y’all doing”s and “alright”s, intermingled with the banging and electrical noises of home rehabilitation, the too-loud sound of New Orleans ‘bounce’ music playing from someone’s truck stereo, and maybe the ding of the St. Charles Street Car. I have come to love the unique ways New Orleanians use space and make place. The silent streets of my Minnesota neighborhood seem cold and unwelcoming compared to the mandatory greetings I give and receive as I commute each day. I am totally jealous of my friend who just moved into a bright purple shot-gun home in Mid-City; and I am excited to have finally been invited to join a group of neighbors sitting in lawn-chairs on the street to chat and drink beer on a Sunday evening. I have even gotten used to my lack of a yard; I am now planting my fall garden in a make-shift raised bed on our ‘parking space’. A lot of what makes New Orleans seem quirky to visitors is just that- quirkiness. New Orleans culture is uniquely family-oriented, fun-loving, and present-focused for the United States. Those characteristics results in a vibrant place that people love to visit and live in; besides Katrina references, the most common narrative I hear in this City is the story of someone who came to New Orleans for school or tourism and then ‘fell in love with the city’ and built their life here. No question about it-- New Orleans has charm. The other side of the City’s quirky feel is less loveable. A lot of the quirky incongruity of this City is the result of ineffective City governance or citizens making the best of an ineffective government. I think I use the words ‘absurd’ and ‘hypocritical’ significantly more often in New Orleans. Last week, I biked with some friends along St. Charles to watch the NFL Kick-Off Parade before the Saints game. Caught up in the huge crowd, I momentarily forgot that I have no interest in football and joined everyone around me in screaming for Mardi Gras beads and singing to Taylor Swift’s live performance. But as I biked home that night, swerving in between pot holes and piles of broken glass, the two day municipal holiday and extravagant pre-game party seemed a little tasteless given that a majority of the streets in the City are almost unusable. Ironic juxtapositions are everywhere. Progressive environmentalist campaign materials, most of them water-themed, are ubiquitous (‘Save Our Gulf!’). Yet I have seen burst fire-hydrants left to spray water and flood the street for weeks. Children put on their swimsuits and cool off from the hot sun by playing in the splash of burst water-mains as a regular activity. When a water-main bursts on one of the thousands of blighted properties in the City, instead of attracting children in swim suits, the unchecked flow of water attracts animals and insects as the grass and weeds are left to grow taller than me. The City recognizes that the number of blighted, vacant, and abandoned properties within its borders is damaging to New Orleanians’ quality of life (Blight brings down property values causing a downward spiral of urban disinvestment, attracts crime and trash dumping, and is dangerous to nearby residents because those properties attract rodents, harbor unsafe toxins, and are more susceptible to hurricane damage). Yet the single blight-reduction measure offered by the City is a Code Enforcement process that usually only succeeds in soliciting fines that will never be paid as the house continues to rot in place. While the little incongruencies that I encounter daily in New Orleans are mostly humorous, many are indicative of serious structural inadequacies within the City. New Orleans is changing but those transformations are slow because they are scratching into the surface of problems that are deeply founded in corruption, classism, and racism. Unlike New Orleans culture, New Orleans’ structural problems are not unique to the City; they are universal issues that have been exacerbated by a historical lack of accountability to citizens and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. How can one city be so exceptionally wonderful that it attracts visitors from around the world and simultaneously so troubled that even the least educated of its citizens questions its legitimacy? That is the New Orleans conundrum that everyone living and working here must address.
Latona Giwa's Reports
Latona Giwa, Grinnell Corps: New Orleans 2010-2011
Issue Date:October 6, 2010
Photographer:Anne GeissingerReport 1
Latona Giwa, Grinnell Corps: New Orleans 2010-2011While I ride back and forth through the neighborhood on my bike, neighbors sit out on each other’s porches chatting and watching folks pass by. In our neighborhood surveys, residents overwhelmingly stated that while they are concerned about crime, they feel safe on their block because they know one another. So why then, when dusk comes, do people perceive their own neighborhood as dangerous?
Latona Giwa, Grinnell Corps: New Orleans 2010-2011I learn from my supervisors and coworkers, I learn from making a lot of mistakes, I learn from the occasional successes, and, most importantly, I learn from the residents with whom I strive to improve their community.