I recently spent 24 hours in New Orleans. My trip to the city was spur of the moment. A friend who was volunteering in New Orleans invited my two housemates and me to come down. What we found was a city where a semblance of normalcy lives side by side with the persistent reality of disaster.
We arrived in New Orleans around 8 p.m. From the safety of elevated Interstate 10, the skyline of the central business district glowed brightly. Then we pulled off the highway onto North Clayborn, headed for downtown.
"Oh my God," gasped one of my housemates. On one side of us stood a row of dark houses, their windows and doors boarded tight, their contents -- tables, beds, chairs, refrigerators -- spilled in unruly piles on the abandoned sidewalk. The houses were all marked with government graffiti, numbers and acronyms in orange spray-paint. On the other side, beneath the overpass, a graveyard of ruined and abandoned cars stretched along the road.
We turned onto Esplanade and drove toward the French Quarter. Almost as suddenly as it had appeared, evidence of the disaster began to disappear. It became starkly clear how the levee system had protected some parts of the city and failed others. As we entered the center of the city's tourist district, the lights were on and groups of people were on the sidewalks.
In the French Quarter we met our host, Sophie Tintori, a 19-year-old sophomore from Brown University who is taking a semester off to volunteer with the relief effort. Tintori explained the meaning of the graffiti we kept seeing on the buildings. "It's divided into four quadrants," she said. "The date the crew came to check the building; the status of the building; and the initials of the crew that checked it. The number on the bottom is the number of dead bodies they found inside."
In the Circle Bar on Saint Charles Avenue, a band played to a packed room. You would never have known that anything had changed if it were not for the presence of a half-dozen construction workers, their dusty clothes and loose denim shirts distinguishing them from the hipster crowd. Stepping out into the night air, I was startled by the passing of a camouflaged Humvee, national guardsmen leaning out the open sides of the vehicle, patrolling before the 2 a.m. curfew.
The next day, Sophie took me to the Community Kitchen in Washington Park. On our ride over from Sophie's house on Magazine Street we passed dozens of "Help Wanted" signs posted in reopened businesses struggling to find staff.
Located between Dauphine and Royal in the Quarter, the kitchen is a sprawling enclave of tents and tables. It was organized by the nonprofit group Barefoot Doctors, along with members of the Rainbow Family, a volunteer organization based out of Waveland, Mississippi. There were also volunteers from the group Food Not Bombs. The kitchen opened October 10th and has been serving almost 700 hot meals a day since, as well as offering medical care and, most important, a place for returning New Orleanians to gather.
"A lot of what we are doing is providing a community for people whose neighborhoods are literally destroyed," said Maria Hernandez, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who has been in the city since the storm.
Many of the volunteers are upset at what they see as the hypocrisy of the city's response to them. "Some police will come by and harass us, but then other cops will bring us people who need food or medical help," said Ross Harmon, one of the Food Not Bombs members who helped get the Community Kitchen running. "The city seems interested in rebuilding from an economic, not community, foundation," he added.
At a time when many neighborhoods are still without power, gas, or running water, the attitude of city government toward the grass-roots organizations has caused some ire among volunteers. "The bureaucracy in this city was so slow to respond. They asked for our help, and now they are saying things are back to normal and they don't need us," Dee Ann Dominick, director of Barefoot Doctors, said. "Residents here would laugh at the suggestion that things are back to normal."
Dominick's point soon became evident. I decided to take a bike ride out to Common Ground, another grass-roots organization where Tintori volunteers, in order to get a look at the Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the hurricane. It was a residential neighborhood, primarily black and working-class, well off the beaten tourist paths.
The devastation in the Ninth Ward goes well beyond what I had seen elsewhere in the city. Roofs are torn off of houses. Many homes have shifted from their foundations or collapsed. The Common Ground distribution center is a former day-care center located at Louisa and North Robertson.
"The few people who were returning to their homes here were finding it futile and turning around and leaving," said Brandon Darby, the Ninth Ward coordinator for Common Ground. "This part of the city has received no utilities, no medical services, and no sanitation. We were actually taking trash from here and dumping it in white upper-class neighborhoods just so that it would get collected."
Darby says they have helped return more than 40 homes in the area to livable conditions. Common Ground also has an on-site nurse and a legal clinic for citizens facing unlawful eviction -- a growing problem as local rents skyrocket.
Half an hour later I spoke with two women on Clovet Street, a few blocks from Common Ground. "Memphis ... that's where we're coming from too," exclaimed Cheryl Jacobs, after I introduced myself. Jacobs, who works for the Navy, has been transferred to Millington. She had returned to see what she could salvage from her home.
"We just aren't getting the kind of help we need out here," she said, pointing at nearby power lines lying in a collapsed tangle from a sagging pole. "I want to see people come back here, to see this neighborhood regrow." Jacobs claims her neighborhood had one of the highest rates of home ownership in the city. "I just don't think the city is paying enough attention to us," she said. "They only seem to care about the French Quarter and the central business district. I want to come home."
As we headed back to Common Ground, I spotted a young couple on bikes, rolling through the empty streets, both fashionably dressed, with messenger bags and new Nikes. They were snapping photos of the devastated area. They seemed to sum up the city's problems.
New Orleans may be open again for tourists, but for many of its citizens, there is no place they can call home.