My Alternative Spring Break Experience – Part Two

ASB Day 2 (February 15th, 2016): Constance, compost and contrast.

Today was our first day of service. Our large group of 38 separated into teams, and my team’s service site was at a garden space in the middle of the highway, which was quite unique (and a little unexpected). We realized we would be working on restoring the aesthetic value of the green space that lies at the entrance to the Lower Ninth Ward, historically the area that faced the greatest destruction following Hurricane Katrina. We were greeted by a sweet, lively lady named Constance, whose enthusiasm for gardening is incomparable. I was part of a team in charge of creating a ‘compost cube’ (this title is frankly more self-explanatory than one may think – we literally had to create a square space for compost), while others participated in trash collection, soil mulching or weed removal. After we had finished, I felt quite accomplished with our work – this sense of achievement may have been bolstered by Constance’s persistent gratitude throughout the task, and her exclamation that we had created “the first ever compost cube in all of New Orleans!” I was inspired by Constance’s drive and optimism for restoration efforts, despite slow progress due to lack of funding, resources and helping hands. There is something to be admired about her unrelenting hope and patience.

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As we worked, passerbys in their cars often honked at us. At first, we were quite confused by this, but Constance informed us that residents were honking as a sign of their appreciation of our efforts. We even had one instance of a man poking his head out of the car window to clap and shout words of acknowledgement. I have never witnessed such apparent displays of gratitude, but they were overwhelmingly reassuring. These acts of kindness are a testament to the wonderful welcoming spirit of the city.

Our work and conversation with Constance helped me comprehend just how multifarious and complex disaster recovery is. I had come to NOLA under the false supposition that restoration efforts after Katrina primarily involved rebuilding houses and re-establishing transportation routes. While housing is a clear immediate need, I know now that there exists a whole array of other avenues that require rehabilitation: redesigning and rebuilding the levee system; re-creating living wage, high quality work for residents to return to; and establishing a truthful city government that authorizes equitable allocation of money and resources.

After bidding farewell to Constance, we reunited with the rest of our team on the bus. We set off to connect with Mr. Henry Erwin, a local resident who would be giving us a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward. On the way, I learned of Mr. Erwin’s eccentric nature – apparently he didn’t own a cell phone or an active email address, and perhaps not even a calendar (!); our only mode of contact with him was through a landline. My presumptive impression of him from this information was of a self-governing man who held on to his modus vivendi with great vigour.

Mr. Erwin was humorous, elucidative and expressive as he led us around a neighbourhood that had faced vast demolition following Katrina. It was striking to see all the abandoned, worn-down houses previously occupied by residents who had left and never returned. According to Mr. Erwin, this was largely due their inability to afford the expenses of rebuilding. Low-income families, most of whom were black, had been able to afford housing pre-Katrina due to a system of estate inheritance that had persisted for many generations. The catastrophe of Katrina had obliterated this system in many areas, worsening the economic and social state of the already impoverished community.

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I appreciated Mr. Erwin’s blunt acknowledgement of the systemic and racial inequalities that contributed to the unjust allocation of government funding and resources. He pointed out a vast military housing facility at the edge of the Lower Ninth that had been immediately restored – it appeared brand new. The juxtaposition of the military compound with the rest of the destitute neighbourhood was striking. Mr. Erwin told us that the military facility, tourist areas and prominent, affluent neighbourhoods had received a hefty sum of federal funding, while the black community of the Lower Ninth is still yearning for a fraction of the capital they had been promised over 10 years ago.

As he was leaving, Mr. Erwin echoed a sentiment that Constance had expressed earlier in the day: the restoration of New Orleans is not complete, despite the vibrant look of the downtown core and the substantial time that has elapsed since Hurricane Katrina. He wanted us to raise awareness of this fact when we returned, and I am currently searching for avenues to do so beyond just word of mouth (or writing).

I left our activities that day feeling frustrated at the institutional inequalities that undoubtedly favour some human lives over others – it is a familiar frustration, except this time it was too substantial and too overt to push to the back of my irrepressible mind. I am astounded, again and again, by this frightening reality: we live in a world where wealth, power and access to resources are more admirable accomplishments than kindness, integrity and magnanimity, where the colour of our skin and the fortunes of our ancestors are better determinants of economic success than the blood, sweat and tears that come from unfaltering effort, where we flagrantly mourn the loss of a personality in entertainment but remain impassive while entire communities wash away into silent nothingness. How are we letting this continue? I cannot fathom a single satisfactory response.

To be continued,

Maham

**Images courtesy of Shannon Adams and Jordan Coop.

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