Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Homes - Randy Chen

The shiny white van pulls up by the curb and begins unloading each eager individual, one by one they spill onto the grassy lawn before the empty house. Lively conversation all around and the sound of metal against metal as hammers and crowbars are exchanged between excited hands. Footsteps fill the house and then pounding, crashing, and clamor. One boy bends at the knee to pry a stubborn nail from a floorboard.

Clap the thin aluminum door shut behind you and hold the broom with both hands. Step outside onto the wooden platform, the crest of the plywood staircase that leads up to your trailer that is painted white like gleaming disaster. Sweep the square of wood that you stand on, keep it kempt, keep it tidy. Look out to the blue blue sky and see the gray cloud in the corner bringing raindrops in but a few hours. Turn to the noise next door, grasp the broom with both hands, and watch.

They sling crowbars into the ceiling, splitting the plaster open and then a downward yank and the ceiling comes down in pieces. Falls apart with each new fissure. The air is hot and dusty and the smell of mold sifts down from the rafters. Remnants of the attic spill out with each rupture in the plaster skin. A magazine, three beer cans, and an old sweater. Breathing hard, breathing stale air through styrofoam masks, feeling the sweat linger and refusing to evaporate.

Make sure there is not a stray piece of leaf or trash on this wooden step. Watch the workers ruckus inside the empty shell next door. Hear the sound of dropped tools, the thud of metal hitting wood, the sandy footfall of fiberglass and insulation. Turn inside your home your trailer and pour yourself a glass of iced tea.

One boy stands atop a ladder to remove a ceiling fan. With a gloved hand he pulls with all his strength and it pops loose from its plastic joint, the wires exposed like naked ligaments. With a pair of rusty wire cutters, he severs them with one swift maneuver and carries the wooden fan outside and sets it on the green grass.

Place your glass of tea on the rough wooden banister that lines this step. Rest your elbow on it, look at the workers, watch the workers because there is nothing else to do today but be wary of splinters.

They move the slabs of plaster outside onto the curb to be taken away. They pour the insulation from plastic garbage cans outside onto the curb to be taken away. They shoulder the dislodged beams of wood outside onto the curb to be taken away. The dank entrails of a gutted home, steaming with the scent of dust and mold.

Look the gray corner of the sky has been stretched and it begins to rain.

The crowd hurries to the white van and quickly stashes the tools inside. One by one, they elude the rain, ducking in the door under the drumming of raindrops and pull away from the rubble arrayed on the curb, piled high like humanity.

Clap the thin aluminum door shut behind you and carry the empty glass of tea indoors. Move from the kitchen to your bedroom in one step and lie down on your bed as the sun begins to set. Craft yourself more makeshift idols from the temporal smoke of volunteers and find some way to dream because after all, the comatose world as you know it breathes slower and slower, weaker and frailer with each forgetting.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Parking and Providence --Cart Weiland

Every morning at about ten ‘til 9, I drive into downtown on Poydras St., swing a left on Camp, another left on Common, and finish my commute by turning right into the Pere Marquette Parking Garage located a block from my office building. There is nothing ostensibly remarkable about the car park: my coworker and I just happened to stumble upon it on our first morning of work, liked $8 daily rate, and have been going back ever since. In fact, we were never really supposed to park there. Our boss had recommended that we park at a cheaper garage on the 6th floor of some other building we never actually found. A little lost and a little late on our first day of work, we decided we had better cut our losses and park where we could rather than drive around aimlessly and waste the precious few minutes we had until we were due in the office.

I don’t want to invoke the supernatural just yet, but I’ve got to say, I’m pretty glad we happened upon this particular parking garage that first morning five weeks ago. It’s not just the friendly, prompt service the valet staff supplies every day; it’s not just the hard time that one guy gives me every morning I’m running a couple minutes late, and it’s not just that I no longer have to ask for a receipt every afternoon because all the valets know me as “that guy.” No, I’m especially happy with my parking garage because last Friday, it might have just saved my weekend. After a day spent geo-coding data in the office, I walked down Common St. to retrieve my car only to find that it wouldn’t start. Before I even had to ask, two of the valets came to my rescue with a pair of jumper cables. The three of us struggled to jump the car for about 15 minutes, and I soon began to think about the impending disaster: I would have to call a tow truck and wait for it to arrive. I would have to tell the other kids I was scheduled to pick up that they no longer had a ride home. I’d have to find a Volvo dealership, wait until Monday to have the car looked at, and pay to have it fixed…

For such a relatively minor inconvenience, the future looked terribly grim. The battery was dead, or the alternator or…something. I thanked my valet friends for trying and was about to pick up my cell phone when I heard that sound…the key turning in the ignition, and the car finally starting! The valet Manuel had the magic touch, and suddenly, my Friday—and most likely, the rest of my weekend—was saved.

Part of me doesn’t want to blow this event out of proportion, but I’m starting to think that appealing to Fate isn’t entirely out of the question. If I had chosen another garage that first day; Who knows? Maybe there wouldn’t have been any jumper cables or friendly valets with magical hands….Really, who knows? I may very well have spent my weekend having to deal with the type of annoying chore that everyone hates. Instead, Manuel started my car, I drove it home, and I had an awesome weekend.

I know I’m taking a while to make my point but here it is:

Coming to New Orleans, like happening upon that parking garage, was entirely an accident. If I hadn’t gone abroad last fall, perhaps I would have been better organized for my job search that started last January. If I had been better organized, maybe I would have narrowed my interests a little more during the application process. Maybe if I had done that, I would have received a job or two in New York or D.C. If I had received offers in other cities, maybe I wouldn’t have been so apt to bring up summer job prospects with my friend Sam over a few beers at a party as school was ending in May. Maybe he would never have mentioned the program in New Orleans that he was a part of, and maybe—no, quite probably, I would not be here right now.

As we were sitting around chomping down pizza the other night, someone in the group asked, “So, could you guys see yourselves coming back to New Orleans after this summer?”

Interesting question, I thought. If coming back to NOLA is anything like ending up here in the first place, I certainly can’t rule out the possibility. Accidents are meant to happen, and for that, I am very grateful.

impatiently waiting- joseph lanser

So I know its only July, but my experience trying to get a hold of a camera in New Orleans has been reminiscent of Advent, the anticipatory four weeks prior to the celebration of Christmas. Believing (erroneously we would soon learn) that the acquisition of a video camera from Duke/DukeEngage/anyone who would hear my plea would be easy, Sam and I ambitiously wrote a script for and made arrangements to have our jingle about preparing an evacuation kit be performed by third to fifth grade students at the local elementary school. I think we were both impressed by the progress (at least I was). The intensity of Black Friday had nothing on us. We were rhyming machines. Now all we needed was a camera…

Well, when word, in the form of an email, arrived from Joy that the prospect of getting a camera was about as bleak as scoring a Tickle Me Elmo doll circa Winter 1997, I was a bit surprised but certainly not going to give up hope. I had Joy and Dr. Schaad on my side (Mary and Joseph? let’s see how far I can take this…). Alright so this brings us to the second week of Advent/NOLA, which in my mind mine as well be synonymous because they evoke the same feels of joy (hehe Joy…) in me, and putting off the filming of the video another week wouldn’t be the end of the world because there were other projects on the works. By the end of the week, we had a few leads but the chance of getting a video camera was grim. I was growing impatient but had no choice but to resort to Plan B (an actual plan, not the contraceptive). We made arrangements with the media specialist at the government office to film our video and soon afterwards received an email from Joy requesting that we submit a formal camera proposal (Christmas list?) to Eric Mlyn (Santa Claus?), director almighty of DukeEngage. Although the camera would not arrive in time for the filming, we would at least have one at our disposal for future projects (cue sigh of relief). The pink candle was burning brightly in my mind. Christmas was going to be awesome!

Looks like I’ve been a bad boy this year because the request was outright denied. My impatience, which, of late, had turned into anger, was now replaced by painful indifference. Despite our best efforts, we had nothing to show for them, having exhausted every contact and outlet. The filming went relatively smoothly given that we were working with a cameraman essentially oblivious to our vision of how the video was to be filmed. Much to our surprise, we received a phone call from Dr. Schaad soon after the filming telling us that he had acquired a video camera for our use, which we finally received last week.

At a very insignificant level, the frustration I experienced trying to get a camera had similar elements to the frustrations that residents of New Orleans and surrounding parishes have experienced and are still experiencing post-Katrina. Receiving assistance from the government, what they thought was a given, especially after a disaster of this magnitude, has proven to be immensely more convoluted than initially expected. Promises unfulfilled, the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s response grows daily. Organizations like FEMA are unnecessarily complicating an effort for which it is very easy to feel detached. Their actions thus far are indicative of a gross indifference toward the plight in which residents have been stuck for almost two years now. The last thing New Orleans needs right now is a detached agency in charge of distributing emergency funds to the affected residents. Sadly, I don’t think there is much the public can do to rectify the situation. Only so much can be accomplished with the resources at their disposable. They can fight. They can complain. They can recount their sad tales. They can try to move on with their lives, but without government assistance it’s all in vain. This city needs a Santa Claus-and soon.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Entertainer- Jenny Heffernan

A weekend of New Orleans-style debauchery inevitably leads to a necessary re-evaluation of one’s personal merit and purpose as a member of the human race, as well as a reality check as to why one is actually in Nola for the summer (Bourbon Street and hand grenades aside). Through the haze that characterizes weeknight/end “noches”, I find it easy to lose sight of the reason for which I sit from 9-5 at my makeshift desk in city hall, apart from using the time to plan for the next set of after-5 activities. Duke Engage could hardly have been created with the intent of filling an entertainment role in our lives- or had it?

Undoubtedly, the work I am doing in the New Orleans Health Department is valuable. Fingers crossed, the grant I am currently applying for will be won, and I will leave a tangible legacy in New Orleans, in the form of an HIV education and prevention program, to be implemented on HBCU campuses. However, it is also possible that the grant will not be won, my hard work is rendered useless, and I have nothing to show for my time here. With all of this running through my head, I subjected my co-worker, Tucker, to my rants, to which he offered some consolation: even if we don’t end up winning the much-needed thousands of dollars for the department, at least we provided our co-workers with some entertainment.

Although it took a few minutes, I came to realize that my sage friend just might be right. Thinking over my hours spent in the NOHD, I concluded that I have logged just as many hours dancing the Cupid Shuffle (hottest dance to hit the US since the Macarena, fyi) with Valrita, joking with Dr. Franklin, and having lengthy conversations with Ro as I have spent actually drafting my grant proposal. While some may argue that my little quips and office banter aren’t exactly the kind of post-Katrina relief this city is looking for, I disagree. My office, as I’m sure is characteristic of many in New Orleans, is a breeding ground for stress; tensions are high and, at times, progress seems almost nonexistent. Additional funds, obviously, would help to alleviate some of the financial burden facing the department and its programs; however, a brief smile or laugh would just as effectively lift the cloud of anxiety that so often hinders productivity here.

The outcome of my efforts spent in the NOHD, then, is only somewhat unknown. Perhaps my lofty aspirations of “leaving my mark” will actually be realized, in which case I can pat myself on the back and self-servingly add the accomplishment to my resume and grad school applications. However, if the only mark I’ve managed to leave in New Orleans is in Val or Ro’s memory, as that “wacky, friendly, intern from Duke”, I won’t be disappointed; with the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop, perhaps the most valuable thing I can offer is a distraction.

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow - Tucker Page

Obstinacy is the hallmark of post-disaster planning. Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, Americans wanted to rebuild. Rather than ask how we could rebuild most effectively, however, public discourse was often dominated by people juvenilely asking how tall we would need to build a replacement building in order to sufficiently demonstrate the strength and perseverance of our country. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to build another skyscraper in New York City, but it took people some time to realize that “rebuilding” does not have to mean “replacing” – New York City had the opportunity to build something better than the World Trade Center.

Why is this relevant? Because faced with the daunting prospect of rebuilding, New Orleans seems more focused on replacing what was lost during Katrina rather than on reimagining what the city should be like. Of course, individuals cannot be blamed for wanting to rebuild their homes, especially those who have lived in New Orleans their entire lives and those who have deep cultural and community roots in the city. In addition, there are undoubtedly organizations in New Orleans that are pushing for fundamental social change. Therefore, I feel like I should refocus my critique onto the organization with which I am most familiar: city government.

After five weeks in City Hall, the lack of focus on the most fundamental issues facing the city is startling. Health Department meetings designed to address the future of New Orleans inevitably end with everyone agreeing that the department does not have the resources or the power to enact any fundamental social change and deciding to focus instead on surface problems that, while certainly easier to address, do nothing to change the reasons why those problems exist in the first place. At one meeting, for example, everyone agreed to focus on improving access to healthcare. But why do people lack access to healthcare? Lack of transportation, among other reasons. Why do people lack adequate transportation? Poverty. Why are people poor? For many individuals in New Orleans, in my opinion, centuries of racial discrimination. But there’s no way that the Health Department can begin to address racism and its legacy, or even poverty, for that matter. See the problem? Any intervention that the Health Department might conduct will inevitably focus on surface problems (e.g., lack of transportation) rather than the more important underlying problems (e.g., poverty) that, if not addressed, will continue to wreak havoc within the community.

The Health Department’s inability to address underlying social issues certainly is not for lack of trying. Everyone here would love to delve deeper into the root causes of New Orleans’s problems, but the resource simply aren’t available – time, personnel, and money (especially money) are all in short supply. Is it the mayor’s fault, then, for not coordinating a more comprehensive review of where New Orleans is going and what the city needs to do in order to rebuild better? I can’t say for sure – I have a feeling that the mayor’s office is just as swamped as the Health Department. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that the city may be rebuilt in the image of its troubled former self, problems and all. Fundamental change is difficult both to conceptualize and to carry out, but New Orleans has the unique opportunity to make itself a better city than it was before Katrina. I may just be a visitor here, but I would hate to see the city waste that opportunity.

Too Much of a Gamble? - Reid Cater

While living in the NOLA area this summer I have been continually surprised by the prevalence of gambling. From other trips I remembered some small casinos along the water, but as the weeks have gone by I have noticed video poker in nearly every restaurant and bar as well as Harrah's Casino, a new and extravagant casino right beside the French Quarter. Even more surprisingly most of the people gambling seem to be locals. The NYT article here draws interesting insights into why gambling has become so popular for locals after Katrina.

First the obvious: insurance money and higher wages have given people money to spend.
Second: Katrina destroyed not only housing, health care, and public service infrastructure but also local entertainment options.

People who would have once spent free nights in a bowling alley or at a local bar now turn to the casinos as the only available form of entertainment. This combination of factors seems likely to lead to tragedy for those who let gambling go past entertainment and leave their only chance to rebuild sitting on a roulette table.

Casinos Boom in Katrina's Wake
Published: July 16, 2007

BILOXI, Miss. — This seaside gambling resort along a stretch of the Gulf Coast, sometimes called the “redneck Riviera,” has 40 percent fewer hotel rooms and only two-thirds as many slot machines as it did before Hurricane Katrina. A major bridge that connects the casinos in this popular tourist destination to Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and other points east remains closed, and Mayor A. J. Holloway estimates that as many as 15 percent of the city’s pre-Katrina residents still have not returned.

Yet business in the gambling halls of Biloxi has reached all-time highs in recent months, so much so that Larry Gregory, the executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, has half-jokingly barred his staff from uttering the phrase “record-setting” because “it was becoming too redundant.”

A similar story has been unfolding in New Orleans, where tourism is still in the doldrums and only 60 percent of the pre-Katrina population has returned nearly two years after the hurricane and flooding devastated the area.

Indeed, the casinos there seem to be faring even better than their Gulf Coast cousins.

Harrah’s New Orleans, the largest casino in the city, is on pace for its best year ever: gambling revenue is up 13.6 percent through the first five months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2005, pre-Katrina.

The casinos in this region are generating more revenue — from significantly fewer players — in large part because of the extra money that many area residents have in their pockets and fewer alternatives on where to spend it, casino executives and others in the region say.

(Full article here)