I meet six other students after arriving in NOLA and we share a van to the hostel, which is located on 1660 Annunciation Street. The driver overheard us talking about our program—which takes us to Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam after New Orleans—and said, “You can forget about those other countries, you’re gonna wanna stay here!” We then asked if he had any change for the fare, because we all only had twenties, and he said, “You work it out amongst yourselves. You might as well get used to it; you’ll be with one another for 4 months.” Good advice, but I think that he just didn’t have any change.
New Orleans is a lot like Savannah, Georgia. The cities share a similar climate and building style, but I’m told that New Orleans has a very different culture. Catholicism is popular, but more as a culture than strictly as a religion, which is an interesting distinction. Saint’s birthdays are celebrated as social events rather than religious ones, with parades and parties.
Down the street from our hostel is the area where we have classes and meetings. It’s a nice large brick building, and during the week it hosts a bunch of summer camps and community events in addition to our classroom. We met some of the staff, both who will be with us when we travel and who will stay in the US to help with the program.
The buildings near our hotel are all different. Some have clearly been damaged from hurricanes, others have been renovated, and still others are completely new. The varied housing provides an interesting neighborhood dynamic, and it means that no one neighborhood can be clearly defined. There is no “safe” neighborhood because a brand new mansion could be right around the corner from a severely impoverished street.
I’m really loving New Orleans. We did more exploring yesterday and got to know the city better. Our hostel is in the Lower Garden District, which is lower uptown. New Orleans is defined by the river and the lake, which are both distinct landmarks in determining location. Walking down the river from our hostel leads us to the French Quarter, which is a really charming area. It has both residential aspects and those that are much more touristy, like Bourbon Street. Just to give you an impression of the tourism in the area, kast night as we walked by Bourbon Street, we were pulled into a bar and forced to do a few shots, then charged $20 each. We haggled down the price, but familiarized ourselves with the general vibe of the street, which is full of strip clubs, bars, and dance halls. The area that is more music oriented is known as Frenchman’s Street.
I went out with some guys I met at the hostel last night. Two of them are friends from Georgia (Emily and Joey) and the other (James) worked at the hostel. It’s interesting to discuss and analyze how they perceive northerners. They definitely think of us as rude and inhospitable, and while Joey was being intentionally overly-critical (in a friendly way), it was clear that he does carry a particular stigma. Vice versa, I definitely had some stereotypical views of southerners that weren’t necessarily true either. Emily does a lot of musical theater, and I brought up Shakespeare in the Park assuming she would know nothing about it. Her friends were in the production of “Merchant of Venice” a couple of years ago, so she certainly proved me wrong. We went out to a bar nearby and enjoyed some classic New Orleanian food.
The meetings and discussions we have at Kingsley House, which is where we study, are interesting, but its a lot more exciting to walk around and meet new people. Everyone in our group is pretty good at interacting with a new urban environment, which shows a certain sophistication and enthusiasm that’s exciting to see. We went to an amazing restaurant/bar called Mojitos near the French Quarter (Frenchman Street). By “we,” I mean the whole IHP group. The bar had a really kicking live band that included bass, slide guitar, drums, and sax. The bassist switched from upright to electric during one set and they got really funky for a bit. Some of us danced. It’s amazing to walk down the street and see bars with live bands that are empty. It seems that there must be quite a surplus of musical talent in this city, and definitely economic instability.
We have a half-day of class today, so we’re back at the hostel now. I want to talk about the architecture and urban planning I’ve seen so far. There are many areas of New Orleans that seem repurposed or salvaged, featuring buildings and restaurants that are rundown but still charming. The tram lines are interesting because they are such a large part of the urban environment. Being above ground, they demonstrate the stark relationships between different neighborhoods by interacting with the public sphere in such a prominent way. Above ground, the tram is running through a poorly maintained street, although it will soon turn onto one of the major boulevards of the city, the Business District. Unlike New York City where the subways are typically underground, these trams cannot ferry customers unknowingly through poverty. The rides are very quick and pleasant, but being above ground, they certainly interact with the urban fabric in a very different way than does an underground subway. There are times where I am within a foot of a pedestrian walking down the sidewalk as I sit by the window of a tram. Something about this feels informal, perhaps simply having that physical closeness with another human being. The fewer divisions that exist within the urban landscape—whether created by automobile use, public transportation, social/political/racial hierarchies—the more informal and organic relationships can develop, even fleetingly.
We went to a couple of housing redevelopments in the Ninth Ward today. The Ninth Ward, which is the area of New Orleans most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, is in various stages of rebuilding and it is interesting to see the multiple interpretations of redevelopment showcased in the area.
The first community we visited was the Musicians’ Village, which is an initiative by Habitat for Humanity. It seemed quite successful, with a community music center and hundreds of family residences that have already been purchased. The buildings are small and quaint. While by no means extremely well designed, they are very colorful and not a significant departure from the area’s previous housing design, which makes them accessible to pre-Katrina residents. The 1,000-square-foot homes cost $75,000 and are subsidized by the government for a zero-interest mortgage. To be eligible, owners must earn within a certain income bracket and commit to 300 hours of volunteer work building additional homes in the community. The idea of the project is to bring displaced musicians back to the area as an important aspect of both the musical history of the city and a crucial part of the tourism industry.
Despite the community’s success, however, there is a clear disparity between the targeted community area and the periphery, which still suffers from post Katrina issues. The image of the destroyed home is only a few blocks away from the center of the Musicians’ Village. There is a lot of competition between the various community development groups within the city, most notably in the next area of the Ninth Ward we visited, Make It Right. An initiative of Brad Pitt, Make It Right was clearly an attempt at sophisticated environmental sustainability, but it seemed artificial and somewhat like a scene from the Twilight Zone. There were few people out and about in the community and many of the homes were still unsold. The price differential between Musicians’ Village and Make It Right, which was simply a few dollars more per square foot of the Make It Right homes, was enough to make the Musicians’ Village quite successful and Make It Right less effective. Obviously both programs are different in what they offer—Musicians’ Village has a community center and an altogether more succinct community vibe. But it’s interesting to compare the intent of both programs, because clearly Make It Right was concerned with issues that were not necessarily the most pertinent. Things like using untreated wood (because it was more sustainable) and having small glass windows and solar panels were not the primary concern of the potential homeowners.