The Spirit of New Orleans

No other story about New Orleans matches the efforts of citizens who took the initiative to clean up the mess left by Hurricane Katrina and begin rebuilding their city. Likewise, people’s determination to return home turned out to be the driving force toward recovery – even amid heartache, suffering, psychological trauma and incredible inconvenience.

But this wasn’t easy. Within a month after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, questions arose in other parts of the country about whether New Orleans could or should endure.

Known as the “Great Footprint Debate“, three options emerged regarding the fate of the flooded city: (1) abandon everything, (2) maintain everything in favor of the social and economic assets of the city despite its geological truths and (3) concede the risks and rebuild the city on higher ground.

“Topography does matter,” said Richard Campanella, associate director of Tulane University’s Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a research professor with Tulane’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science. He pointed out that sea levels have increased by four inches during the 20th century and predicted that in another 100 years they will rise another 41 inches. He spoke recently at the annual American Planners Association conference.

But, five years after Katrina, New Orleans and its people have endured. The question now is: how did they do it?

Tom Piazza wrote a wonderful, intimate book shortly after Katrina titled “Why New Orleans Matters” in an attempt to answer this question.

The spirit of New Orleans, he suggests, arises from people’s view of mortality and their utter connection to the place where they live. What it boils down to is a philosophy that espouses gratitude for another day since no one knows what tomorrow may bring. It is not a fatalistic or Pollyanna view of life, but rather one that is present oriented and open to all possibilities, something very difficult for most Americans to understand because of our rushed, busy and controlled lives.

This Weltanschauung has its roots in Caribbean and African nature religions that believe creation generously gives of its abundance so that human beings can respond to the Creator with expressions of thanks and by extending their generosity to others in imitation of Nature. Such a view is different from the New Englander’s Calvinism of judgment and renunciation or the fundamentalist’s notions that God selects a chosen few and then rids the world of sinners. Orleanians consciously give thanks for a new day, a deep friendship, a neighborhood picnic, spontaneous parade or just simply being alive.

Nothing illustrates this view better than the famous jazz funeral. As strange as it may seem, there is a profound soulfulness that begins the procession in a slow, solemn dirge as the grieving family leaves the church and heads to the cemetery. “Second liners” join in and, eventually, the music turns to lively jazz with dancing and strutting.

This is not silliness, says Piazza, but rather “the triumph over the pain, the recognition of life’s brevity.” And the message is that everyone attending the funeral has escaped death today, so let’s celebrate that.

Katrina left Orleanians with incredible hardships that make daily living extremely stressful, especially for the poor. There isn’t enough public transportation, and neighborhood stores are sometimes two and three miles away. Roads are still in disrepair, and the recognizable landscape has been drastically altered as commercial and residential buildings were destroyed and removed. Many shopping centers remain vacant. This is all emotionally and psychologically draining and disorienting; depression and suicide rates have jumped since Katrina. So, when a store reopens, people indulge in a great celebration amid their grief, anger, joy, worry and hope, according to city officials.

“Even in its most desperate precincts [New Orleans] is a city of deep and powerful humanity, of endurance, resilience, humor and affirmation in the face of adversity,” says Piazza.

The HBO series, “Treme,” which takes place in the aftermath of Katrina in the famous neighborhood of the same name, also illustrates this soulfulness. In the first episode, people are feeling sad, tired and devastated, so they take up their musical instruments and start a parade. Such a reaction is not an escape or a reluctance to face grim realities. Rather, it’s a spiritual response that comes out of the black gospel tradition of “No cross, no crown.” In other words, you can’t appreciate the good if you don’t know the bad. So, you are obliged to accept your burden, finiteness and suffering and then connect to the people around you. Actually, this is one major reason why neighborhoods have been so strong in New Orleans and why so many people have strived to return home.

Vera Triplett, a professor of counseling at Our Lady of Holy Cross College, who is a “proud resident of Gentilly Neighborhood,” responded to the footprint debate with comparisons of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and 9/11 in New York City:

“I’ve never heard anyone ask whether their city would come back,” she said. “I take that as an insult…. This is my home. I have every right to come back to it. And I’ll come back no matter how many times it floods.”

But Triplett isn’t just talk. She is one of many local individuals in a number of different projects to step forward to lead the recovery of her neighborhood. After starting the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, which aims to give residents a voice in rebuilding their neighborhoods, she later represented Gentilly in the Rebuilding New Orleans Initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The initiative developed the United New Orleans Plan (UNOP), which was accepted by the city council and adopted as the city’s master plan in 2007. UNOP addresses specific actions necessary to facilitate the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans through input from local citizens instead of just the technicians, politicians and wealthy landowners.

“People came in with questions and concerns,” said Triplett in an interview with American City magazine on the UNOP process. “That’s when I first began to see some of the pain and distress, frustration and sheer exhaustion. Not a lot of people understood what the people of New Orleans were going through…. We provided practical things like public transportation, childcare and two full meals…. The other integral thing was that there were entertainment breaks. Little personal dance breaks to make people feel better.”

Many other good things have occurred over the past five years, which have made Orleanians proud and outsiders amazed, according to city planners. Various independent political entities (the city, parishes, neighborhoods and the state) are now working together toward recovery. The city’s newspaper has improved its coverage and transparency. Unemployment is only five to six percent due to the vast amount of rebuilding and thanks to the billions of federal dollars that have come in for roads, housing and other reconstruction projects – although much more is needed.

City Park, a 1300-acre urban park, the seventh-largest in the country and bigger than New York’s Central Park, suffered $43 million worth of damage. Katrina took down 1,000 trees, including many live oaks. Piles of debris, some measuring 30 to 40 feet high, were collected in the park and later hauled away. The park’s Executive Director, Bob Beck, almost single-handedly raised millions of dollars to rebuild the park and has succeeded in bringing much of it back to its former splendor.

Piazza does not shirk from acknowledging New Orleans’ many problems, many of which were there before Katrina: crime, corruption, bad schools, extreme poverty, racism and the stark mismanagement of the city as well as the threat of violent weather and the loss of wetlands. Things were definitely turning around for the city, although city planners admit that recovery will probably take 20 years. Then came the oil spill, which threatens fishing, tourism and the loss of wildlife in the Gulf and the bayous.

Clearly, a loss of New Orleans would be a tragedy, so I pray that Orleanians – and people in the entire Gulf region – get through this latest dreadful crisis. I suspect they’ll do it through deliberate citizen action and participation and in the spirit of New Orleans that defiantly declares: “I’m here, I’m still alive and I’m willing to take whatever comes.” What a model of recovery from disaster for all Americans!