Saturday, March 31, 2007

Community Lines

Marred roof. Peeling clapboards. Skeletons of wood visible through dark windows. Each house on this block resembled hundreds of others we had walked past. We coded them yellow on our address sheets and kept walking. Overgrown vegetation flanked the litter-strewn street, which was easier to walk on than the remains of the sidewalk. With a few paces, a gentle grade brought us to a blue house, one marked by an immaculate facade and a manicured lawn. We turned the corner and realized that most houses on both sides of the street were evidently part of a well-maintained neighborhood. The next house had been razed, leaving behind a yard of sand. We stood in front of the flawless third house, trying to figure out the address of the bare property between it and its corner neighbor, when a woman appeared, apparently the owner. I said we were part of the Gentilly Project, which was collecting information about the state of repair of houses throughout the Gentilly district of New Orleans. The information would be posted online using color codes and given to neighborhood associations to help organize and channel resources more effectively. She nodded in understanding, and I asked if she knew the address of what was next door. She made some suggestions, nothing definitive. Then she ambled back into her home.

It was common for residents to call out to us with their inquisitive looks or voices. And we were encouraged to approach them and explain why a pair of us was traipsing around their neighborhood with a clipboard. After a little explanation, they were often effusive with thoughts and information. They’d share their frustrations, their blessings. We’d write down any needs they mentioned. Without prompting, they’d usually point to the forlorn houses around their home: “He’s in Atlanta and ain’t sure if he’s comin’ back.” “She’s in her eighties and livin’ with her daughter now.” “They’re starting to rebuild but livin’ in another part of the city.”

I specifically recall talking with a married couple who was temporarily living in a more affluent area outside New Orleans while they rebuilt their home of over twenty years. The people there, they said, are cordial, but they conspicuously stay on their property and the most they ever say is a friendly greeting. Another man I spoke with had permanently moved his wife and young son to a comparable neighborhood after the storm. His neighbors there are friendly but never chat at length or want to come over for dinner despite their casual invitations. He said he missed the vibrancy of his old neighborhood, where he could stop and pull up a chair at a neighbor’s place anytime.

His old neighborhood may not look the same now, but its spirit has returned, perhaps amplified. Although many of its homes have trailers on their front lawns, the residents there look after each other. They watch each other’s children. They labor together to restore their homes. They share lawnmowers to keep the grass at a respectable length.
It’s a similar story elsewhere in Gentilly. I talked with several residents who said that since the storm, neighbors have been doubly ready to assist others in any way possible. Dormant neighborhood associations have been rejuvenated and are poised to reach out to neighbors on streets with few trailers or refurbished homes. It is the hope of the Gentilly Project to further encourage neighborhood associations in accounting for neighbors and organizing to better direct the assistance they still need from others outside their neighborhoods.

Yet, that sense of community isn’t everywhere. Accounting for neighbors tends to evaporate in importance as the burden of property rises. More to own demands more attention to sustain, and property lines begin to divide neighbors, leaving them with a vacant knowledge of each other.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Start To Finish in 10 Days

I didn't have a timetable for mapping this spring break. I just wanted to complete any of the 22 Gentilly neighborhoods we started. Instead, all of the neighborhoods were mapped. That's over 14,000 addresses and 8 square miles. All in 10 days.
It took 30 days when the area was first mapped in December. That included time off because it was holiday season, but it also included a greater availability of residents to help. And the membership of the December mapping group doesn't overlap with the March group.
UNO's College of Sciences let the project use office space again, and the team was there until 8pm last night finishing up. Already this morning, the students have risen and are on their way to the airport. Spring break ends tonight, and classes start again tomorrow!
Haven't been able to upload my weekend photos yet, so the photos are from last week. The top one was taken at UNO. The bottom one was taken in Pontchartrain Park. Jeanne Huang, a Tuck School alum who is part of the Post-Katrina summit planning with me, was in New Orleans, and she wanted to see what the mapping was about. Kolleen, one of the student team members, is explaining how the mapping system works.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Some photos from today

Could you believe these two houses are around the corner from each other? One blighted (code RED) and the other well renovated (code BLUE). Photos taken about an hour ago.

A Difference A Day Makes

I just realized that I hadn't blogged since Monday. Where have I been?! Working with my Dartmouth team to map, of course : )

Sometime yesterday afternoon that I began to believe we could finish mapping Gentilly again. About 65% was completed as of Friday pm. I began to estimate how many more volunteers we might need. But most importantly, Rashmi began to contact other Dartmouth Katrina Help teams in the area.

This morning, we had a van of 7 Dartmouth students arrive from Gulf Port, Mississipi. And another team of 15 Dartmouth students that's also performing service in New Orleans.

With 35 Dartmouth students on the job today, we can get a lot of done...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Crawfish Boil

When I woke up Sunday morning, I never anticipated we'd be invited to a Crawfish Boil that afternoon. It was a great way to end the first 3 days of (re)mapping Gentilly neighborhoods. Much thanks to Gwen H. and family!

Last Friday through Sunday were just the learning-curve days for the student team, yet they mapped 20% of Gentilly (an area that I think is about 8 square miles wide). For the most part, they did it themselves and with the help of residents Becky R. on Saturday morning and Claire S. all day Saturday and on Sunday morning. Four neighborhoods were completed - Virgil Park, Burbank Gardens, Fillmore Gardens, Edgewood Park - and a fifth started - Lower Gentilly.

There was an emerging emphasis this weekend on documenting the needs for particular individuals we encountered while mapping, and performing followups to find and direct assistance.

I don't know if we are going to remap all of Gentilly again, or if that is necessarily the most relevant goal at this point. More importantly, I see us laying the groundwork for more efficient and sustained aggregation and communication of local needs. In many ways, simply remapping Gentilly in the next 7 days would be a much easier goal.
The students get the day off while I'm shifting gears today towards the Post-Katrina Economic Development Summit. We'll be back on the streets on Tuesday.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

No Winter Thank You

I lent Sheli my camera yesterday to take photos, so I think she took these. Need to ask her about them...
My guess this was in Virgil Park, a Gentilly neighborhood we started and completed yesterday morning. Today, we finished two more neighborhoods. Burbank Gardens in the morning. Fillmore Gardens is being finished as I write.
Today, we started an "advance team" that would work ahead to prepare mapping assignments and perform any followup associated with mapping (e.g., data entry, office errands, getting snacks and lunch, and follow up contact with residents in need).
This afternoon, Nicole and I performed an advance-team assignment of following up on a lead provided by Jackie, a Gentilly resident. Although living out of town, she had a fairly recent record of rebuilding status for her entire block. She recommended that we meet a couple of her neighbors, including Mr. Fortenberry. We're going to work with him by giving him a list of addresses from our master address file, and doing a small local census with him. I've called ahead to some neighborhood presidents so we can do something similar in other areas too.
I heard that lots of snow fell in NH the past 24 hours. New Orleans is getting California perfect weather today, and it's been great to see how much we're getting done in just a second day.

Friday, March 16, 2007

First Day of Work

So here we are at the UNO library, trying to take every free moment we can to check up on blitz. about 75 new messages and counting since I left Hanover. Three of us are doing the data entry for the Virgil Park neighborhood we visited this morning on our first day of work. Me, being a good trip leader, sent 8 members of the team to go fend for themselves and map another neighborhood this afternoon.
We ate a picnic lunch of peanut butter and jelly and it seemed like every group had met someone cool, friendly, or at the very least, interesting. Blondie and her bed and breakfast, Charlie the fisherman, Mr. Willard the retired teacher and de facto neighborhood governor, and Chuck, 50 year veteran of the area who stayed 9 days into the hurricane, before he had to be rescued, and mentioned "I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Now THAT was amazing."
Sheli and I talked to Charlie, who is 86 with white wispy hair and a beard. He's rebuilding his entire first floor by himself, and except for the gaping hole in his living room, conveniently covered by a stiff plank of wood.

"I love life. Love it. Heck, I couldn't live without it."

Off we go!

We're all headed to the Virgil Park neighborhood as I write. Gotta go!!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Don't Worry About A Thing

When your volunteers are policy-minded social workers, don't you worry about a thing.

I met Janet, Selene, Jennifer, and Moira yesterday afternoon -- literally after checking my cell phone message at the airport and learning of volunteers from Columbia's School of Social Work. Pictured above, sandwiched between NENA Director Jones and me, these volunteers came through today.

I had spent about an hour with Jennifer yesterday showing her how to assign a list of addresses to their associated census block, while the others were catching up on some mapping data-entry work that was needed.

I was going to stop by NENA this morning to see how the team was doing. But when I called ahead they sounded already on top of the whole thing. So I stayed away. By the late afternoon when I arrived with the Dartmouth team, they had figured out how to assign hundreds of street addresses to their associated census block. Everything was handled - from map printouts from the census to the block assigning and physical inspections of some blocks to clear up unusual observations in the mapping data. And they flagged some unusual (very likely faulty) observations in other Lower Ninth Ward mapping data. They finished an entire census tract of addresses in the heart of the Lower Ninth, which sets things up pretty well for NENA to start recruiting residential mappers in those blocks.

Janet, Selene, and Jennifer, and Moira are definitely my first and finest volunteers on this trip.

They're Here

Here they are. By bus, plane, and rental car(s). From Hanover NH to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, LA in 15 hours. I present Dartmouth's Gentilly Project spring team. In an order having nothing to do with this photograph, I introduce: Mike, Dave, Amy, Kolleen, Noah, Rashmi, Adi, Connor, Louis, Ingrid, Nicole, Sam, and Sheli. With me, wearing blue, squeezed in the corner.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More Students About Town

I arrived in New Orleans midday, and already I've encountered more students from distant places than usual.

J.R. picked me up from the airport, and we proceeded to Xavier University before lunch. There I met several NYU students who were skilled in interactive media and had come to NOLA to both teach and apply what they know.

After lunch, we stopped by the headquarters of the Lower Ninth Ward's NENA (Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association). Waiting for J.R. at the airport a few hours earlier, I had spoken with Linda, a student from Columbia's School of Social Work. She and four others from the school would be at NENA today and tomorrow to help with the mapping work. I had given some direction over the phone, but then was able to elaborate more in person once J.R. and I got there.

Trying not to get into all the details, I'll summarize by saying that Jen was the Columbia graduate student working between the U.S. Census website and the Lower Ninth Ward street addresses. She and I worked together, walking between printouts of census maps and google maps of the blocks surrounding our location and walking outside to perform physical inspections of nearby addresses. There was a small group of Duke students across the street helping to clean out a house.

I need to remember to take pictures tomorrow. Today it all happened so fast. What I just described to you happened in just 5 hours. As I write this, I think the Dartmouth team is boarding their bus in New Hampshire. They should be touching down in NOLA within about 13 hours.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More Drama!

It's the good kind. Stick with me : )

I plan to start a process later this week of pairing student volunteers and assigning them to particular Gentilly neighborhoods. In addition to mapping responsibilities, the student volunteers are reaching out to help residents take further ownership of the mapping process.

We're also starting to get more feedback by email from residents, including updates on the rebuilding status of their houses and feedback on how to make the Gentilly GIS more effective.

However, for the GIS to be effective in showing what's truly happening on the ground, there needs to be observations at either the neighborhood (or census block level) that are all collected within a week's time.

It's important not just for residents, but for others around the country, to see what the needs and progress really are in New Orleans at the most local level. This is pretty exciting!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Countdown to Spring Break

The project's first step was collection and display of house-to-house rebuilding data throughout Gentilly. The second step is auditing and updating what we have, in collaboration with additional residents and volunteers.

The team of 15 Dartmouth students are arriving on March 15. A team of 25 Tufts University students are arriving a couple days later, and everyone begins to depart from March 24-26. For their service within this project, the teams will be volunteering within neighborhoods to (1) verify/updating rebuilding progress and (2) recruit/train residents in conducting their own local census.

I'm meeting with Sarah and Abbey, the co-leaders from Dartmouth's winter-break student team , this weekend. There are all kinds of preparations to do, and they are helping me.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Small Armies

I'm getting that feeling of anticipation, the one I get when I'm about to go to New Orleans.

I had a short to trip to UNC-Chapel Hill last week. We're exploring ways to collaborate with the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, because they're starting their own projects in Gentilly too. Graduate students Nathan and Chava helped me enter some data on Friday. Couldn't knock the weather. It was beautiful.

Last night, I met with a group of students here at Dartmouth who'll be participating in the project during spring break (March 15 - 26). Our trip down to NOLA isn't coming soon enough. We have frigid temperatures right now. No joke. It was 10-20 below zero wind chill this morning.

There's a group of students from Tufts who may be joining us for spring break too. I'm headed down to Boston to visit with them on Thursday.

Next week, ahead of our spring break, is the break for NYU. I'm meeting J.R. in NOLA, and his students might be partipating too.

I'm hoping for lots more resident engagement and mapping this trip. There's definitely a return to Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward in the works. Maybe other parts of the city too.