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.


Blogger doctorj2u said...

Thank you SO MUCH for your help in my home town. I grew up in Gentilly Woods in the 50 and the 60's, a neighborhood in front of Ponchatrain Park. We were the white neighborhood, they were the black neighborhood. I was not allowed to go back there because that is "where the blacks lived". We moved Uptown in the 70's and in the mid 80's I moved to the Northshore to set up a dental practice. I went back to Gentilly Woods in January to help clean up with a group from the local catholic church. At the lunchtime break, I had a chance to see my old home (thank goodness no one lost their lives there, zero on the X still present on the front of the house). Then we drove through Ponchatrain Park. I had to laugh because the neighborhood I wasn't allowed to see was actually much nicer than the neighborhood where I lived. Life is a topsy turvy affair, full of lies. The color of one's skin doesn't say what kind of person you are. Your own government, the one you pay taxes to, doesn't mean they give a rat's ass about you or your city. I wonder what the lesson of the last third of my life will be? What ever it is, I want to thank you for helping my beloved city. The people are mostly kind, sweet souls that have been through more than any human being should have to shoulder in this world. Thank you. Thank you so much.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Reading your reflection on your experience in New Orleans was refreshing. I only hope that more people have the opportunity to see my city and help us rebuild.

Growing up in New Orleans, I was frustrated by the race relations of the city and the remaining "backwards" thinking that seemed prevalent at times. I was desperate to get out and to see the larger world. In high school I cold not fully appreciate the uniqueness of the city, its long history, and the progress that has been made there even before the storm. Now I am happy to be returning to the city and continuing to help rebuild.

Since the storm, I have seem more people willing to look past their differences and realize that in the end we are all in the same situation. The people of Gentilly are inspiring for the dedication to rebuilding and their love of their neighborhoods. They look out for each other and serve as a second family.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to assist them in rebuilding and would like to thank them and the volunteers of the Gentilly Project for allowing me to reconnect with the city I love.

Sarah Fischer

1:56 PM  

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