Sunday, July 18, 2010

Face to Face with the Past

In March of 2005, I hopped in a van with a group of my college buds and went on my first trip to New Orleans. My first impression with the city was that it was dirty. And all there was to do was to drink and party.

Later that year, Katrina struck with all of its fury. You know the rest of the story.

I visited again in 2008 and once again in 2009 without thinking much about the effects of the hurricane. We saw traces of some of the damage, but not much more thought was given.

Today, nearly 5 years after the devastation first occurred, I visited the Lower 9th Ward. You might recall earlier this year when I posted some things about Hurricane Katrina and about Eric Dyson's book. I knew that this trip to New Orleans would be different than my previous ones. For starters, I refused to step foot on Bourbon Street. I've done that enough. Instead, my good friend Austin drove Kurt and me around the city, looking at schools, houses, and businesses that still show signs of disaster.

I could have read all of the books on Katrina, and I still would not have been prepared for the Lower 9th. It was heartbreaking. Here I am, heartbroken.

The good news and the odd news is that Brad Pitt is helping to build some houses in the Lower 9th. They are very strange and not entirely efficient, but it looks like a good idea.

There were so many houses just left to the wild. Down the side roads there were empty plots of land where houses once stood. The X's spray painted on the front of buildings were an eerie reminder of the ones who had left, either in the tide of the water that overtook the levees, or in the mass exodus that followed. Written on one building was, "Home. This Used to be Home." It was very hard to watch the families who were trying to rebuild, who sat on their porches across the street from hollowed out houses that whispered horrible secrets of what went on five years ago. On the way out, there was a school that had sat untouched with a sign that read, "Classes will resume August 29, 2005." A place that had been discarded by its country is putting back together the pieces of their lives, trusting in each other and billowing with pride.

I did not cry until we passed a group of children riding their bikes on the way into St. Bernard Parish. And I thought of the stories I had heard about white people barricading the bridges so that they black people couldn't get out. And I thought about how disastrous the Louisiana school system had been before the hurricane and how much worse it must have gotten in the years that followed.

I am glad that I visited the Lower 9th Ward, even if it was difficult to look at what happened. That's what being a historian is all about: facing the horrors of the past and trying to understand them.

New Orleans is still dirty. Probably filthier than ever. It is not a city that I particularly enjoy. But it has such a unique personality that most other cities cannot obtain. And it takes pride in that, whether for good or for bad. And in the wake of disaster, people stubbornly stay put to build a life, even in the Lower 9th Ward where they had been tossed aside and forgotten. It is a beautiful and heart-breaking place, and I'm very glad that I was able to see something beyond the booze-soaked streets of Bourbon Street, even if it was difficult to take in.

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