Student Witness Class Clash in New Orleans

By Max Sirianni, Sam Adels

We had a confusing spring break. Sometimes we were sifting through the rubble in what could have been Baghdad and sometimes we were SPRINGBREAK2007!!!ing with the college students of America. But our sometimes-befuddling experience demonstrated an unbelievable imbalance that characterizes New Orleans. Katrina did not change this, but it did do a damn good job of exposing it – if only anyone noticed.

Now, we don’t feel like we need to explain the historical, geographical, and political reasons for poverty in New Orleans or the reasons for allowing Katrina to happen. You are all smart Macalester students, and most of you have seen Spike Lee’s movie anyway. We thought, since we were there, that it would make more sense to try and explain what it felt like to really be there, be part of the clean-up, and be witness to the ruins. And yes, there are still ruins. In fact, it is sort of amazing that Katrina happened more than a year and a half ago, because it looks like it happened yesterday.

New Orleans is a city with a lot of romanticized and dramatized images; Mardi Gras and partying on Bourbon Street, great seafood and Cajun cooking, amazing blues, jazz, and of course, brass band music as well as the numerous dilapidated, impoverished neighborhoods. What’s so amazing about the city is that one week spent there is a tour of all these disparate tastes and images. What you’re left with is very a tough reconciliation.

Let’s start in the French Quarter. Whoa…looks like Europe. Mmm, blackened alligator, beer and beignets, what more could you ask for? Walking through, you can hardly imagine there was ever a hurricane there. There are street performers and artists, expensive bars and restaurants – everyone seems to be having the time of their life.

Now we can move to Gentilly, where we worked on the home of a classic southern matriarch named Shirley. We installed doors, cleaned, repainted her windows, and retiled her basement. Shirley is one of the few people on her block, really on any of the blocks in the neighborhood. Where she lives remains largely a ghost town, though those who have come back are emphatic about staying. The neighborhood was extremely friendly. We received constant smiles, hellos, and god bless you’s. Shirley’s house was one of the many to be spray painted with TFW, which we soon learned meant ten feet of water. Her house needed tiling, painting, staining, doors, windows and the like, though she was still lacking plumbing and electricity when we left, and remains, hopefully not for long, in the FEMA trailer parked in her front yard.
Finally let’s land in the Ninth Ward, if there’s anything really to land on. Here it looks as if Katrina struck yesterday or a bombing leveled the city. Houses are still on top of cars and blocks away from their foundations. Plots of land which were once people’s great pride are either rubble or totally cleared away. We talked to some workers gutting a school that was going to be rebuilt. The city is making the schools their highest priorty—that’s why they have just now started rebuilding the hundreds of schools damaged by Katrina. Most of the people we talked to there believe without a doubt that the levees were bombed to avoid damage to the French Quarter. One needs only a map of New Orleans to demonstrate the so-called logic of blasting levees. At first most of us were doubtful, but the more we saw the disregard that these people received from the city, state, and country, the more plausible this theory became. The shiny casinos, and glamorous boulevard of Canal Street and downtown seemed eerily intact, perhaps through an effort to protect the money in the city. Rumors are abundant that Donald Trump is trying to buy out the property and build a casino. We may never know if the levees were bombed or just poorly constructed, but either way, it is pretty safe to say that if he buys that land, they will not break again.

New Orleans threw a lot at us and left us spinning. We helped out a fellow American in need and explored and experienced the beautiful and ugly. At the end of the week the disparities in wealth, opportunity, and priority glared in our eyes like the neon signs adorning Rue Bourbon. A year and a half after the storm, much of New Orleans still needs a lot of help. Residents agree they won’t see the New Orleans of yesteryear again, and foresee reconstruction easily taking another decade. The federal, state, and city government must get their priorities straight and allocate capital and resources justly to rebuild the city for the people that call it home.