On our first day, we explored the French Quarter and tried some of the local cuisine. While walking through the narrow streets, I was fascinated by the French ambiance. Every street sign was written in French, there were countless restaurants mimicking French cuisine, and each house was colorful and had a European architectural style to it. We feasted on beignets, French doughnuts, while enjoying the allure of the street performers nearby. This majestic feeling made me believe that much of New Orleans must be like the tourist trap that is the French Quarter.
I could not be more wrong.
On our first official day of work, the seven of us on this trip made our way by van from our home base to the Lower Nine. During our 15 minute drive, it was evident that all of New Orleans is not in as magical as the French Quarter. I lost count on how many abandoned or destroyed houses we passed. All of us were shocked seeing how this neighborhood was still in pieces even 12 years after Katrina. When we reached Lower Nine’s headquarters, one of the staff members debriefed us on the history of the Lower Ninth Ward before and after Hurricane Katrina hit. We were told that 100% of the homes in this area were rendered to be inhabitable after Katrina.
You read that correctly. 100%.
Black homeownership in this area is one of the highest in the country, as it was one of the first places in the nation that allowed Blacks to purchase houses. Unfortunately, over 40% of families on the Lower Ninth Ward live below the poverty line. Lower Nine’s goal is to help pre-Katrina residents, especially those who cannot afford construction costs, move back into their old homes. After this brief orientation, our group went over to our worksite to start caulking and painting the house we were working on. While these tasks may not seem to be the most enjoyable, I have definitely had fun connecting with my group and making an impact within the community.
After our long work day, we decided to take a driving tour around the area. During this tour, we rode on bumpy roads, passed by many more abandoned houses and saw one of the levees that withstood Katrina’s force. One interesting fact I learned from this tour was how hard it was for the local community to obtain federal funding after the storm. Only Government projects and organizations were able to obtain money relatively easily. For example, the Lower Ninth Ward was able to receive funding from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The only problem was that these funds had to be used to build handicap accessible curbs, even though there are no sidewalks in this neighborhood.
Hearing about the suffering this neighborhood has gone through and how little help it is receiving is devastating. While some people do not have a roof to sleep under at night, I do. This experience has so far has taught me the importance of never taking things for granted as well as helping those who are less fortunate.
Solomon Lowenstein, Class of 2017