22
Jan
06

Feeling like I’m back in Dar, no passport required

(Note, posted on 4/13/06.  This was one of my first emails home to friends from New Orleans, written on 1/22/06.  I was grasping to make sense of it all…hadn’t quite got there yet.  Still haven’t.)

It’s really really unique being down here.  I often feel like I’m back in Africa – there’s an easygoing spirit here more typical to developing countries (or whatever it was I experienced in TZ), and a corresponding lack of organizational competence – in government, in processes, etc.  It’s really weird to come into a city known as the Big Easy for a reason w/the more traditional American go-getter, roll-up-our-sleeves attitude of fixing things.  People and organizations here really want their city rebuilt, and sustainably (the likelihood that the feds won’t fund an upgrade to Cat 5 of the levees is a universal concern down here), but it’s almost like the folks we work w/have no clue how to go about it.  We work with groups representing predominantly poor/working class neighborhoods, mostly black (though there’s actually a lot more racial integration of the organizations than I expected), and these orgs have been historically underfinanced, since the city is pretty poor, and so they’ve got no resources and scope of thinking of how to actualize really taking back the city.  The state doesn’t really give a shit what happens to NO, they’ve left the decision-making for now up to the Mayor, who is a complete dolt – I have never seen anyone less sophisticated at politicking – it’s like he’s an ineffectual leader and an ineffectual sleaze.  He just can’t pull anything off!  The city as a place feels really isolated, and really abandoned.  And there’s racism, and inequality, and also complacency because overall people down here have a live and let live attitude despite all of the injustice.  It’s like New Hampshire on steroids.  (My only Northeast equivalent though there isn’t really one – and I have never realized more how much my worldview is urban Northeast, versus American or anything else)
 
I spend a lot of time talking to funders, and turning the feedback from my 2 master’s students in the field into big picture language for funders, but I’ve done a bit of the community work on my own and it would crack you up to see me out there.  There’s of course the collection of white-hippie-Socialist activists, who nearly drove me insane w/their we-don’t-believe-in-hierarchy processes that lead to pretty ineffective, stultifying, painful-to-sit-thru organizing meetings (e.g., they discuss how to discuss strategy rather than discussing strategy) – the other night I took over (literally – volunteered to facilitate a group strategizing session, took notes, and then summarized what their strategy was and their tactics were; though there was no vote on whether anyone agreed w/me!).  So that’s one image for you.
 
Then on MLK day there was a rally and protest march in the Lower 9th – that’s the worst of the devastation here – and the rally was ok – too many speakers, but many were displaced residents and listening to them was moving – but the protest?  No thanks.  First of all, I’m in a black velvet blazer and sunglasses holding a latte.  I look like I wandered out of Manhattan or something into this parking lot of a shuttered community center.  And I just can’t pretend to be the protesting type- esp. since I felt like I’d crashed the rally to begin w/.  :) 
 
But so far I like the nightlife A LOT – basically there’s no shortage of liquor anywhere, ever (laundromats have bars in them), and great music, and chill bars, and cheap too!, and I’ve just been dancing and singing a lot and that feels great. Esp. after uptight Boston.  I spend way too much time in the car - I forget that that is how most of this country is – and the city is SO much bigger geographically than I realized.  But I’ve also been biking some and it’s not cold here so that’s great.
 
The PhD from MIT that I work with on all this stuff is arriving tomorrow and we’re renting a house for the year. So I will be down here a bunch, commuting from MIT.  Right now my whole world feels Katrina oriented.  It’s amazing to speak to folks from the outside and realize how much I’m immersed in it.  It’s all consuming, like 9/11 was for NYC for so long.  It’s so personal to folks here, like that was to us.  Naturally. The radio stations are funny, they’re like, “Diva 92.3  You’re #1 station for Rebuilding New Orleans!” and then they play Stacey Q.  Seriously.  (And another African equivalent – all this American music that’s like, 10 years out of date)
 
The food is heavy, and being car bound, and feeling a little uneasy about parts of the city when the sun goes down by 6, it’s been hard to get out and get exercise.  So I’m feeling a little larger than I’d like.  But I’ve learned that I am in a pretty nice ‘hood, and the streets over from me are filled w/those large, fancy southern homes, so riding around there are night and hearing insects is pretty nice, and during the day, the city is so flat and people don’t drive like maniacs in Boston, that riding around the city is really easy and fun and a great way to check it out.
 
I’m trying to think of what else I could share but I think I just gave you a mouthful, you’re probably going to have to digest it in several doses.  :) 

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