21
Jul
06

Interpretation

Planning and development frequently put “white do-gooders� like myself (thanks, Mr. H!) in relatively foreign cultures, whether it be overseas work or urban inner-cities in the U.S.  What we in the business like to call the “trust fund babies� might find themselves working with Tanzanian women in microfinance lending circles, adolescent Latinas on the Lower East Side, or displaced, elderly African-American public housing residents.  Connecting with people on a personal level is something I work really hard at, in any situation, but in culturally different environments (say, for example, New Orleans), I spend a lot of time observing, taking notes when possible, and trying to make sense of people’s meanings.  And sometimes their comments just stick with me. 

Wednesday night at a neighborhood planning meeting, one of the members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority – the state agency responsible for overseeing development (a la the LMDC in Lower Manhattan) – spoke to a room of New Orleanians about coordinating state activity with local neighborhood-level planning initiatives.  I’m starting to get a little paranoid about describing my work after reading two different bloggers talk about getting fired for blogging about their jobs, but this guy is just too good to keep all for ourselves in our idyllic Gulf Coast hamlet.  An overweight white guy, he first thanks the room for providing the pork chops in the back (most NOLA public meetings have food), for “pork chops� will get him to any meeting any time.  From there he proceeds to reassure the room that all neighborhoods will come back, even if the neighborhoods don’t look the same in the future.  But, he emphasizes, it’s important to make sure that all New Orleanians are “swimming in the deep part of the river� and are fully engaged in the process.  “No matter how tired you are,� he adds,� get in the boat.  We gotta go.�  Is it just me as an outsider, but is this incredibly ill-chosen vivid imagery for a room full of flood survivors?

He goes on.  It’s like listening to the Boston-Irish head of the AFL-CIO’s mutual fund describe working in Texas (or Mars, he quips), except I speak his language.  This Southern politico-business man, he loses my comprehension but captures my attention completely when he explains to one New Orleanian worrying about the details of the planning process:

“don’t worry about the view, just keep loading the wagon.� 

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