NOLA Notes: A Dad Shares His Thoughts
Stephen Jamieson is an attorney here in LA, a leader in our congregation, and a dad who participated with his daughter on our sixth/eighth grade parent-student service learning trip to New Orleans. Here, he reflects on the experience.
The text below is based on a presentation at the November 2011 meeting of Temple Isaiah’s Board of Trustees
Moses at the parting of the red sea.
These people in the Lower 9th ward of New Orleans live in the red sea.
On the floor of that sea.
Only the sea that is parted so that they can live in that basin under sea level is a man made one called The Industrial Canal. It was built as a shipping lane alternative to the mississippi river.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005 it was the Industrial Canal with its man-made Levees that broke and overflowed into the Lower 9, not the Mississippi River with its natural levees.
The Lower 9 was inundated with 10 to 12 feet of water.
12 hours before it was a category 2 but at midnight it was Category 5.
No car to drive away.
No bus fare to evacuate.
No family to evacuate to.
105 degree heat in August in the bayou.
5 hours on Overstuffed busses to places that the drivers refuse to disclose.
Shelters without enough toilets and no showers run by red cross officials that refuse to give an information about how long they will stay in these places 18 hours from their homes, where these evacuees will be taken next and when.
6 years later the population is still down by a third and many houses and homeowners (not just renters) have been prevented from returning.
Still no services.
Imagine no groceries without driving to Fairfax or to Bundy or to Sunset or to Culver City.
Now imagine you have no car to get there.
Now imagine you have no money for bus fare to get there.
Or if you do have bus fare its only enough to go to the market once a week.
Are those fresh vegetables and fruits still fresh after a few
How often do you go to the market?
But more importantly: The flood devastated that community. Again and again we heard stories of the generations upon generations of families, closely knit, ripped apart by the storm evacuation.
Neighborhoods that included 3 and 4 and 5 members of the same family living in houses they owned all on the same block caring for each other’s children, watching to make sure their neighbors kids got to school that day, their neighbors got to work that day, their neighbors weren’t sick, the elderly neighbors were fed.
The Lower 9 was the first community in the South where large numbers of African Americans could, and did, own the houses they lived in and were able to pass the wealth thereby accumulated from ownership of real estate. This is real ownership. Not mortgaged real estate.
Unlike our common experience here in west LA, these people in the Lower 9 cannot pay for child care, elder care, food trucks or LA Bite to deliver their food, and they relied heavily on their neighbor for their very existence.
Now the population is dispersed, the houses they
built lived in and owned are demolished, or at least 2 of every 5 houses is abandoned unlivable or demolished. Why is that? Insurance claims are just now, 6 years later, getting paid.
Why not move?
The surrounding parishes are all white and they pass laws allowing sales of real estate only to blood relatives…… Does the Blood Relative Ordinance as enacted in St. Barnard’s Parish sound familiar?
In New Orleans, survivors of the Holocaust thought so and so did their children. They helped make sure a federal court found it unconstitutional last week.
Yes, last week.
Like the levees, did they break, and do the lives and neighborhoods of the poor people, black or white, not get rebuilt, because of government and/or social incompetence, Ineffectiveness, or is it intentional?
Does it matter?
Are we awake but not alert? How often do you drive without thinking ?
Why not just pay the $1000 or so it took to get there and just send it to them to hire someone to do the work?
Like here in LA, in New Orleans 5 miles away at the Touro Synagogue in the Garden District are big beautiful houses and things seem big and easy.
At Touro, like at Isaiah, we can claim to be alert but we are not awake to the covert or overt discrimination as to racism or poverty just a few miles unless we open our hearts to identify the need, open our minds to figure out a way to help, and open our hands to actually do something about it.
I am convinced the best way to open head, heart, and hands to these issues is to go with your family (in this case it was our 6th and 8th graders) to someplace like New Orleans, or perhaps South of downtown LA, or any of a myriad of places in our country where we allow this inequity to happen.
Our awakening was at a small plot of vacant land at the corner of Chartres and Colombarde in the Lower 9 called the Guerilla Garden digging ditches, lifting hundreds of 40 pound cinder blocks to build raised bed planters, so the local community there called Holy Cross could grow their own vegetables to eat instead of making that long 3 mile trek to
get processed foods.
We were also told by Jenga and our great team leaders, Suzy Stone, Josh Mason-Barkin, Rabbi Joel Nickerson, and Lexi Carlson, that the Guerrilla Garden was just as much about strengthening that community, providing a small source of pride for that community, as it was about fresh veggies for the neighborhood.
For me it was an awakening to what my 13 year old daughter, and her 6th and 8th grade friends there, we’re able to accomplish; and what they could and did teach us “older” people about community, in general.
So what now? I think the reason to actually go on a service trip, rather than simply write the check and send it, is that we can really understand where a need exists and think about what we need to do to fill that need, or other needs, and how to keep doing it. I firmly believe that putting energy into any issue somehow begets energy back and makes good things happen. Call it Karma. Call it whatever you like. But its valuable to the greater community.
It also taught me the simple lessons that there is great value in having someone in need understand that others actually care to hear their story. Value to those telling their story, and value to the community by really taking the time to really listen to that story.
A coffee in the morning at Starbucks is $3.00, times 365 days is $995; almost $1,000 for the year….on coffee !
What better things can you do with that same amount of money? Find a local cause that resonates with you and donate, or use it to help you go somewhere and learn what you might about a need that may resonate with you. And yes you can still buy your caffeine fix too.
Or do what our group did after some hard work we were proud of and find a great jazz bar in the French Quarter off Boubon Street that has great brass band music and free shots of vanilla or marshmallow flavored vodka.
Spending money in blighted areas is also valuable help.
We were glad to do our part. Both in the Lower 9 and the French Quarter!
It’s all part of our community.