Note from New Orleans
Greetings from New Orleans!
In April of this year, I joined roughly 180 other "voluntourists" visiting the now-notorious city to do a little work and have a little fun. The instigator was the biennial principals' retreat held by Perkins+Will, this year focusing on corporate social responsibility and what form it should take in the firm. Appropriately starting the dialogue in New Orleans, we spent our first afternoon aboard buses on a tour of the city — the whole city.
So what does a New Orleans 20-months post-Katrina look like?
The tourist hotspots like the French Quarter and the Garden District — the original settlements on higher ground that earned the nickname Crescent City — withstood the storm just as they’ve withstood dozens of hurricanes in the past. Buildings intact, character preserved, air heavy with moisture, and "personalities" all around.
Bourbon Street still swarms with activity around the clock, a truth I can testify to as my hotel was just a block away. Restaurants are in top form, evidenced by the weight gained from eating one delicious Cajun meal after another. Fauborg Maurighny is the place to hear unbelievable live music, and the Tulane University area is as animated as ever.
But when the buses left the high ground and entered the middle- and lower-class neighborhoods — the bulk of the city — the lightheartedness all but flew out the bus windows. I’ve included some photos here, hoping that they are worth the thousand words that I do not have to describe this surreal landscape of faith mixed with despair and renewal amidst decay, where less than half of the population has returned to a city that still had no comprehensive reconstruction plan in operation.
We were reminded that the major damage to the city was brought about not by Hurricane Katrina herself, but by canal floods caused by levee breeches. Sociopolitical discussions and arguments flourish, but no one seems to be questioning the science or the history. Check out historical geographer Richard Campanella’s book Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present Day for an illuminating story.
The volunteer portion of our "voluntourist" title was then earned by using one whole day of the retreat to plant trees in City Park, finish roofing and siding three Habitat for Humanity houses, and complete design charettes that will help three local educational organizations (Danny Barker Project, Dillard University, and Priestley School) secure funding.
Absolutely everyone in attendance declared this a personally rewarding and uncomfortably eye-opening event that you do not have to be part of a corporate group to experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about anything, but particularly to those who are concerned with society and the built environment.
The bonus? By going as a voluntourist, you are not only offering your hours and skills, but you are also offering your support of the local economy. I was skeptical of this logic at first, but came around after hearing locals at every turn thank us for coming. Hotel and restaurant staff, charette participants, Habitat homeowners, and working musicians all expressed their gratitude.
Retreat panel member Lolis Eric Elie, editorialist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said it best: come to play, come to work, but just come in order to bear witness.
Y’all be good now!
Leigh Christy, AIA
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Leigh Christy is an architect and writer living in Los Angeles.