Sunday, June 10, 2007

Community Building in New Orleans -Guest Commentary

Thanks to everyone who emailed about last week's Washington Post story on local bloggers. This week Laurel Connections is pleased to offer our blog space to Ms. Mary Wilson.

Rebuilding A City: Growing A Community

By Mary Wilson (New Orleans, June 2007)

Everything moves slower in New Orleans. People, conversation, metabolism—even the water trickles lazily down the gutter guards into the street. People saunter down streets swaying to some distant sound of music. A rail-thin man with legs like stilts, wearing a porkpie hat is on his way to nowhere special. A woman is walking a dog on a leash made from an old neck-tie. You can see the faint dark shadow of a tattoo on her left buttock through her cream linen dress.

I was born and raised in Laurel, and I suffered from small-town claustrophobia for a long time. So, I selected a college in New York City to live anonymously and unattached. But about a week ago, I went to New Orleans on a service trip with a group of 10 other Fordham University students.
New Orleans knocked the cocky independence right out of me, and ended my love affair with New York’s indifference. By the end of the week, my service team had forged the strongest sense of community I’ve ever known. The more it developed, the more it stood in stark contrast to our surroundings. As we worked with various hurricane relief efforts throughout the city, we saw what it looks like when communities are abandoned.

I’ll never forget riding into New Orleans for the first time. Seeing house after abandoned house spray-painted with “TFW”—shorthand for Toxic Flood Water. The huge “X” marked on every door in the most damaged neighborhoods, the bottom cavity of the cross reserved for a number to note how many dead bodies had been found inside. I met people whose homes were seized by the government because 30 days after the storm they were still in Texas or Georgia and hadn’t come back to claim their house. I passed countless schools, churches, storefronts that had been boarded up since August 2005.

The most dramatic devastation was due to Katrina, but the more insidious damage is because of the absence of community. It disappeared with the people, deserted by a government that cared only to ensure the safety of the city’s money-making attractions. One government official is quoted saying the storm did what the city never could: clear out the poorest parts of the city. The fear now is that the city will rebuild: right on top of the longstanding communities that need help coming home and getting back on their feet.

Seeing New Orleans reminded me of what I’ve always known to be true: that government must serve the community. And yet, by the end of the week, it was not the depressing state of the local government that stuck with me, but the hope I found in the local community.

Laurel is blessed with a strong community and an impressive city government that serves it at every opportunity. I have always taken it for granted. I finally see how important it is. We must cherish the community we have in Laurel and serve it when we can. We must continuously renew it to make it better.

We all have a stake in our local place--our community. But only if we stake our claim together do we stand a chance against the next storm that comes our way.

The author with her Global Outreach Team in New Orleans, (seated) Natasha Kayulu, Frank Rupp, Danielle Gasbarro, (standing) Sabina Antal, Mary Wilson, Jodey Ruthen, Sarah Cascone, Georgia Doremus, Ian Hayes, Fergus Scully, Brendan Sculley. Click photo to enlarge.


Anonymous said...

There's an apple that didn't fall far from the tree. Very thoughtful essay, Mary. Well done.
Mike McLaughlin

Judy said...

Wow, very well said. so much more incitefull than the drivel you get from network news. Great Job.

judy pohl

Mike Sarich said...

Now this is impressive. One feature in the Post and Connections is now sending reporters on humanitarian missions to cover the rebuilding of New Orleans! What's next, a full fledged international bureau?

Seriously, well done Mary Beth! I'm sure it was a great experience and hopefully your work will help rebuild an important part of their community.

Anonymous said...

I have to echo Mike's words - not at all far from the tree and I wish had the social insight Marybeth had at her age.

Erin Kennedy said...

Beautiful essay, Mary Beth. However, those who have seen NYC long term, particularly those who were there after 9/11, know that when the going gets tough, there's a surprising amount of heart in that town. It's the place where my wallet was once stolen out of my bag while I was on my lunch break, but it's also the place where a 40ish African American (I'm caucasian, incidentally) man once walked down the street ahead of my moving truck for a block and folded the mirrors of the cars (which were double parked on the left side of the street) in so I could pass by without hitting them.

You and your admirable colleagues also came from New York to give what you could to New Orleans. Wanting to give back is noble, and there's plenty we can do no matter where we are to make that "where" a better place.

fergus said...


i just stumbled across this right now.

you really capture the spirit of n.o. i can see the inner journalist emerging...haha