No More Turning Away

Stanislav Kupferschmidt

Workers celebrating their work on the first house in the Upper 9th Ward to be built of Structural Concrete Integrated Panels, able to withstand 220 mile hurricane winds. This is part of the “Rebuild Green” project. What you see is the garage; on top of this will be the house – living quarters will be 10 feet above sea level. Photo: Jaime Hazardevery

I've been working in New Orleans at the Common Ground 7th Ward Family Shelter, living with the residents 24 hours a day, sharing the same food, cigarettes, conversation and space. At times it becomes extremely hectic, and the noise generated by 13 individuals of all ages can be overwhelming. But being awoken by kids who find joy in the simple act of a hug or strange face and playing a role in finding families housing in a houseless city make it worth it.

There's a feeling of despair here - this is not the America I thought I knew. The level of poverty and lack of housing and sanitation is incomparable to anywhere I have been in this nation. It's like I stepped into a developing nation within the richest country in the world. Rats and cockroaches are more common than squirrels or pigeons and the smell of rot from surrounding buildings is intense. Rent in the city has skyrocketed. Many people I talk to explain the difficulties in finding housing prior to the storm, with their needs now being nearly impossible to meet.

Obviously, this desperation turns to desperate actions. Conflicts are rarely settled through peaceful negotiation but easily escalate to threats and violence. Gun shots echo near our shelter every few days. With little resources, copper piping is expropriated for income from abandoned and inhabited homes, schools, churches, seminaries, housing projects and even volunteer housing.

Meanwhile, the city and local businesses brag of the restored parts of New Orleans, boasting that there are more restaurants standing than before Katrina. The French Quarter is bustling with white tourists ready to throw their money away on beer, restaurants and strip clubs, oblivious to the reality of the wasteland three blocks away. Mocking T-shirts are sold, joking about the misery the local survivors struggle with every day. Yes indeed, segregation is alive and thriving in 2007.

Now the city talks of building casinos over the Lower 9th Ward. The multi-million dollar project would forever erase a neighborhood where residents have lived for generations and one has lived for 100 years, determined to stay. In some ways I am filled with rage about the city administration expropriating land from low-income people; on the other hand I cannot blame its search for the easiest means to create more capital to deal with this devastation.

If the billions of dollars taken from tax payers for this war were diverted towards rebuilding New Orleans for just one day, and implemented in an equitable and just way, the possibilities for hope and renewal would be there. But the war still wages and I can't help but think of the parallel in consequence and appearance of the violence in Iraq and the neglect of so many areas in New Orleans that resemble a war zone.

Local and nationwide efforts to rebuild are essential and give me hope, but truly are not making enough of an impact. I'm not being cynical; I just can't say how that will happen unless those who hold the power of national expenditures have a shift in thinking and stop ignoring the devastation that exists within their own borders.

Simultaneously, I cannot ignore the overwhelming resilience and spirit of strength I have seen here. Amidst the despair of the abandoned 7th Ward, the hopeful laughter of children can be heard. Their families, however few, have moved back. They are rebuilding and proudly willing to reestablish their lives and homes.

The courage of grassroots organizations is also stirring. For the sake of solidarity and action, many volunteers who initially planned to stay for a spring break have ended up putting their lives on hold for a year. One organization, "Abstract Cafe," a homeless shelter for over 60 homeless men, is led by a 63 year-old woman. She works with no other staff and no salary. The city and wealthy neighbors are trying to shut down the organization due to its close proximity to the now gentrified area east of the French Quarter. As we all know, people who live in comfort don't want to see poverty, let alone live near it, no matter how widespread it is. Despite all this, she stands and fights hourly.

Most of all I cannot overlook this spirit of resistance in so many of our shelter residents. Single mothers, who want and truly believe in a safe and secure New Orleans for their children; children who leave the shelter at 6 am to catch the bus and travel to one of few staffed schools; people who are struggling within this desperate housing situation and face physical or mental health issues; yet all hold an unshakable humor and courage that I have never before encountered.

These are the people, immersed in a system of injustice and oppression yet still proud and hopeful, working to create the New Orleans they want to see in the midst of what I initially and still often only perceive as despair. They are the heroes of America.

Stanislav is a retired social worker and organizer from Montreal, Canada who smells oppression from far away.