Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking a Walk with Jermica

The second day I was in New Orleans I made it down to the lower 9th ward. Just passed the health clinic and the orange store where you can buy fried chicken, coffee, beer or gum, I turned right on Flood street. Before I got two far, a handful of children approached my car shouting, "Candy, Candy" and shoving a piece of paper at me through the open car window. The paper read, "The Candy Lady, " and the phone number was clearly written underneath.
Because there are so few stores, they fill a niche in the neighborhood.
Sure I said, I'll buy some candy if you will ask your mom if I can take your picture. The kids were game so I parked my car and got my camera ready. I could have anything I wanted they said from chocolate to twizzlers. Chocolate I said without hesitation, Twix bars to be precise. So they ran off and I stood there watching them run up the stairs to their apartment. It was one of the nicer looking structures on the street where many houses were still marked by the Katrina "X" the one which had the date in the top box, the agency that inspected the building on the left side, and the number of people found in the building, dead and alive, inscrbed in the right and lower quadrants of the "x." If the SPCA was inspecting, there were additional numbers for cats and dogs.
With two fewer dollars in my pocket and two candy bars stuffed into my purse I began taking picture of the crowd of kids standing on the second story porch. They were very curious and wanted to know what Iwas doing in New Orleans. Many of htem had just returned from other states where they'd sheltered for years before coming back.
I explained my project and one girl in particular seemed to want to know more, was even interested in taking a walk with me and showing me around. We made a date for later in the week to go for a walk. The girl was the same age as my daughter and bright and energetic and fearless. On Monday, after school, we went out together and took these pictures of Flood Street leading down to the river. There's a lot more pictures that both she and I took, so stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I have rarely been the subject of anyone's photographs and it always shocks me to see myself inserted in the settings where I am working. Just for the record, I thought I'd include this one, which was taken on my first day out in a house off St Claude, before I got down to the lower 9th. It was, like many of the flood damaged houses, wide open with the sun and wind pouring in. Like in Syracuse, I got told to watch myself and I did. I talked to the surrounding neighbors, called out to ask if anyone was home and then slowly made my way through the place. This house had a little angel stapled to the wall, made from that kind of cut crystal that is meant to make rainbows dance on the walls. The odd things that are left behind, like these curtains, suggest the house was well kept before Katrina.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

God's Eye and Other Street Art

While New Orleans is known for its music more than its visual arts, I found plenty to delight in around the city. More than once I was stopped by passers by and asked who had made these. Unfortunately I don't know who the grafiti artists were who made these. One person named Jeremy, a musician, told me about the artist who made this drift wood piece which stands on one of the corners of St. Claude before you cross over to the lower 9th. It caught the last of the setting sun beautifully.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I'm leaving New Orleans today and going back to my life in Syracuse. The people here have shared a part of their life story and the history of this city with me. I am grateful for their openness and honesty. What I am most struck by at the end of my stay here is how heartbroken the residents of the lower 9th ward are over what has happened in the aftermath of Katrina. One woman said to me that when she came back after a year of living elsewhere she may as well have been in a witness protection program because there was no one left who would have recognized her or known who she was at the time. She now lives in New Orleans East in a part of the neighborhood where many houses are still standing. Her block shows signs of life and rebuilding. The business areas, the nearby hospitals and medical complexes, the malls are not being rebuilt. There is now a "service desert." It now takes much longer to get to a hospital. Ms. Davis said, "God forbid you need an ambulance. When time if of the essense you don't want to be out here calling one."

She shared with me her frustration at how difficult it was to locate her family after Katrina, her horror at the way the communities around New Orleans responded to the plight of city residents, the surge of violence and frank racism that followed the storm. She shared her paintings of the Danzinger Bridge shooting with me, paintings which she hopes will help keep the memory of these horrors alive.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New Orleans Sky

The clouds have not been too dense or too frequent this week. We know that New Orleans has its fair share of storms, some of the worst in the world. Along some of the older streets there are live oaks that provide shade, but not so much that you can't see the sky through them. There are streets in the lower 9th where the houses are gone, but the trees are still standing. It makes it look like an old field with those big trees, something you might find further north. The concrete pads buried in the underbrush suggest otherwise. And, then there's the occasional boat by the side of the road. From time to time, it's a bit like science fiction.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Not the first time a photographer could not resist taking pictures at the St Claude Tires

This gentleman told me photographers have a thing about St. Claude Tire. He's not sure why, but I think it's something to do with how authentic the place looks from the street. I drove by at least six times before I had the nerve to stop and talk to the proprietor who used to be a ship builder back in the day. He has a long scar across his right hand from a fight he got into in his twenties. He got lucky; he can still do everything with his hands he wants or needs to.

At St. Claude Tire they fix everything that has wheels: bikes, cars, trucks, and scooters. I had a good time hearing a few stories about the kids growing up around here, the shop owners, and the people who run the place now. Just as I was getting ready to leave someone tried to sell me a Canon camera with all it's lenses and a flash.

I keep getting told to watch myself and having been offered what was clearly someone elses' equipment for the low, low price of thirty dollars, I get a sense that my gear wouldn't go for much more.

Even so, I have to say that I got a call at noon today while I was at the French Quarter festival from an LA photographer who was parked in front of a burned down house. He wanted to know that I was o.k. and then wanted to know if I realized that I'd left my tripod in the yard where he was standing in the lower ninth ward?
I reflected back on my excursion earlier in the day in the diffuse early morning light--well before I'd had any coffee. A little flustered in the company of people who, at least on the surface, could better maintain the appearance of organization than the phone call I was fielding implied I could. I had to confess that no, I had no idea that I'd driven off without it.

As it turned out, said photographer was staying at the Astoria on the Corner of Bourbon St. and Canal, just two blocks from where I was standing when he called.

This is the kind of luck that drives my friends crazy and that gives me faith in my fellow man, despite the Canon cameras, bikes and other things that go missing. I put my faith in those things that get found, like these people and the their life stories.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Similarities between Syracuse and New Orleans include warnings not to go lots of places. I met an architect from Montreal who bought a house in a neighborhood his realtor advised against. He showed up the outside, the inside, and the backyard. A mockingbird sang its various melodies while he showed me the tattered back ends of the houses that look good from the street. His demolition crew included two Hispanic men, one from Guatemala and one from Honduras. The women I talked to yesterday told me that since Katrina there's a lot more laborers from out of town. They felt it cut down on their employment opportunities and their wages. The carpenter putting me up for my stay says this is probably true.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Lower 9th Ward

Today I went farther into the lower 9th ward, where the members of the Bread of Life Church suggested. I crossed the canal. I followed Flood Street down passed the Candy Lady's store. There was a rise of land between the water and the neighborhood. You can see that the houses are below the level of the water. On many houses there's an "x" with the date the house was inspected, the name of the agency, the number of people found, dead or alive, and the number of animals too.

Mostly, I saw a lot of zeros, but occasionally, there were things like "2 cats", or "1 dog." I met two women who moved back just last year. One spent several years in Houston, another in Illinois. The one who went to Illinois said she liked it up north, even with the cold. She was able to find a job she said, and get away from the demands of her extented family, demands that started up as soon as she got on the train heading south last year. She thought of going back, turning that train right back around.

She'd never been out of the state of Louisiana before that storm. She was 42 before sheleft her birth state, never been farther than Batan Rouge before Katrina. She said the neighborhood is coming back. Last year she said it was really quiet, not no so quiet. She feels safe, she says. She likes it quiet. She told me the hardest hit area is on the other side of St Claude, where there's entire blocks where only the slabs are left to show where the houses were. WHere she lives, there's still a lot of houses, little, big, and a lot of that wrought iron, as old as the houses themselves. We spent a long time talking about shotgun houes, the skinny little houses that seem to be the norm here. They are narrower than the shotgun houses in Syracuse, 8, 9 feet wide, just big enough for a bed, and a breeze to blow through.

What has been left behind in these houses besides the water marks half way up the walls, includes everthing from photographs to dishes, suitcases to busted furniture. In some cases it's all gone, the walls are out, but then in and behind the walls there are little stashes of things like a child's toy or book, the old fireplaces that were walled over by new kitchens or bricked up when the times changed.

The boards revealed by the downed lath and plaster are wide and turmite eaten in places. The carpenters I ate dinner with said they were probably alder or poplar as we call it in New York. The bones of the houses still suggest hope of rebuilding. There are trucks everywhere. Home Depot, independent contractors, local and international agencies. There was a community garden, a community center, a health center. There are realtors too, putting up signs, showing people around. Like the two women I met today, there are a lot of families coming back, one at a time, and then in pairs and clusters.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Bread of Life Church and the Neighbors Thereof

Down the street a little way is a place where they feed and clothe folks in the neighborhood. I got permission from the minister to take pictures of the empty tent and then when they brought food from a nearby kitchen.

The People

By the end of the day I got up my nerve and started talking to people. I was afraid of my accent, which believe me, I can hear down here. Last night when I picked up my rental car the guy renting to me said that listening to me, he could hear his southern twang. I told him that I could hear myself too, that we were mirrors to eachother. I wondered if that mirror would get in the way of conversation, if I'd be able to start off on this new turf where I'd left off in Syracuse. The day wore on and the sun rose high above so that the shadows shortened and I started to feel my skin burn, so went into the shade, and stood still long enough to start having to explain my presence. Before I knew it, I was asking and answering questions. I am from the Salt City I said, here to find out what's the same and what's different. You watch yourself and your camera they said. Don't got into the back streets. We are not tolerated so we group together here under the BEAD sign. Everyday.

Views Onto the Street

From inside there were some interestig peep holes into the world.

The Streets

From the street you could see houses in all states of repair. There's lots of rebuilding. I haven't yet gotten to the lower 9th ward where the least reconstruction has been done, according to the people I talked to on the street. I skirted the edge of the French Quarter and went over the canal. Tomorrow the French Quarter Festival will start and driving around will be more difficult. I hope to get an earlier start and avoid the heat of the day. Here are some steet views.