Thursday, December 13, 2007

Only in New Orleans

Right now Lauren and I are both fairly busy. I have signed up for the GRE's at the beginning of January, and studying for that has replaced blogging as my way to waste time. That said, a lot of interesting things are going on in the city that I wanted to share with my family and friends back home.

During a drive through the city the other day Lauren and I noticed that there was a multitude of tents camped out on a city park. Unsure what to make of it, we passed it off as one of the many idiosyncracies of the city. Well, it turns out that this "tent city" is a home of sorts for hundreds of homeless people. Due to the destruction of many affordable housing units during the storm and a dramatic increase in rent prices after, homelessness has skyrocketed. This modern day Hooverville is located right across the street from the mayor in city hall, in a poetic "f*&k you". This story was covered by the NY Times Here.

To add another wrinkle to the homeless situation, the city council is in the process of approving the demolition of four major low-income projects. These are units that are subsidized by the the state and/or city to provide homes for the poor. This juxtaposition of destroying homes alongside rampant homelessness has sparked an intense public protest movement that has included threats to destroy private condos if the subsidized homes are destroyed. CNN has this story, too. Here.

In addition to the tension over the projects, a local scandal over waste management has erupted. Is nothing sacred? The city council hired five companies to fulfill contracts covering designated areas of the city. Well, two of these companies are going to be reviewed for not doing their job properly. Sounds simple enough. But the heads of these two companies are black, so there has been charges of racism and some of the leadership that was present at Jena has threatened action. Racial politics is everywhere here.

The situations are not black and white(pun intended). I do not believe there is blatant racism or predjudice being exercised by the city council. While it is true the projects are being destroyed, they are being replaced with progressive urban planning. The new multi-income units are designed to better integrate different communities in the city.

With the trash situation, it appears that the owners have not been performing their jobs and should be replaced. They argue that the ammount of trash produced is dramatically more than a standard contract because of the reconstruction of so many homes. I was convinced they had a valid excuse, until I read that they are being paid three times more than the average contract. You aren't being paid more to do the same job.

Anyway, all these topics are the talk of the town. It is the first time for me that local politics has seemed so raw and emotional. Just another side of living here. Only in New Orleans.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Meet the Neighbors

After a long day I walked in the door of my apartment and thought "finally, I'm home". And then it hit me: wow, I consider this my home now. During years of 6-month plans, I always had the underlying understanding that the place where I slept was temporary. Now, for the first time in a long time, I am rooted. A big part of this feeling comes from our apartment. At first I wasn't even interested in looking at the place (the rent was too high), but Lauren convinced me to at least give it a chance. We both fell in love with it right away. Currently, the furnishing is sparce. This is primarily because we both like to shop at IKEA and the nearest store is located in Houston. "We'll go next weekend" has been our mantra for the past two months. In the photo, our apartment is located in the upper left.

Another big part of New Orleans becoming home has been our friends. We have been very fortunate to meet some really great people in such a short time. Megan and Amy are sisters from Seattle, WA. Lauren knew them from back home and remained friends with them even after they moved down here a couple of years ago. We stayed at their place for a bit when we first moved. It was the perfect start to our time here. Megan showed us the sights and we would chill and play board games at night. Interesting people on their own, they also form a dynamic duo.

Devin is a friend of mine from work. He is a recent transplant from South Carolina who is great at getting the most out of his experience here. It seems every time I talk with him he is at a Gumbo festival, Gospel performance, or some typically New Orleanian event. In this photo, Devin is showing off his "red beans and rice" Halloween costume.

We also are lucky enough to have become friends with the other people in our building. Our landlord, Jack, is an architect by trade. He has been very nice in introducing us to his friends and making us feel welcome here. Our neighbor Brooke is a lawyer here who has two dogs, Lucky and Brady, that we watch sometimes and are both really fond of. She and Lauren often go on morning runs while I am still sound asleep. We had an impromptu dinner party the other night and all our friends showed up. Literally. In the picture are (seated left to right): Brooke, Lauren, Jack, Devin, Megan, and Amy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Settling In

Wow. The weather in New Orleans mirrors the culture. There is none of the melancholy "drink coffee or kill yourself drizzle" of Seattle here. Instead, like a Baptist choir, God let's his presence be known through dramatic bouts of intense heat and unbelievable downpours. The picture above was taken from my balcony and the river seen is the street in front of my house. People routinely have their cars flooded and have to just buy new ones. I am in the honeymoon phase of my time here and still enjoy these storms.

Every Sunday in October you can go to Louisiana's Maximum Security prison to see the famous Angola rodeo. Having been to some rodeos in Montana, it is safe to say the horsemanship and overall cowboy skills are not what the crowd comes to see here. Instead, the attraction seems to be watching men with nothing to lose risking their lives for a shot at glory.

The events are comical, and the danger is high. My favorite was when they released a bull with a coin tied to his forehead and then announced that any convict who could grab the coin would be rewarded with five hundred dollars. Dozens of prisoners went toe-to-toe with the bull, with several taking bone-crushing hits. When one of the men got crushed early in the competition, a concerned silence fell over the crowd. Within moments, the announcer hollered "How about them LSU Tigers!" and the spectators roared with approval.

This city is cool. It seems there is always something going on. From rodeos to concerts to film festivals, even this home-body finds himself leaving the cozy confines of home. We are both starting to make some friends here.(Well, I have ONE) The next blog will post some of their pictures. The biggest news, for me at least, is that we recently joined the gym here at Tulane. After over a month of inactivity, this access to tennis, basketball and swimming is a much-needed outlet.

I've tried to carve a personal niche for myself in this city, while remaining open to new things. So far, I have probably erred on the side of doing what comes naturally; reading, sports, etc., but hope to explore other aspects of the city soon. It appears that unless an effort is made, it is quite easy to get tracked into a lifestlye here largely dictated by wealth and race. For living in a city of over 70% blacks, I find myself largely surrounded by whites. And while I don't see myself joining a brass band or dancing to Soulja' Boy anytime soon, it wouldn't hurt to get a little more soul in my step.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hello Big Easy

Although we have been here only about a month, it feels like a whole lot has happened. I began work at the International School of Louisiana towards the end of August. It is an interesting place to work due to its international flavor. The staff is a blend of French and South American teachers and each student is taught in either French or Spanish. The major challenge seems to be the building's infrastructure. Built in the 1920's, there are major renovations needed to get even the basic facilities covered. The staff is a blend of French and South American teachers. Things have been going pretty well except for one thing: the little kids. On an individual basis, they are charming, but I wouldn't wish a class full of 8 year-olds on my worst enemy(Elton John). I might have made a huge mistake.

Lauren is working with New Leaders for New Schools. They are a non-profit agency that recruits principals to work in poorly performing urban schools. It seems like New Orleans is a great place to be for work in education reform. Before the storm, the public school system here was among the worst in the nation. A silver lining of Katrina's devastation is the tremendous attention now being placed on improving that sad demographic.

The city was a bit intimidating at first. When we drove in on the first night, I felt like I was arriving on the set of Boyz in the Hood. Bizarrely, down the block from the group of kids drinking malt liquor were some amazing old French colonial style homes. As we got our bearings on the city, that trend seemed to continue. The dangerous parts of the city and the wealthy areas are sometimes separated by a single street. The nieghborhood we live in is walking distance from the store, restraunts and pubs. And it is safe. Weird. Describing neighborhoods in the U.S as safe has never occured to me before, but that's how it is here. When you look for a place on Craig's list or whatever, the word "safe" is all over. This, of course, implies that there are plenty of places that are not safe. So far, we have heard stories but have not felt threatened in any way ourselves.

The food is as good as they say it is. I have eaten more pork products and barbeque sauce in the last month than in the rest of my life combined. And the nightlife is great. There really seems to be a "come as your are" mentality that results in bikers and gangsters sharing drinks with yuppies and hippies. Definitely more enjoyable than the "scene" atmosphere I encountered in Seattle. In addition to the food and bars, the idea of New Orleans as a foriegn country emreged in our many talks before we arrived. In a way I can see what they mean, there is a culture here that reminds me of my time in the Caribbean. This is shown in the style of the dress, warm smiles, semi-legal establishments and a general lack of modernity. Although it is hard for me to express in words, I think of the "modern" world consisting of autonomous people efficiently interacting within a framework of legal and moral authority. Here, it is all about who you know and what corners can be cut to best serve yourself and your friends. If there is a problem, either you have friends in powerful places, or you're stuck. Now, of course this description is far too black-and-white, but it gives a glimpse into the idiosyncracies of this unique city.

Katrina devastated certain areas of the city and left others relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, the wealthier neighborhoods were situated on higher ground and therefore the damage was not evenly distributed. For instance, the lower ninth ward, which was heavily publicized during the storm, is virtually destroyed. Still, two years later, the area has seen little improvement. In fact, Gorbachev was recently in the area and declared that if there wasn't change soon, he would help lead a revolution. The area we live in was looted after the storm, but is structurally sound.

Overall, we are still very stoked to have chosen New Orleans as our home. We are slowly furnishing our apartment and are now waiting for our first guests, my mom and twin brother are coming down for Christmas. Not too long after, our friend Jenn will be coming for Mardi Gras. We won't be here forever, so hop on the New Orleans train while you can!

Road Trip

Wulp, we left the cozy confines of Spokane, Washington on Aug 21st. Destination: New Orleans. My job started less than a week later and we had about 3000 miles to drive. We had two things going for us: Lauren had a nice car, and we have some friends who are kind enough to live near our driving route. The nice car thing is somewhat new to me. For those who know me well, they understand all my previous roadtrips were colored with a healthy, realistic fear of my car dying on the road. No, my car "baby blue" was sold the week before and was now being tortured by some sixteen-year-old kid with baggy jeans and a nose ring.

Along the way on our drive we got the chance to see my old friends Stacey and Brian in Utah. They are both pals from my days with Second Nature. They have a great cabin up in the hills outside of Salt Lake. Lauren and I had taken a trip with them a coupla years ago up to Jackson, Wyoming. We had to run pretty quickly, but we scored with some homemade zucchini bread from Stacey. From there we headed south, past where those miners were trapped. That was a sad realization when we recognized we were so near such a tragedy. The local stores all had signs of support outside and there were donation jars set up to help the families. As we crossed into Colorado on back roads we entered into some of the most beautiful landscapes either of us had ever seen. We have some special places in this country. While a sophomore in college, I had moved to Telluride, CO to be a ski-bum. Lauren's friend Liz is living there now, so we were able to stay with her and I could show some of my past to Lauren. It is a great town. Imagine, I could ski from my front door to the chair lifts. Onwards we went southeast to New Mexico and a stop on route 66. Conventional wisdom held we should stay at one of the big chain hotels, but I got us a steal of a deal at this hokey Indian-run motel on the side of the road. In Dallas we had dinner with Lauren's brother Travis. While driving lost through the city we saw some incredibly wealthy neighborhoods. Each home was a castle. There is definitely money in Texas. His school, Southern Methodist University, was equally impressive. As we ended our trip through Louisiana, we got our first bit of the local culture at a Popeye's chicken house, and at my new favorite, Cracker Barrel. Move aside McDonald's, you can score baked ham and mashed potatoes during your road trips in the South! The accent on the gal at the chicken place was so strong I couldn't understand a word she was saying, and the guy at the drive in window was roaring his demand for buckets of fried chicken. I had been the minority before while traveling, but this was the first time I was a minority in the US. It's a funny feeling. One of my little-known enjoyments is listening to Gospel radio, and in that regard I am truly blessed here. We cruised into New Orleans with the solid backing of a fired-up preacher. Hellooooo Big Easy!