New Orleans’ recovery
From the physical and emotional wreckage of a city devasted by Hurricane Katrina, the new New Orleans has become characterised by social entrepreneurship and putting the wellbeing of its citizens at its heart.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans nearly nine years ago, it prompted a social revolution. Angered by post-Katrina policies giving flooded neighbourhoods four months to demonstrate their “viability”, and the incompetence at the Super-Bowl ‘shelter of last resort’ where evacuees were forced to wallow in the filth of 24,000 people when the bathrooms became overwhelmed, citizens soon realised that government assistance was neither timely nor sufficient.
Nearly two million volunteers rushed to the city to help with everything from rebuilding to providing free medical care, most sleeping in tents, and citizens began to organise amongst themselves in an unprecedented wave of grassroots engagement.
Within the Vietnamese community, those with building skills got to work, storing their equipment in their churches. The city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SAPCs), a primarily working-class African-American tradition of groups of musicians and dancers that perform at street festivals, mobilised, locating all of their members in just a few days despite the lack of cellphone coverage.
Musicians and musical organisations throughout the world rallied together to restore the cultural heart of the city. 72 houses were built by Habitat for Humanity in Musicians’ Village and truckloads of shiny, new instruments, from piccolos to tubas, streamed into the city and were directed to the legendary Tipitina’s jazz club. Mark Fowler, who runs the Tipitina’s Foundation music co-op, directed them to musicians who had lost everything; manuscripts, recordings, their instruments and their ability to earn a living.
Tipitina’s also became a make-shift community centre– providing information and resources for musicians and locals. “We had computers and wifi that nobody had access to at that point, so we were able to help people get on line and find out where their families were,” says Fowler.
Umbrella groups like the Neighbourhood Partnership Network (NPN), founded in 2006 by community leaders, popped up, helping to facilitate cooperation, and not competition, among under-resourced neighbourhoods. Most of these grassroots groups are still active; NPN runs monthly community forums and even publishes its own community rag, The Trumpet.
Researching the recovery of the city, Associate Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University Frederick Weil, says that despite the city’s pre-existing inequality, people with fewer individual resources could draw on the communal resources and social capital of their neighbourhoods, and the leadership of determined locals that emerged following the disaster.
At his inauguration in 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu set about reversing the trend of engaging solely with the city’s elites. He created 17 task forces charged with the rehabilitation of the city and enlisted the help of the new community leaders. He also established Louisiana’s ‘Office of Social Entrepreneurship’, dedicated to “helping replace services and organisations lost from the 2005 hurricanes with socially responsible enterprises.”
Idealistic newcomers flocked to the city in a phenomenon dubbed the ‘brain gain’. They joined locals in seeking creative solutions to the city’s problems, producing an explosion of activity.
The New Orleans Healing Centre (NOHC), a project devised by a group of citizens who wanted to participate in the rebuilding of the city, is one example. Boasting more than 25 businesses, from a yoga studio, to the Street University (a community meeting space also used to teach low-cost community courses), and an environmental business incubator, the Centre opened its doors in August 2011.
Co-founder Sallie Ann Glassman, who also runs the Island of Salvation vodou store in the NOHC, says the project would never have been feasible before Katrina.
“It was actually created as a response to Katrina. We just took a look around us and there were all these brilliant people coming from around the world to think tank about rebuilding New Orleans but nothing was happening.”
The Centre is also unique in that all businesses must be committed to the Centre’s manifesto; to contribute to healing on some level, and to prioritise the wellbeing of the community.
Glassman says that destruction caused by the hurricane and broken levees has acted as an opportunity for New Orleanians to focus on moving forward towards a better future; “We’ve worked out what our resources are and how can we capitalise on what we’ve got here, rather than focusing on what we’ve lost.”
Blues guitarist John T. Lewis accepts his new Gretsch guitar from Tipitina.