Why New Orleans?
I know I have that little blurb on the side of my profile that says I’m a YAV serving in New Orleans, and I know I’ve sort of explained it to people as I see them. That being said, now that things are starting to fall into a routine, I’ve become more aware of my reasons for coming to New Orleans, and how those have changed and will probably continue to change throughout my year as a YAV.
Before I even began the YAV placement process around this time last year I ruled out international service. I studied abroad in Australia my junior year of school, it was awesome. It was also super easy. Despite that I was hopelessly homesick my first 6 weeks. I had a really crappy roommate the first couple of weeks, I wasn’t home for the September birthdays dinner that I have been going to for as long as I can remember, Alexander was enjoying a lively fall semester at Rhodes. It was so hard while also being so easy. So yeah, serving abroad was a leap I was not ready to take, see ya later Northern Ireland, the Phillipines, Peru and South Korea.
With all of that in mind I narrowed down the national options to places that were below the mason-dixon line because I hate cold weather. I was born in Texas, I can handle 110 degrees, but put 6 inches of snow on the ground and I don’t know what to do. That alone knocked out Boston, Chicago, Chinook and Denver. My next round was determined by driving distance (which is kind of funny since most sites only allow public transportation and bikes) from either Memphis or Dallas. Goodbye Hollywood, Miami and Tucson.
That left me with San Antonio, New Orleans, Austin, Nashville and Atlanta. For some reason San Antonio just wasn’t even on my radar. It just wasn’t a thought in my head. I went ahead and did the first round of interviews with Austin, Nashville, Atlanta and New Orleans. Nashville and Atlanta seemed like a great places, but I knew after that first phone call that they weren’t a fit.
Which left me with Austin and New Orleans.
Austin had literally everything I wanted. They were linked up with Austin Seminary, you could even audit classes if your schedule allowed. The living situation was a pretty sweet set up. A whole herd of Texas and Memphis friends had moved to ATX after graduation. My mom loved the idea of me being only 4 hours away. I even had a couple of friends who were attending Austin Seminary in the fall. There was one not so small problem, ATX didn’t have volunteer positions available that I was interested in. I didn’t really have a passion or even a desire to get involved with what was offered.
New Orleans, well the living was not the most appealing (8 of us in a 4 bedroom house). But there was a huge variety of volunteer positions. Also, the site coordinator from Nola was the only one who I skyped with. I think that made a big difference. I definitely connected with Layne. During the interview process Alexander and I were figuring out if we were going to be pursuing the whole long distance relationship thing, so I needed to know that there would be flexibility about going out of town. I really liked the fact that Layne treated us like adults. Yes, we had some things that were required. No, we weren’t forced to stay in New Orleans until a certain date. No, we weren’t required to do so many things outside of the already scheduled events as a house. I got the impression that she wanted our relationships to develop organically. Also, as someone who prides herself on being independent, the idea of joining a site that controlled multiple facets of my life definitely spooked me. We aren’t required to recycle, or compost, or even spend hours with each other outside of our Tuesday meetings. We choose to do that. And that meant a lot to me, those things were a decision to be made by the community, rather than a requirement to be met because of the structure of the program.
In retrospect, New Orleans always had a lead over anywhere else. Not only did I know people in New Orleans, including a YAVA who was also my camp counselor, it seemed to have a personality, and a climate, that I would get along with. I found out after I got to New Orleans that my site coordinator thought I would be coming after our very first interview.
At first blush I took New Orleans to be like Memphis’s big brother. Memphis is a growing city, with a a hard history of racism and racial violence to overcome (MLK was assassinated there), huge socio-economic disparities (take a drive through Orange Mound, than go visit Rhodes’ campus), and a group of passionate people who are willing to fight for it. Memphis has a soul, go get a 40 at Gus’s or sit on the patio at Central. Watch the flippers on Beale st. or sit down by the river and watch the sunset behind the bridge. As I was narrowing my sites, New Orleans felt like a natural transition.
I don’t think I was wrong in drawing parallels between Memphis and New Orleans. That being said, New Orleans has its own, unique, history of tragedy, heartache and love. Racism has been a part of this city since its inception. The actual set up of the city is a direct reflection of New Orleans’ history of slavery. I live right off of Carrolton, in a nice part of uptown. Drive a few blocks deeper and you are driving around in the area Lil’ Wayne grew up in. Even in Uptown which is definitely one of the richer areas, there’s still neighborhoods that are deeply affected by poverty. And, of course, the wounds from Katrina are healing. Everyone here has a Katrina story in some way. Even the people who didn’t live here during the hurricane are deeply affected. Whether it’s students at UNO, homeowners who are coming through Project Homecoming or the members of Lakeview, Katrina has a profound impact on aspects of my life here that I wasn’t expecting. One of the coolest women I’ve met so far, who is a work site manager at Project Homecoming, shared a little bit about being shuttled from city to city after Katrina. She is ‘naturally New Orleans’, as soon as she could come back she did. When I was going to yoga with my host mom we passed by a plot of empty land where their house was before Katrina.
New Orleans is also a city of resilience. Every day I meet people who are willing to put everything on the line because they genuinely love this place. If you ask for a restaurant suggestions, be ready for a flood of hole in the walls that probably didn’t make it into a New Orleans travel guide, but are still amazing. New Orleans is a proud, stubborn city. Katrina wreaked havoc, but over time people have come home. For some it took a few months, for other years, but they all fought to come back home.
Can you tell that I’m falling hard for this place? Every day I’m struck by the soul of this city. Whether I’m driving through St. Charles, getting lost in the booths at the French Market, or heading to Gentilly to get lunch with Emily on her break, this place is amazing. Even the things that drive me crazy have somehow become endearing. How can literally an entire city be at least 5 minutes late? And god forbid you ask anyone to make a commitment more than a few days out. You may only have two people sign up on your list for the potluck, but the day of the event 20 more dishes will magically appear in the kitchen, ready to be served when guests start coming. I think that this place has taught me more about letting go, and trusting that things will come together, than anywhere else I’ve lived.