IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

New Orleans Letter Home

By students Alex Bentz, Emma Park, Stephanie George, Danny Bradac, and Gabby Kirk with the input of Estefania Sanchez (IHP Trustees’ Fellow).

New Orleans

Our group of 35 wonderful students from colleges and universities around the United States met for the first time on August 20th at the Kingsley House in New Orleans. We were provided a warm reception by the program staff including our traveling faculty for the semester, our exuberant country coordinator Ms. SherriLynn Colby-Bottel, and other members of the IHP staff. After mingling for the afternoon and saying goodbye to the handful of parents who had made the journey to NOLA, we were introduced to the city and to the safety protocols for our group. One of the first items on the agenda was our evacuation plan in case of an emergency. This being New Orleans during hurricane season, the plan focused on the threat of a hurricane. Not to worry, the plan arranged was thorough and solid, but at the time nobody put too much thought into it as we were assured that this was not a very likely scenario. Little did we know that in just nine days (on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina) we would be hunkered down riding out what for many of us was the first (and hopefully last) hurricane of our lives.

We bring this to the forefront of our letter because Hurricane Isaac forced himself to be the defining feature of our time in NOLA. Looking back, the trip is divided into three sections: pre-Isaac, Isaac and post-Isaac. The beginning of our IHP Cities program, almost all of our activities, and the people that we met, were all somehow affected by the approach or aftermath of Isaac, in some ways very practical and others deeply emotional.  Nevertheless, a sense of community was being built amongst our group at the AAE Bourbon House and once we were able to step outside, we witnessed how different neighborhoods (some more affected than others) worked together. 

New Orleans

Going back to the beginning, after the short welcome session aimed at answering our initial doubts, the standard “name game” exercise, and a brief introduction of our program, we departed from our first day excited, nervous and ready to take on the semester. The enthusiasm for the amazing programming and opportunities we had ahead of us began first thing, as the Executive Director of the Kingsley House had prepared for us a brief introduction to New Orleans history, in the context of our new classroom space generously offered for our two week stay. This inspiring welcome and hospitality couldn’t have been emphasized more clearly than by the welcome dinner that followed that evening and our temporary farewell to Joan Tiffany, the IHP Senior Director. She bid us adieu and good luck with stories from IHP alumna welcoming us into the IHP family, something that Pre-Isaac felt like a precautionary safety net, an appreciated gesture we weren’t ready to fully understand.

Since the beginning of our stay, we sought a deeper understanding as scholars but were forced to acknowledge that we were often perceived as tourists. The emphasis on tourism gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the ethical dilemmas we might face this semester dealing with travel and privilege. In response, we discussed our own mobility in contrast with many of the people we expect to meet throughout our journey. Most of us resolved to be conscious of the power dynamics inherent in study abroad and to give back to the communities we visit whenever possible.

New Orleans

On sunny afternoons we sat in Cafe Du Monde and had coffee and beignets with the unmistakable sounds of Kenny G softly being played by street musicians in the background. At every turn the mix of French, Spanish, Cajun, Creole, Haitian, Latin, West and Central African cultures with the perfect southern twang overwhelmed us as multidisciplinary thinkers and lovers of the world.  We simultaneously experienced the cultural fusion that defines New Orleans’ architecture, food, traditions, and people from any other place in the world while also learning about it in the classroom. We learned about music and how different sounds have blended bringing different people together to play or listen. We were moved (literally and figuratively) by the melodies that hummed through the streets and seemed to infect everyone young and old. While at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music we learned of the inspiring work the organization does with young people to help them cultivate their love for music. This center was a multigenerational home for many artists and we could feel the care and intense respect for the art of music being shared. We also learned about the famous gumbo and jambalaya from Chef Jason, and how during times of enslavement, enslaved persons who did not have all the ingredients to make a full meal would come together and prepare one main flavorful dish with sausage, chicken, pork, rice and all kinds of spices, with the intention of feeding many people and taking care of each other.

In so many ways, gumbo describes New Orleans perfectly: so many cultures, communities, and neighborhoods coming together to make an amazing tasty city; but like any other place, it is not without struggles.  With the impending danger of hurricanes and political corruption, the city has stitched itself back together with hopefulness, engaged in the continuous task of rebuilding, redefining itself, and holding to its traditions. A topic that the people of New Orleans kept bringing us back to was the importance of neighborhoods and local pride. New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own name, people, and history. Its citizens have formed very strong communities and support systems which were shaken and broken in the storms that have affected this city.

One theme we grappled with throughout the week was the question of rebuilding, particularly in the context of Katrina. We visited three organizations that provided us with different attitudes and strategies towards rebuilding and new ways of creating community bonds. The first was the Habitat for Humanity Musician’s Village, which is a neighborhood of new, affordable homes built by volunteers and aimed at encouraging musicians to return to the city.  The second was the Make It Right Foundation, which has built new homes designed by different architects and financed through donations. These homes are environmentally friendly and protect from flood. The third organization was Common Ground Relief, which offers local legal and aid services as well as the gutting of homes damaged by floods. All of these organizations work in the 9th Ward of New Orleans; this area’s infrastructure and homes were completely devastated by the storm, and many residents drowned before being rescued. We learned of the struggles of the people who are working to make this a safe and sustainable place for the future while still keeping true to the community that once lived there. We discussed who has a say in the process of rebuilding and if it is possible to maintain the social systems that existed in the neighborhoods. We left New Orleans with more questions than answers, but we were all moved by the perseverance of the locals in working to improve their home.

New Orleans remains a city defined both in its identity and its urban landscape by Katrina, Betsy and other past hurricanes. This fact brings about all kinds of memories from its residents, who recognize that this is not only a cause of natural disasters but also of human-made disasters.  Ultimately, it reminds everybody of what makes New Orleans a great and resilient city: its unrivaled ability to celebrate life and death.  NOLA is a unique environment: the birthplace of Jazz, a European city in the South, and the northernmost part of the Caribbean. It has seductively made us all fall in love with it, making the beginning of our journey one to remember.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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