Alt Break New Orleans: Not So Big, Not So Easy.
02/03/11
Special to the Jewish Week
Alex Rubin
Alex Rubin

When one mentions New Orleans to anyone who has been there, they generally respond with stupor-induced memories of the French Quarter and vague recollections of jazz.

That’s the experience I half expected when I traveled to the Big Easy with fellow City University of New York students on a Hillel trip set up through Jewish Funds for Justice. They told me in advance that I would be doing “service learning” and I pretended to understand what this meant. In all honesty, I was ready for anything, prepared for nothing, and somewhere in between hoped to get me some good times.

From the moment I arrived in New Orleans and gazed into the oddly foreboding eyes of the Louis Armstrong statue at the airport, my tourist expectations were stymied left and right. Even the rainy and surprisingly chilly weather suggested that my stay would not be filled with po’ boys, beignets and crawfish. I didn’t feel like a welcome guest but a dumbfounded, uninvited and invasive stranger.

Our initial reception in the city was not filled with Southern Charm either. We met with Nat Turner who had come to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina from New York City to help with the city’s rebirth. He has spent the last five years running, teaching, and farming at his eco-mmunity/school, Our School at Blair Grocery. He quite plainly told us that we were interlopers in the city, out for a quick fix of moral gratification before we headed back to our privileged lives. Le ze la bon ton roulette!

If that weren’t enough to desire a quick return to New York City, our daily responsibilities were. The group was divided into sections and spread around the city’s Gentilly area. We worked in the cold, painting exteriors of homes whose owners braved the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. My homeowner survived the storm holed up in his attic for a week. He made his presence scarce to us, primarily keeping indoors while we worked outside. If “service learning” meant menial tasks while miserable and freezing, I now wished I had read the fine print and respectfully avoided it.

And that was when epiphany struck. Compared to our homeowner -- and for that matter all the people of New Orleans -- my truly fortunate and cozy life has faced about as much strife as a housecat. I have never had to consider, imagine or experience losing everything to a natural disaster. I’ve never had to cope with the psychological scars of a week in water-logged isolation. I’ve never seen my city laid bare and broken, left to cope with chronic poverty and crime. “You know what,” I decided, “Stop whining, suck it up and finish this house for someone who, unlike me, actually deserves it.”

Even pre-Katrina, New Orleans abounded with squalor, whether it was geographically, politically, financially, educationally or ethically. While Katrina was a shock to the outside world, its citizens have always known about the city’s bad juju, accepted it, and, in the midst of it, learned to thrive. During Katrina these proud and self-sufficient people were suddenly rendered helpless to forces beyond their control. What is necessary post-Katrina is neither pity nor charity, simply assistance in rebuilding their home. It is the efforts of volunteers that help make this pipedream possible.

Yet, the people of New Orleans are the ones with the most to offer.

If not for their persistent hope, determination, and emphasis on community, Katrina would have undoubtedly wiped the city out. It was by the example of those who lost their homes and irreplaceable family heirlooms that I saw how even the most precious possessions aren’t what bind them to the city, but their undying spirit and loyalty to one another. They brought each other back from displacement and it is they who continue to keep New Orleans alive. It is their home regardless of the house they are in, and unless I understood this, I was not a guest but just another irritating, coupon-wielding huckster knocking on New Orleans’ door.

I came to New Orleans – arrogantly – to get something out of the city. I left without a hangover or Mardi Gras beads, but took away valuable lessons about the importance of others, compassion and humility.

Alex Rubin, of Columbia, MD, is a sophomore at CUNY Brooklyn College.

Last Update:

02/08/2011 - 13:53

Comments

In response to both Adam and CajunJew: shame on you both. It says clearly that this young man is indeed that- a mere Sophomore in college. He clearly went on this trip in an effort to learn about his place in the world and how he can be an instigator for change. And you attack him? How are we to tackle our society's injustices if we crucify those willing to name them? Adam: as I understand it, the point of trips like those led by this organization is frequently to take students out of their bubble, to see what work needs to be done and what institutional injustice looks like, so that they can take these lessons back to their own community and feel compelled to make change at home. He was taking a step toward that goal by writing this article. What gives you the right to sneer at any mitzvah? CajunJew: he spoke with nothing but respect and awe for New Orleans and its people. Half the points you made were already voiced by Mr. Rubin himself. You read one line you didn't like, then turned blind with rage to everything else he had to say. We must empower and encourage our youth and future change-makers. Mr. Rubin is our future, and I trust mine in his hands.
i think alex makes some great points. i think he pisses folks off because he is pointing out the historical inequalities resulting from institutionalized racism. everyone loves new orleans for its food and culture. these aspects of the city should be elevated. but the truth is that sustainable community development, resiliency building, developing local green economies of scale and empowering youth need to be incubated with a laser like focus on consequences and outcomes. everyone is welcome to criticize alex for his freedom of speech but we should also applaud him for his integrity and honest attempt to say something from the heart. criticism only distracts us from james madison's federalist paper #10 in which he asserts the importance of factions (advocacy and agency) to our experiment in democracy. we need to come together around issues of importance to the future like childrens health and urban revitalization (among so many others) without exception and make things happen by any means necessary. criticizing alex is easy. helping forge solutions in solidarity with our allies is and will always be challenging. but isnt it worth it?
Cajun Booster: You write: "Spending a long weekend in New Orleans doing Tikkun Olam is always a good thing. However, what clearly escapes Mr. Rubin is that the people of New Orleans have always been resilient and relied on no one except themselves."YQLeC But that's precisely the point Mr. Rubin makes: "Yet, the people of New Orleans are the ones with the most to offer. If not for their persistent hope, determination, and emphasis on community, Katrina would have undoubtedly wiped the city out. It was by the example of those who lost their homes and irreplaceable family heirlooms that I saw how even the most precious possessions aren’t what bind them to the city, but their undying spirit and loyalty to one another. They brought each other back from displacement and it is they who continue to keep New Orleans alive. It is their home regardless of the house they are in, and unless I understood this, I was not a guest but just another irritating, coupon-wielding huckster knocking on New Orleans’ door."
While I can see that Mr. Rubin has discovered a small amount of compassion for the people of New Orleans, it seems to me that he still has nothing but contempt for the city itself. From the beginning of the article, he demonstrated a complete lack of understanding for what New Orleans stands for and played right into the tourist trappings that are clearly embodied for people who think they know about something before they experience that thing. The debauchery of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras beads are arrogant social commentary that you find on E! or MTV or in People Magazine. Mr. Rubin did own up to his arrogance but still only experienced a minuscule piece of the great city of New Orleans. Spending a long weekend in New Orleans doing Tikkun Olam is always a good thing. However, what clearly escapes Mr. Rubin is that the people of New Orleans have always been resilient and relied on no one except themselves. It is because of the community that stayed in the months and years following the hurricane disasters in 2005 that New Orleans was able to survive. Outside help is welcomed in most instances, but when accompanied by a sense of entitlement and self-gratification, it is often refused. My immediate family has never left New Orleans and they never will. It is in our blood. It infuriates me when people who have no sense of what having New Orleans in their blood is about and still takes it upon them to form ignorant opinions just because they saw the city in a movie once. Even my brother-in-law, worked for ten months on the St. Bernard project to rebuild homes, admits he still only knows a small fraction of what the city and its people have to offer. I often invite him back to visit the city so that I can continue to show him what he is so eager to learn. Did you know, Mr. Rubin, that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is near Gentilly? Did you know the park adjacent to Gentilly is the second largest urban park in the country? What did you take away from the city besides humility? I think the purpose of this trip is righteous and positive. However, I think that people going to New Orleans on this trip thinking that they are going to walk away with even an iota of the spirit of New Orleans and what it has to offer are deluding themselves. Saying that New Orleans is a city abound with squalor is disrespectful and could not be further from the truth. There is hardly a city in the country with the rich culture and history that is New Orleans. From the birth place of Jazz, to the historic Garden District, and let us not forget the most delectable food on the planet, New Orleans will continue to endure, even without your help. The people of New Orleans call the city The Big Easy because we enjoy the simple things in life; good food, good music, and good company. You shall receive the southern charm that you seek when you take it upon yourself to visit the city, see all that it has to offer, and give New Orleans the time and appreciation that it deserves. A
What Mr. Rubin? You say you deserve nothing? You must work for the good of the people? Why do you return to CUNY? Perhaps you should stay in Gentilly and volunteer to paint homes of the poor homeowners forever? I cannot believe I am reading this story. For your information the entire Jewish Communities of Lakeside and Metarie were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Do the middle class black neighborhoods have a lock on such angst? Perhaps you could have visited the Jewish neighborhoods and volunteered? I am sorry. I just don't understand your point of view. Many Jews have lost their homes in Hurricanes in Florida. My parents lost theirs to a six foot storm surge in Miami. Nobody came to help us except Moishe's Moving Company. Elderly Jews in Century Village lost their roofs and still sit in squalor in Delray Beach. Noone helps them. Mr. Rubin, if you want to help African Americans, volunteer to help tutor the children of inner city NYC public schools so they can get an education and have a future. If you really want to do something provocative, protest against drug use. Drugs are what keep most inner city children locked in poverty. Make a real difference in NYC. Charity begins at home in your City. New Orleans can take care of itself. It's NYC that needs help.
The difference between century village and New Orleans, I would think you should have known, is that the people of New Orleans were living in crappy conditions even before the storm. I've been to a few areas of Florida and there isn't much sign of flooding everywhere you look. When's the last time you visited the lower 9th ward? An unbelievable percentage of people had no flood insurance there, right up against the river. How are your parents doing? Did they have insurance? Are they still displaced 5 years after the hurricaine hit their home? I am not trying to minimize the struggle your parents faced, just trying to show you that the people we helped needed the help just as much as your parents. The most important part of this trip was not necesarily just to help out a few individuals rebuild their lives. It was to inspire a change within us, the participants. The goal of this change is being put into fruition as we speak. On our last day in N.O. we discussed some service projects that could be done at home, in NYC. One of them was, in fact, tutoring inner city kids. I just received an email from our group leader today scheduling a meeting to discuss and plan our projects. So, in fact, we're doing just what you want us to do. I wonder how long a protest against drug usage goes on for... a full week? With group discussion sessions throughout? I don't think so. We wouldn't have gained in NY a fraction of what we gained in NO, of that I am certain. Oh, and please don't forget, this was our winter break and we were hoping to see some areas in the country that we haven't seen before and experience something new. I am happy I went there and not to Florida like most of my friends tanning on the beach.

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