The other night I attended a reading held at Fair Folks & A Goat, a lovely gallery/performance-space/design & crafts shop up near the Guggenheim. The speakers were artists & editors from New Orleans there to speak about two publications: Constance, a lushly-curated photography/art & literary journal in two volumes, & How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress (Gisleson Thompson & Burke, Press Street, 2010), part how-to instruction manual, part compilation of stories of New Orleans residents restoring order and dignity to their lives & to their community.
Both projects arose from the devastation Katrina delivered to New Orleans (& in particular the lower ninth ward, which the editors of both projects counted as home); both are powerful testaments to what people banding together can do to re-define themselves & their neighborhoods when disaster unravels & rearranges everything. And while both volumes of Constance are gorgeous — full of striking artworks & writing submitted by locals after the storm — I hope it’s no slight to the editors of that project if I now turn my attention to How to Rebuild a City.
So much of the post-Katrina literature & reportage focused on the travails & horror stories, the looting & desolation, the corruption & inefficiency of FEMA/NOAH and any number of governmental acronyms (an enormous swath of which is amusingly & creepily displayed in a periodic table of elements-esque graphic in the book) that vulture-swooped upon the wreckage to pad pockets. These are all vital stories to tell & re-tell, don’t get me wrong. But it’s easy to cross the line separating sober truth-telling from sensationalistic bad-news mongering, and many people writing about/reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans often — knowingly or unthinkingly — crossed that line over & over.
”How to Rebuild a City” does not cross that line; it isn’t preoccupied with the tragedy, the pathos. Its voice is something else entirely: an engaging mix of humor, how-to-guide homage & celebration of stories of average folks taking matters into their own hands and making dignified life possible again. The dark stuff is here, no doubt — I think in particular of Karen Gadbois’ story of old beautiful New Orleans homes being prematurely condemned & slated for demolition, & her research into the corruption & mismanagement of the New Orleans Affordable Housing Agency — but it’s not worried over & never delved into except to highlight how people did positive things in response: stories of teenagers getting together to demand that their school bathrooms have lockable doors, toilet paper, soap; folks banding together to clean up and stop people from dumping post-storm debris & garbage into a local bayou; a single woman who loses her business and home, turning tragedy around to become a successful demolition contractor; citizens making their own street-signs out of shutterboard & debris; fund drives to bring back New Orleans blues & jazz musicians who had left the suddenly tourist-less town for paying gigs elsewhere.
That’s what moved me most: how people fought to restore the cultural & art forces that make New Orleans so vital. So many stories of that process: activists organizing to hold a 24 drawing marathon for everyday citizens, recognizing the need to provide expressive outlets for an emotionally pent-up community (which drew 700 hundred people!); the “Roots of Music” program, which aimed to restore marching band music education to middle school kids (marching band music being so integral to New Orleans’ musical identity) — programs which had come undone after Katrina; Local efforts to restore the rich culinary arts of the city which had been devastated by the storm. And that’s just the beginning.
Even more striking was how all of this art & culture rehab was done in the face of occasional local opposition: one of the editors spoke eloquently about how some residents didn’t get it, wondering why people would focus so much energy and time on rehabilitating art and culture? There were, after all, houses to rebuild. But the way the editors of How to Rebuild saw it, there was no good reason you couldn’t restore your cultural heritage as a community concurrent with reconstructing homes, streets, bridges, walls. After all, what makes a city? Are its structures really more vital than its music, its sculpture, its carnivals, its poetry, its food, its art, its dance, its soul? What do we live for if not these things?
Learn more about “How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress” here
Buy “How to Rebuild a City” at Amazon here
Learn about & buy volumes of “Constance” here
All writing © copyright C. Way / Snailcrow.com 2011