August 23, 2007
Why I returned to live in The Big Easy
I just have to read what I wrote one week after Katrina, or during that first year when I was living in exile in Baltimore, to churn up the emotion and passion that is life in New Orleans these days. It is precisely this intensity that keeps me here.
For several months, my husband and I had been weighing whether to accept a generous job offer for him in another city. When we made the decision to stay, I knew it was the right one.
A theologian once said that spirituality is living in the more. By that definition, New Orleans is a very spiritual place. But it is no longer The Big Easy. We cannot take for granted basic services like water, electricity, streetlights and smooth roads. Insurance, utilities and rent have skyrocketed, as has crime. Mental health and day care services are a fraction of what they were pre-Katrina. Although much progress has been made in fixing damaged homes and businesses, there are still abandoned homes with weeds taking over the lawns and debris marring the streets of neighborhoods that flooded.
My governor has bungled billions in federal funds designed to help homeowners rebuild. My senator is in a call girl's phone book, my congressman was caught with $90,000 in his freezer and was indicted for bribery, and my at-large councilman just pleaded guilty to corruption charges. I used to criticize the mayor for not taking a leadership role in the recovery effort. Given his recent remarks lauding the city's high murder rate as keeping New Orleans' brand alive, I only want him to keep his mouth shut until his successor is elected.
So why did we decide to stay?
Put simply, life here seems richer, more vibrant, and more purposeful, and you cannot put a dollar value on that.
We who have chosen to stay and rebuild are like the chalutzim, the pioneers who built the modern state of Israel. We feel a part of both making history and making a difference. Fixing up your home, helping others salvage their belongings, eating out in a restaurant, even buying tchotchkes in the French Market -- all that makes a difference.
But what makes life even more meaningful is the opportunity that disaster has provided to reinvent an entire city and its institutions, from health care to education to neighborhood redevelopment. Dozens of idealistic young Jews -- including my 24-year-old daughter, who is working for a micro-enterprise project in the African American community -- are flocking to New Orleans to make that difference, enlivening the Jewish community in the process. New Orleans has become an incubator for these young people and their non-Jewish peers, providing them an environment characterized by a combination of significant challenges and significant responsibility.
Just as a marker of baby boomer status was being at Woodstock in '69, this generation's credentials might be measured by whether or not they were in New Orleans after Katrina. As an aging boomer, I cannot think of anything more rejuvenating than to be around these energetic, high-minded young people who believe they indeed have the power to change the world. They will be the political, educational and community leaders of the coming decades.
My husband and I are staying in New Orleans because of a sense of obligation. He is a pediatric specialist in a city with few health care resources; here he knows he will make an impact.
As a volunteer, I have been serving as an informal liaison between the New Orleans Jewish Federation and Jewish groups from across the country who come here and do the very unglamorous work of gutting and de-weeding and putting up sheetrock. Taking these volunteers on disaster tours and helping them have these meaningful experiences is my way of rebuilding the city.
We are staying also because the education that my 17-year-old son is getting by living in post-Katrina New Orleans is invaluable, despite the fact that his flooded high school is still not completely repaired.
He has learned the importance of self-reliance: If you see something that should be changed, then get involved and don't wait for government to help you. He has learned the importance of local community: The first businesses to reopen were ones owned by locals, and many of the chain stores have decided not to rebuild. He has seen villains and heroes in action, and now is better able to distinguish between the two.
From his parents, who have rejected an easier life for a more meaningful one, he has learned the importance of fulfilling one's obligations and valuing the intangibles of commitment and passion.
We are also staying for a less noble but no less important reason: New Orleans is fun!
We build into our schedule time to eat its great food, hear its great music, and savor its beautiful architecture. Just walking around the French Quarter makes us feel as if we are on vacation.
New Orleans stirs and then satisfies the passions; in the midst of tragedy, it celebrates life.
And what could be better than that?
Gail Naron Chalew is a freelance writer.