I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
—Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers
This summer, I will be blogging as I conduct my preliminary dissertation research in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am extremely excited about the chance to collect some ethnographic data in one of my favorite cities in the world. New Orleans is a city of extreme contradictions and jarring juxtapositions, and has been since its founding by the French Mississipi Company in 1718. The city where “les bon temps rouler” is also a city marked by incredible inequality, poverty, and much human suffering, as shown after Hurricane Katrina and in the recent shooting of 19 people during a second line Mother’s Day parade. This is what draws me to the city — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I remember the first time I visited N.O, it was November 2010. I was in town for a conference, and I searched for the New Orleans city bus schedule online on my last morning there. After finding the nearest route, I walked from the Superdome Holiday Inn to a bus stop three blocks away, to catch the city bus #88 to get to an area that seemed close enough to the Lower 9th, a New Orleans suburb called Arabi. During my bus ride, I could get a sense of the topography of New Orleans, a truly remarkable city by any urban planning measures. Its remarkable that people have attempted to live on such flood prone areas for hundreds of years, forging intimate, daily connections to water, particularly in the lower lying littoral zones where may of the urban poor of New Orleans lived. In Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water, Stephanie Kane argues that the infrastructure of coastal cities (like New Orleans, the largest port in the United States based on total cargo volume), are places where the power of the state is made manifest through its confrontation with nature. This is where lines are drawn to demarcate those who are to be excluded and forgotten (Kane 2005). I got off the bus in Arabi, and I walked a few blocks northwest to reach my final destination. I noticed that the closer I got to the Lower 9th, the less noise I heard. The chirping of birds began to disappear, the sounds of cars and buses became more distant, there was no wind to cause a rustling of leaves, or flapping of shutters. The only sounds were my footsteps. As I reached the top of the road and looked out onto a panoramic view of the Lower 9th, I saw the absolute, unmitigated destruction. Leveled houses, homes that were leaning as if their foundations had been bent, dead, fallen trees, upturned cars, spray paint across the front doors, faded pictures on the ground. I expected to see cranes, tractors, some vestige of infrastructure, but there was nothing but chaos, like Katrina had happened last week. There were no birds, no children playing, no doors slamming, no wind, no cars, no life at all, except myself. For the first time in my life, I understood what deafening silence was.
My own research is interested in urban planning and education policy in New Orleans. You may not know this, but shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the majority of public schools in the city were transformed into charter schools. My own research agenda is to understand out how this charter school system plays out in a city marked by such segregation and inequality. This summer, I will be conducting interviews with some school administrators, local parents, and collecting some spatial data at school construction sites. I’m still formulating my research questions and hypotheses, so I hope that the feedback from this blog will assist me in that process, and maybe help my colleagues with similar questions and issues in their summer research projects.
Kane, Stephanie C. 2012 Where Rivers Meet the Sea: the Political Ecology of Water. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.