Sunday, June 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Terrence, and Thank you, U of Wisconsin!

Our dear neighborhood friend, Terrence, turned 16 on Friday, which made me sad (surprise, surprise). Mostly I am sad because Terrence didn't call us--as he usually does--to say, "It's my birthday!!!" and now I worry that he's turned jaded teenager--too cool for the square white teacher-couple from his old New Orleans neighborhood.

No. That can't be true. Not my Terrence!

Actually, he probably wanted to call but was unable to, which makes me feel badly (surprise, surPRISE) because the last time we spoke he was asking us to by him minutes for his cell phone. We said no, thinking we were protecting him from himself. You know: Terrence watches too much TV, Terrence plays too many video games, Terrence gives too much of a crap about his darned cell phone. All of this is true.

But so do Terrence's parents work too hard. And so does Terrence have to share with Jabari, who isn't his real brother (or cousin, or related, even), and who is living with Terrence and his family, now, in Houston (thank God--since Jabari's mother is a Lost Cause of perpetual front stoop-dom). And so does Terrence miss New Orleans. I know he does.

The last time I spoke to Terrence he asked if we were still moving "down the other side of the canal."

"Yes, we're still moving," I told him. "Someday."

"Well, then I don't even want to move back to New Orleans if y'all movin' down there."

"Terrence, it's close enough that you can ride a bike, so don't even go trying to make me feel guilty."

Terrence is good at making me feel bad. He's got me that way. But then again, everyone/everything does, I suppose.

Terrence has been saying for months that they are moving back, and I've never believed it, but recently, the house they lived in was fixed up (finally--shoddily but at least and finally). So maybe he will come home.

Part of me doesn't want him to, as much as I miss him. He's older now, and I think this is a bad place for a sixteen-year-old male whose best friends are the white teachers up the street. We can't protect him.

But the more I think about the way that we forged a relationship with Terrence's parents, the more I realize that it really does take Getting to Know Your Neighbors to quell irrational fears. So that is what we will do when we (finally--ever?!?!?!) move to Holy Cross.

Last Thursday, we went to a Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting. I'd not been since the Christmas party, and since then, the venue has changed from a Holy Cross School trailer to a little old restored church near the river.

When we entered the church, there were video cameras rolling. The cameraman's assistant told us to skooch on by. So we did, and sat down in two of the folding chairs.

The topic was crime, and the first thing I noticed was how many young and altruistic-looking white folks were busily scribbling notes. I was sitting next to a young man who seemed to be a reporter. He had New Yorker tennis shoes on--hip and nerdy ones, and he seemed unhurried and had good reporterly penmanship. He made me feel as though I should be jotting down notes, too, so I did.

The first note I wrote: "We're not used to seeing the police."

One late middle-age white woman was sharing her cop-sightings: two cars in one week.

Simon and I have noticed the lack of police presence in Holy Cross, but we try not to think about it. Evidently, though, the lack of presence has meant continued problems with theft. One elderly black woman reported that her generator and compressor were stolen from her house-in-progress. She called the cops at 1 pm, at 2, and then at 6. No one ever showed. Later the next day, she saw a patrol car and she stopped to tell the cop about the robbery and the lack of response. He told her that for issues like that, she should call the guard.

"But we don't have a number for the Guard," she told him.

She reported that he looked at her like, "I'm just doing what I gotta do." "He was just down her to lock up his mama's house," she said.

There were other stories like this one, and later, commander Schaubhutt (sp?) from the 5th District explained the real problem: There are simply not enough police to go around.

"Do y'all even realize that we have issues down here?" one woman asked. "I mean, don't you think that if the criminals know y'all are all over Central City, and they know that there's no one looking after the Lower Nine--don't you think they're smart enough to come down here?"

Officer S said, "Look, Ma'am" (never an encouraging way to begin a sentence), I'm just hear to listen, I can't say anything that'll get me into trouble."

"Well, what would you say that could cause trouble?"

He chuckled. "Now, there you go again! I'm not going into that."

"Well, so what are you doing here listening? If you say you are here to listen, then what, exactly, do you plan to do with that information?"

There was no answer to that question.

Now, you might think that this would scare us away, but I have to say, this meeting was UP-LIFTING!!! It was IN a church, and it felt like GOING TO CHURCH, because here were all these different people--tough-as-nails old ladies, middle-aged black couples, white ladies (come to think of it, I don't recall seeing many white men)--and they were all coming together, asking questions that mattered. And when the cop left, they all--we all--banded together and made a plan to make calls and write letters and to stick together. It was neighborly, damnit, and it felt really, really good.

On Friday, in fact, we went to an HCNA crab boil at Caffin and Florida in the Lower Nine north of St. Claude. The crab boil was sponsored by some of those altruistic white folks, a group of graduate students from the University of Wisconsin who are working on a wetlands restoration project.

When Simon and I arrived, we asked the group's leader-- wiry Asian man named Herb--what their work was all about.

For starters, he showed us the Bayou Bienvenue wetlands, which I had no idea were just on the other side of Florida Avenue. Herb explained that at one time, the wetlands were filled with cypress trees--a fact confirmed by arial photos from the 50s, and by one elderly resident from the Lower Nine who remembered fishing in the swamp there as a boy.

Now, the wetlands look like this:

Those specs are dead cypress stumps and knees. I asked if this was what the bayou looked like because of the storm.

"No," Herb said. "This was caused by saltwater intrusion--most likely by MR-GO."

Briefly: the MR-GO is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It was built in the 60s to provide a quick and easy link for shipping traffic between the River and the Gulf. Since it was built, it has seen scant use (but those who do use it are, of course, rich-as-hell shipping interests), and it has caused major wetlands loss due to saltwater intrusion. The Army Corps of Engineers (I'm sure you could've guessed they were behind this debacle) has debated the validity of those obvious correlative claims (MR-GO built in 60s--major and rapid wetlands loss begins in the 60s), as they have also denied that the storm surge from MR-GO was responsible for the devastation of St. Bernard Parish and much of the Lower Nine.

As I stood on that levee and looked out at the devastated wetlands, I felt so unbelievably sad. Also making me sad: to the east of the S&WB plant was a what looked like a levee. A big one. It was, in fact, a very large mound of land created by dumped debris from Hurricane Betsy. And we did have refrigerators then, people. So it's possible that the Corps destroyed Bayou Bienvenue, and our own garbage did, too. (The good people from the U of Wisconsin have sicked [sp?] a smart grad student on that, too.)

Yes, the folks from the U of Wisconsin bring hope (as many energetic out-of-towners have done for those of us simply trying to do the day-to-day thing here). They are working on a study that will likely confirm all that the Corps wishes to deny--and that will hopefully lead to a radical wetlands-restoration project that I can describe in simple terms, this way: the filtered poop from Orleans parish will no longer be pumped out in the Delta (killing fish and clogging parts of the river with plant-life that thrives on poo-water), but it will be pumped into Bayou Bienvenue.
So that one day, maybe my kids will have a crab boil by the bayou with crabs they caught themselves in a restored, rich, greeny-green swamp.

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