Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina

Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina

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"Civic engagement has been underrated and overlooked. Koritz and Sanchez illuminate the power of what community engagement through art and culture revitalization can do to give voice to the voiceless and a sense of being to those displaced."
—-Sonia BasSheva Mañjon, Wesleyan University

"This profound and eloquent collection describes and assesses the new coalitions bringing a city back to life. It's a powerful call to expand our notions of culture, social justice, and engaged scholarship. I'd put this on my 'must read' list."
—-Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University

"Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina is a rich and compelling text for thinking about universities and the arts amid social crisis. Americans need to hear the voices of colleagues who were caught in Katrina's wake and who responded with commitment, creativity, and skill."
—-Peter Levine, CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement)

This collection of essays documents the ways in which educational institutions and the arts community responded to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. While firmly rooted in concrete projects, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina also addresses the larger issues raised by committed public scholarship. How can higher education institutions engage with their surrounding communities? What are the pros and cons of "asset-based" and "outreach" models of civic engagement? Is it appropriate for the private sector to play a direct role in promoting civic engagement? How does public scholarship impact traditional standards of academic evaluation? Throughout the volume, this diverse collection of essays paints a remarkably consistent and persuasive account of arts-based initiatives' ability to foster social and civic renewal.

Amy Koritz is Director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Professor of English at Drew University.

George J. Sanchez is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California.

Front and rear cover designs, photographs, and satellite imagery processing by Richard Campanella.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472033522
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/28/2009
Series: The New Public Scholarship
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Civic Engagement IN THE Wake OF Katrina

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Library
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11698-0

Chapter One


Richard Campanella

August 28, 2005: Dr. Ivor Van Heerdon, a scientist at Louisiana State University, states unequivocally in a CNN interview that New Orleans "is definitely going to flood.... This is what we've been saying has been going to happen for years." After his prediction comes true the next day, Van Heerdon emerges as the most prominent of a small number of university-based scientists who break from academic confines and engage vigorously in the civic arena.

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina's residual category 5 surge of Gulf of Mexico water penetrated a network of man-made navigation and drainage canals and inundated the heart of the sea-level-straddling New Orleans metropolis. It overtopped, undermined, or disintegrated certain levees and flood walls along those waterways, transforming the otherwise weakening category 2 or 3 wind event into a fatal deluge of unprecedented proportions. Nearly every hydrological sub-basin on Orleans Parish's eastern bank of the Mississippi River, plus all those in neighboring St. Bernard Parish and one in Jefferson, drowned in brackish water, starting from their below-sea-levelnether regions and progressing to areas as high as three to four feet above sea level. Hundreds of citizens perished; tens of thousands of survivors waded to high ground or waited on rooftops for helicopter rescue.

August 29 through early September 2005: In the ultimate display of civic engagement, hundreds of Louisianans rescue thousands of their fellow citizens by boat and vehicle under potentially deadly conditions. Federally, only the Coast Guard matches their timely heroism.

Nearly a million residents of the metropolitan region who had evacuated earlier watched with the rest of the stunned world as the apocalypse unraveled on television. It was not until September 4, after a harrowing week of human suffering, government failures, and individual heroism, that the last of the stranded citizens were evacuated to safety-and an unknown future. The effect of this searing shared trauma may never be fully appreciated, but it played heavily into the passionate public discourse that followed.

August 31, 2005: Ms. Mae's Bar on the corner of Napoleon and Magazine reopens and soon becomes a meeting place for neighbors who weathered the storm. It is the first of hundreds of local establishments to serve as civic engagement nodes.

The "lost September" of 2005 found scattered New Orleanians grappling with the lower tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, ranging from immediate matters of food, clothing, and shelter to long-term uncertainties about loved ones, homes, jobs, possessions, and finances. Residents of less-damaged Jefferson Parish and the West Bank of Orleans Parish trickled back during September's second week, while harder-hit East Bank Orleans and St. Bernard Parish residents awaited word from officials. Then category 5 Hurricane Rita struck, destroying coastal southwestern Louisiana, reflooding parts of New Orleans, and further delaying reinhabitation. It was not until early October that significant numbers of residents and basic services tenuously returned to unflooded areas. Even then, Hurricane Wilma-the third category 5 tempest in two months, which affected the Yucatan and Florida peninsulas-further shook residents' faith in the city's drastically compromised infrastructure. Only about 100,000 New Orleanians of the pre-Katrina population of approximately 450,000 occupied their homes by the last quarter of 2005. A city that was formerly predominantly African American and working class or poor was now mostly white, better educated, and professional. As in a frontier town, men outnumbered women, elders were few, children were practically nonexistent, and transient laborers seemingly materialized out of nowhere, toiling off the books from dawn to dusk and sleeping in cars and tents.

October 2, 2005: After a monthlong absence for the first time since 1718, religious services return to New Orleans. "People from every walk of life, dressed in their Sunday best or in blue jeans, packed every pew in the historic St. Louis Cathedral," reported the Times-Picayune. A poll later showed that Louisianians gave highest marks to religious organizations (followed by nonprofits) in their hurricane response, far ahead of all levels of government.

For all the tragedy and uncertainty, life in New Orleans in the autumn of 2005 proved extraordinary. At once reeling and resilient, the reconvening community exhibited the qualities of a frontier town crossed with a dysfunctional third world city. While mold and silence enveloped the flooded ruins of much of the city, higher-elevation areas buzzed with the sounds of saws and hammers. Historic Magazine Street became the "village's" bustling new main street, with 16 percent of its businesses reopening within six weeks of the storm and over 90 percent by Christmas. "Welcome Home" banners were draped across eager storefronts; proclamations of rebuilding appeared on billboards and in graffiti; and placards offering house gutting, house shoring, roof repair, and legal services ("Saw Levee Breach? Call Us Now!") cluttered intersections to such a degree that local governments banned them for public safety. Locals reclaimed the once-touristy French Quarter as a place to conduct business, bank, worship, convene, eat, shop for groceries, recreate, and reside (albeit temporarily). Patrons at local restaurants ordered staples off paper menus for cash only, waited patiently on short staffs, and took it in stride when blackouts interrupted their dinners. Flaky utilities, limited hours at grocery stores, curfews enforced by soldiers with M-16 rifles, and other occupationlike conditions turned mundane errands into achievements. In the flooded region, what passed for good news was the moldy piles of personal possessions heaped unceremoniously in front of gutted houses, a sign, at the very least, of life. Violent crime, once pervasive, disappeared almost entirely as its perpetrators, drawn disproportionately from the social classes affected most fundamentally by the catastrophe, remained evacuated.

October 9, 2005: The city's first post-Katrina jazz funeral wends its way through the Seventh Ward, commemorating a famed Creole chef who died during the evacuation. Unique traditions such as second-line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, and Carnival celebrations offer opportunities for citizens to reengage with each other through civic rituals.

A cityscape of resiliency emerged as the first autumn cool fronts mercifully ended the hyperactive 2005 hurricane season. Those fortunate enough to return home seemed to recognize the history they were both living and making, and they moved about with a sense of purpose. Human interaction was electric: emotional reunions erupted in noisy, crowded coffee shops, which, along with restaurants and houses of worship, served as important social and civic engagement nodes. Conversations began with "So how'd you make out?!" continued with war stories and reconstruction visions, and ended with "Stay safe!" Strangers at adjacent tables joined in conversations and debates and left with exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. Patrons pecked away at wireless-enabled laptops-the unsung technological heroes of post-Katrina New Orleans-to reestablish social, educational, and professional networks or fight with insurance adjusters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Everyone dropped Dickensian lines: a tale of two cities ... best of times, worst of times....

Best of times? In some strange ways, it was. Citizens were intensely engaged with each other with a view toward overcoming tragedy and solving mutual problems. Of course, those who lived in that other city, and were suffering the worst of times, were largely absent from the inspiring postdiluvial tableau. Their stories played out beyond the Orleans Parish limits.

Each morning presented new and unpredictable adventures through unchartered waters, and everyone agreed that only one source could reliably guide the way: a fresh copy of Times-Picayune. The venerable daily, long a target of local adoration as well as disdain, was now everyone's darling, having heroically covered the apocalypse firsthand ("We Publish Come Hell AND High Water") and reported on the recovery with journalistic objectivity blended with proactive investigation and steadfast demands for accountability. Citizens purchased the "T-P" at vending machines (home delivery was still months away) or navigated its Byzantine Web page and devoured the latest news like the figure in Richard Woodville's War News from Mexico.

Autumn 2005 to the present: A steady stream of faith-based groups, college classes, students on break, and civic and professional organizations from across the nation arrange "voluntourism" visits to the city, helping to gut houses, clean parks, and build homes in union with local citizens. The remarkable phenomenon is viewed as a triumph of civic spirit over bureaucratic lethargy.

High-stakes concerns about flood protection, contamination, health, education, residents' right to return, economic recovery, coastal restoration, and myriad other postdiluvial issues drove the energized public discourse. To help address the litany of problems, Mayor C. Ray Nagin had formed, on September 30, 2005, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) inside what the New York Times described as "the heavily fortified Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, a building surrounded almost constantly by cleanup crews as well as beefy private security guards armed with weapons." That hotel, as well as the First Baptist Church in one of the few unflooded sections of Lakeview, would serve as venues for scores of public meetings attended by thousands of concerned citizens.

Committees and subcommittees tackled a wide range of topics, but one topped the list and inspired the most passionate response: should the city's urban "footprint"-particularly its twentieth-century sprawl into low-lying areas adjacent to surge-prone water bodies-be "shrunk" to keep people out of harm's way? Or should the entire footprint "come back" in the understanding that federal levee failure, not nature, had ultimately caused (or, rather, failed to prevent) the deluge? That fundamental question fell under the domain of the BNOB's Urban Planning Committee.

November 2005: In response to high levels of public interaction, the Times-Picayune launches a special column (called "Meetings") entirely devoted to announcing meetings and another listing key contact information ("Meetings and Websites").

As a geographer and longtime New Orleans researcher, I pondered the footprint question and sketched out a methodology to try to answer it. It involved measuring four important variables-residents' desire to return, structural safety, historical and architectural significance, and environmental and geographical safety-and mapping out the results to inform decisions on neighborhoods' futures. Encouraged by a conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop-civic engagement in its rawest form-I contributed it to the e-mail circuit. It made its way to the chairman of the BNOB, which resulted in an invitation to present it to the Urban Planning Committee and eventually to publish it as a guest editorial in the Times-Picayune. The essay appeared precisely as representatives from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) arrived in town to advise the BNOB on, among other things, the footprint issue.

I later learned that ULI members had "hotly debated" my proposed methodology but decided not to endorse it because of the difficulty of measuring the first variable (desire to return). I was told that the proposal did help frame the footprint question as a balancing act between undeniable scientific realities, on one hand, and cherished cultural and humanistic values on the other. Subsequent public meetings with capacity crowds and long lines of testifiers proved that this balancing act weighed heavily on everyone's mind. "In a city that has seen a resurgence of civic activism since [Katrina]," wrote the Times-Picayune,

more than 200 people attended the [ULI] meeting to voice their opinions about what shape New Orleans should take in the future. The resounding refrain: Learn from our history. Many residents told the 37-member Urban Land Institute panel to use the original footprint of the city-along the Mississippi river and its high ridges-as a guide for land use.

Those two hundred people, however, were mostly residents of the "high ridges" they recommended for prioritization. Residents of low-lying areas, mostly flooded, were sparsely represented at the meeting but nevertheless managed to engage through their political representatives, the Internet, and commuting. Their stance (shared by many in higher areas) was firm: the entire city will return, and the footprint will remain precisely as before the storm.

December 2005: The recently formed Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, launched largely by wealthy uptown women, commences a determined, no-nonsense effort to consolidate parochial levee boards and unify redundant tax assessors. The group gathers 46,600 signatures by mid-December and eventually succeeds spectacularly in both aims.

When the ULI finally issued its recommendations to the BNOB-via a long PowerPoint presentation that was at once wordy and carefully worded-it gently advocated footprint shrinkage through the allocation of recovery investments first to the highest and least-damaged areas and only later to the depopulated flooded region. The news hit the front page of the Times-Picayune in the form of an intentionally confusing map of three purple-shaded "investment zones" in which Investment Zone A, despite its optimistic label, was recommended for delayed rebuilding at best and possibly for conversion to green space.

The wordsmithing and mapsmithing fooled no one. "Don't Write Us Off, Residents Warn: Urban Land Institute Report Takes a Beating," scowled the headlines after the recommendations sunk in. The article continued:

Elected officials and residents from New Orleans' hardest-hit areas on Monday responded with skepticism and, at times, outright hostility to a controversial proposal to eliminate their neighborhoods from post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. Even Mayor Ray Nagin ... said he is reserving judgment on [whether] to abandon, at least for the near term, some of the city's lowest-lying ground.... During the meeting, Nagin reiterated his intention to ultimately "rebuild all of New Orleans...." [City Council member Cynthia] Willard Lewis spoke with particular disdain for ULI's "color-coded maps" which divide the city into three "investment zones": areas to be rehabilitated immediately, areas to be developed partially, or areas to be re-evaluated as potential sites for mass buyouts and future green space. Those maps, she said, are "causing people to lose hope," and others to stay away.

Indicating the reductionist power of maps-a reoccurring theme in the footprint debate-one local politician, "noting that she was wearing a pink blouse ... said sarcastically that she should have worn purple, the map color used by ULI for sections of the city that suffered the worst flood damage."

December 2005: Uptown woman launches Levees for Greater New Orleans, later known as, to promote federal accountability for the Katrina flood and improved protection from future storms. The organization represents citizen engagement in matters traditionally left to engineers and scientists.

Mayor Nagin found himself in a bind since ULI's advice was intended specifically for the benefit of his BNOB. He assured an agitated public that "once the recommendations are finalized ... it will be up to the commission members and the community to evaluate it, kick the tires, say we like this and we don't like this."

Kick its tires the community did. The ULI report ratcheted up civic engagement in post-Katrina New Orleans markedly. It, as well as a similar consultation from the Philadelphia-based design firm Wallace, Roberts and Todd, became gist for further rounds of highly attended and increasingly polemical BNOB meetings during December 2005 and January 2006.


Excerpted from Civic Engagement IN THE Wake OF Katrina Copyright © 2009 by University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Library . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction Amy Koritz and George J. Sanchez....................1
SECTION 1. COPING WITH DISASTER Amy Koritz....................19
"Bring Your Own Chairs" Civic Engagement in Postdiluvial New Orleans Richard Campanella....................23
A Reciprocity of Tears Community Engagement after a Disaster Pat Evans and Sarah Lewis....................44
Not Since the Great Depression The Documentary Impulse Post-Katrina Michael Mizell-Nelson....................59
Another Evacuation Story Rebecca Mark....................78
SECTION 2. NEW BEGINNINGS Amy Koritz....................85
The Vision Has Its Time Culture and Civic Engagement in Postdisaster New Orleans Carol Bebelle....................89
How to Raise an Army (of Creative Young People) Mat Schwarzman, with illustrator Keith Knight....................101
The Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps The Story of a Local CBO's Response to Restoring Youth Programs in New Orleans after Katrina and Rita Kyshun Webster and D. Hamilton Simons-Jones....................115
Welcoming the Newcomers Civic Engagement among Pre-Katrina Latinos Elizabeth Fussell....................132
SECTION 3. INTERCONNECTIONS Amy Koritz....................147
Cultural Policy and Living Culture in New Orleans after Katrina Carole Rosenstein....................151
HOME, New Orleans University/Neighborhood Arts Collaborations Jan Cohen-Cruz....................162
Interview with Don Marshall, Executive Director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation Conducted by Amy Koritz....................185
Afterword Civic Engagement Is a Language-What Can Universities Learn from Public Cultural Work in New Orleans?Julie Ellison....................203

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