New Orleans

This is my fourth visit to New Orleans since the Thing – i.e. Hurricane Katrina. I’ve had a really wild range of experiences here, covering most phases of the recovery: gutting houses, building a community garden, watching movie set explosions over the wasteland of the Lower Ninth Ward, dancing to some of the best music ever (including one surreal gig in the parking lot of the “Walgreen’s Sanctuary that was once a drug store and is now a church), sleeping in a gutted house in an area that was still under military control two years later. My previous visits were all built around a whole bunch of workshops and meetings to try to find a way that I could contribute to the recovery of this gorgeous and wounded city.

This time it is very strange. For starters, it is not blazing hot. Even my first visit during the April after the Thing was very sweaty. I know this is January, but it’s still tripping me out. Tonight it was actually kind of chilly.

I am also avoiding the worst-damaged parts of town. Even on the high ground that didn’t flood there are still many vacant and gutted buildings, and those creepy X-markings that the search parties put on every building in town are still found about once a block almost everywhere I went today. Even downtown there are large buildings with windows still broken. Still! This time around I don’t have any specific business in the square miles of festering ruins, so I’ll probably just stay in the places where it is possible to ignore and forget what happened here. I won’t forget though. I’ve seen too much in this city.

I described two of these trips in my old Benrik blog, once upon a time; visit 1 starts here and visit 2 is described here, if you really want to see the comparison. It was a very odd blog context built around a certain task each week with lots of British humour mixed in so please don’t take anything too seriously. Sorry but no blog for visit 3, which was for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives conference and several days of volunteer consulting and gardening.

But what is most strange about the current visit is that it amounts to an admission of my limitations. I have put many hours of work and thought into trying to figure out what I could do to help launch a New Orleans cooperative development center, but ultimately have discovered that I am too far away from it, as well as an outsider who only barely understands what is going on here. There is also an inherent difficulty in agitating for co-ops from the outside, and in trying to set up organizational infrastructure for a city that is focused on survival. It is better to have a plan before one needs it.

I have to admit that I bit off more than I could chew in planning this whole tour. I started too late, and as a result things came together often at the last minute and sometimes not at all. There were many people I would have liked to contact about this visit, but by the time I figured out that there wouldn’t be an event it was too late to even call and announce that I would be in town and available to meet with whomever. So if anyone in NOLA is reading this and  feels slighted that I didn’t contact you, please know that it isn’t personal and accept my semi-public apology. Then please drop me a line and tell me how things are going with your project.

I also need a break. This has been a really intense month, and now that my school is starting up and I have a grant proposal due this weekend I need to start looking at life beyond the road. It is now clear that book sales will not pay for the tour, so there is a bit of financial reality creeping in. On the bright side, I’ve made some great connections, and just tonight got an invitation to speak at a conference in Pittsburgh this summer.

So that’s enough about what I’m not doing. What am I doing? I spent most of today at Amistad Research Center, named after a ship on which a small but famous slave revolt occurred. I was rooting around in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ archives, which amount to 85 linear feet that has been catalogued, with another 400 feet remaining to catalogue and more files on the way. The audio tapes of Father McKnight’s interviews were difficult to understand beyond the general outline, but I came across a treasure trove in some of the Federation’s old correspondence. Most intriguing was a long series of letters (an inch or two of the collection) between the Federation’s founder and director Charles Prejean and one Shirley E. Greene, who apparently played a huge role in getting Methodists interested in co-ops as part of their community economic development ministry between 1969 and 1974. If anyone out there knows anything at all about Ms. Greene, I would very much like to hear from you.

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