Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking Stock in New Orleans

by Mike Bosia

Those of us who study politics are never far from our subject. Fold the newspaper, turn off the cable news, shut the laptop, and we are left with the truisms that "all politics is local" or "think globally, act locally." As we enter the world around us, at St. Mike's, we make community our passion. Even going far away brings us back to the local. So we decided to take advantage of the winter break to invest in, learn more about, and take some lessons from New Orleans, one of America's most fascinating and complex cities, and the efforts to recover in the wake of Katrina and last summer's oil spill

Of course, we also hoped for a break from winter in Vermont. But it seems that the global effects of climate change might have conspired to produce one of the longest stretches of near freezing temperatures in recent south Louisiana experience. Our first lesson was, in fact, that the Crescent City was built to minimize the humid heat of summer, not ward off the chill of winter. More often than not, a small space heater was the only source of warmth, even in a room with 15 foot ceilings.

That's a stark reminder that global forces - even climate change - can arrive on the ground in such varied ways. And so we approached New Orleans in its complexity - a French and Creole city; once home to one of the largest and wealthiest communities of free men and women of color, but also the state made infamous by the "separate but equal" laws upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson; with strong links to our region of Northern Vermont through the resettlement of North America's French communities, and also in the ministry and educational programs of the Edmundite Society. It is a city with no medians on the broad avenues that divide neighborhoods. Instead, these are called "neutral ground" because they sometimes provided a physical barrier between "les américains" and the French Creole, black and white, rich and poor, native and immigrant. At the same time, this rich tradition of diversity has produced the unique sounds of jazz, prized literature, regional cuisines, and a distinctive culture and architecture.

We focused our local explorations on diversity, community development, and food politics, since I teach courses in these areas, and we were particularly interested in how communities speak for themselves and recover from the man-made aftermath of Katrina and the Gulf spill in an era of limited government and financial crisis.

In Tremé, recently made famous by an HBO series, we learned about this historic neighborhood of free men and women of color, French speaking until the 20th Century, where Homer Plessy had lived and worked with the Comité des Citoyens to challenge Louisiana's segregation laws. We stepped into the Backstreet Cultural Museum (across from St. Augustine's Church in the photo above), literally the vision of one man dedicated to the music of Tremé and the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. Often explained as a tribute to Native Americans who sheltered runaway slaves, Mardi Gras Indian tribes began more than 150 years ago and continue today, with groups making their own elaborate feathered dress to mask as Indians. Some examples are pictured in the Museum above on the right. Today, the parades are a contest between the different groups over who will be called "the prettiest."

In the Lower 9th Ward, we saw an amazing hope amidst overwhelming devastation in a community that suffered the loss of 4,000 homes after Katrina. Five years later and some of the
streets closest to the levee still are a ghost town. At the same time, a few private initiatives are proving successful despite little government financing. Make it Right New Orleans has built more than 50 homes, with a goal of 100 more, close in against the levee where the flooding began, all using the most advanced green technology and designed to resist damage from major storms. Yet, this model community, as the image indicates, sits side-by-side with the legacy of Katrina, even so long after the storm itself has passed.

Just a few blocks away is Our School at Blair Grocery, a sustainable farm and educational
program that helps young people from the Lower 9th prepare for the GED while teaching about sustainable agriculture and growing healthy food for the neighborhood at affordable prices. They also market their produce to some of the best restaurants in New Orleans. In this photo, Vincent is joined by Brennan, the farm manager, in preparing soil for seedlings. Remember, the temperature was hovering around 40 that morning.

Only two years old, the school has a compost and worm operation, greenhouses, growing a range of greens and sprouts, and a plan to preserve the mirliton, a celebrated local vegetable. OSBG is gaining acceptance in the community and national attention. One reminder on the wall of their open air classroom: "You can vote to change this system 3 times a day."

Their success is just one part of a food transformation in New Orleans, where individual initiative is working to reclaim lands for small scale and sustainable agriculture, developing farmers markets, and cultivating relationship between farms and restaurants. With its rich tradition of French-inspired Creole cuisine, Cajun foods, Soul Food, and the cooking of immigrant communities, the city is already known for eating. Now local chefs are encouraging new food communities that link responsible practices and sustainable development from farm-to-table. One of our favorites was Satsuma Cafe in Bywater, named for a famous local variety of citrus. Satsuma is one of OSBG's restaurant clients.

As the new semester begins this week and we remember the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., these lessons will find their way into my classroom. In part because they are so profoundly local, but at the same time because there are such awesome examples of government neglect and hostility alongside an inspiration manifest in the hope and initiative of communities. Certainly with a Sunday New York Times story about OSBG, and a variety of eating experiences from Louisiana's far different economy and geography, I have new insights and a little Louisiana flavor to offer students in The Politics of Food over the next few weeks. And as I revisit and revise courses in the semesters ahead, I will draw on these experiences of politics to take stock of the varied local responses to the pressing global concerns of our day.

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