An insider's look at New Orleans
By Anna Glasgow
Special to the Salisbury Post
There is this place called New Orleans, Louisiana. “Nawlins,” “New Or-le-ans, ” “NOLA,” “The Crescent City,” “The Big Easy,” “the third world,” “the best place on earth.”
We each have our ideas of what this city is about. Perhaps you have visited for a conference, made the Bourbon Street run, helped during a mission trip, watched heart-breaking footage, or seen Disney’s “The Princess Frog.” Each of the above provides glimpses, but what is life really like down there for the people who call it home? And now, nearly 7 years after Hurricane Katrina, what is the status?
Let me start by saying New Orleans is very difficult to capture with words, but a pleasure to attempt. The most fitting single word for the NOLA experience is “full.” Whether your stomach is full of crawfish etouffee, the air full of live Jazz, your neck full of Mardi Gras beads, your calendar full of events, your glass full of Abita, or your T-shirt full of sweat, it is easy to feel full in the Big Easy. Not one of the five senses gets a break in this cultural smorgasbord.
I can speak from my perspective, which is that of an active year-long resident, involved in rebuilding, with an addiction to cultural saturation. New Orleans charms and intrigues like no other. There are jazz bands in fancy restaurants, hidden patios, intricate iron work everywhere, paintings and fortune tellers, trolleys making the round, and festivals every weekend,
Each neighborhood has a unique hum and each weekend brings a new surprise. Life here is so diverse. Folks from all over the world are having a giant celebration in New Orleans. A celebration of uniqueness, art form, religion, rebuilding, youthfulness, you name it! The combining of so many cultures makes for an incredible spectacle as well as flexibility, acceptance, and openness to all things, ideas, dress, and dance.
In its fullness of life, the people of New Orleans have also received a heaping dose of challenges. Deep pervasive struggle is all too common, actually. Of course, there was the devastation of “The Storm” in August 2005, but the city has also faced many ongoing issues both pre- and post-Katrina.
These include corruption, one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country, numerous environmental issues, a fair amount of welfare dependence, and a straggling public education system. Times can be very tough for New Orleanians, but of course, every place has its struggles. What is telling is how the people of that place deal with it.
There is a woman in New Orleans named Ms. Albertine Love. Ms. Love is both a native and a character. This giggling mother of 5 and grandmother of 8 has a hero’s story, a kind yet feisty spirit, a matriarch’s influence, and a special way of spreading joy — her cookin’. I think that a fair helping of her story and spirit provide an appropriate glimpse into life and growth in NOLA.
When Hurricane Katrina dumped on the city and the levees failed, Albertine’s home in the Gentily neighborhood, one of the worst-hit areas, took on 12 feet of water. Ms. Love decided to stay at the Hospital, where she worked as a surgical technician, to take care of 6 ICU patients for a week after the storm. She brought a sleeping bag, rationed her food, cut her scrubs into shorts due to the intense heat, assisted with the surgery of a man who was shot, and manually pumped oxygen into patients on life support. “The smell is something I will never forget,” said Albertine.
Ms. Love found refuge with her daughter in Virginia Beach, began the gathering of her children who evacuated to different states, and started rebuilding her demolished home from afar. The contractors she hired took off with some of her money and did not complete the job. Contractor fraud is an all too common story in the aftermath of Katrina. After five and a half years, Ms. Love and two of her children were finally able to move back home. She then connected with the nonprofit Rebuilding Together to paint the exterior of her house Banana Cream Yellow and to repair the stairs to her now raised home. The young nonprofit called Matt’s Trees donated plants and landscaping advice to make the Love residence more beautiful and homey.
Large and small volunteer groups from all over the country over a period of about 4 months helped make this happen. Ms. Love meets her stubborn replacement knee with her stubbornly joyous spirit. Every day she came out to greet the volunteers, grab a paint brush, and sweat herself. I remember Albertine being so excited and grateful when just the first coat of primer was on. She announced to 40 people, “I am so happy! It’s beautiful! I would even be so happy if we leave it just like this.”
And here is the zinger: despite her financial troubles, every day that anywhere from 2 to 40 people volunteered to work on her home, Ms. Love cooked for them, all of them. And we are not talking bread and salami. We are talking about New Orleans cookin: red beans and rice, corn bread, and gumbo! Cooking and watching others enjoy the food is simply what Ms. Love loves to do. She is so good at it that most volunteers needed to take a post-feast nap instead of getting back to work.
As an aspiring flavor master, I asked Ms. Love if she would give me cooking lessons. She responded, “Baybee, don’t you know it! You tell me what you wanna make, and when you wanna make it, and I’ll be here, I’ll be ready.”
I arrived at 5:00pm on a Wednesday. Little did I know I would leave 6 hours later covered in sweat, equipped with pages of detailed notes, and carrying enough gumbo to feed a rugby team! Ms. Love insisted I do every step myself. The rue, or beginning gravy, took 45 minutes itself. About 7 types of meat were included, some of which I remember to be spicy sausage, crab, turkey necks, and pigs tails. The evening, of course, ended with a bowl of the good stuff. It was delicious.
Too much detail? I don’t think so. Food, and the way it brings everyone together, is what it is all about in New Orleans, along with music, art, and celebrating in the streets. Ms. Love’s story, her struggle to return home and rebuild, her resilience and joy despite her tribulations, her toughness and leadership for her family and community, and her ability to cook and share it with others well exemplifies a native New Orleanian.
Additionally, the way that several nonprofits as well as volunteers from all over the world have come together to help rebuild her home, other homes, and begin the reconstruction of the systems that used to be in place is indicative of an overall attitude: let’s bring it back!
According to the New York Post, there were once 23,000 FEMA trailers in New Orleans. The last FEMA trailer from Hurricane Katrina left the city this past February. Over 6 years after the storm but gone nonetheless. As one that worked in many of the hardest hit neighborhoods, I can testify that there is still a long way to go in the Katrina recovery process. Blight still plagues numerous abandoned homes and Lowes is packed with rebuilders every day. But one by one a lovely streetscape is returning and so are the people.
New Orleans is a humble city doing its own thing, publically struggling and also publically celebrating. They are celebrating the strangest of things even during the darkest situations. It’s a beautiful thing really. That city is somehow able to force the sun to shine even during the toughest of times. Take the Mardi Gras immediately after the storm for example. It was more impassioned than ever. There is something about New Orleans that is raw. It is real. It is open.
A popular saying in the Big Easy is, “We don’t live to work, we work to live.” It’s perfectly fitting because live, they do. There is no stopping the fervor and fullness of life in NOLA!
Anna Glasgow is a 2004 graduate of Salisbury High School and has been an AmeriCorps volunteer. She is now looking into graduate programs.