New Orleans as a lens for social justice and sustainable development

At a crossroads moment in our history, whether we sell our souls to an increasingly exploitative economy based on greedy consumerism or regain our freedom to choose and develop a more resilient and sustainable world based on compassion, trust and human dignity, much of what will happen next will mirror our collective spirits and actions rather than behind-closed-doors international politics. It will indeed reflect our capacity to dismantle prejudices and stereotypes, overcome the spectres of divisiveness, and urge our governments to embrace, appreciate and celebrate diversity and empathy.

There is one city in the United States that can already inspire us to do more – a city that has risen up over and over again, against all odds. I was captivated by New Orleans’ resilience a few years back when I first visited the city.

mississippi-riverfront

New Orleans has often been somewhat unfairly depicted as one of the country’s most dangerous cities. In comparison, a megalopolis like Los Angeles, described in the book Rethinking Los Angeles (1996) as a first-world city thriving above a third-world city with a population split along racial and income contours, has managed to wire the glittery picture of Hollywood movies and parties in our collective unconscious. When living in Los Angeles, I remember wondering how the film industry could make us so oblivious to L.A.’s multi-faceted reality. New Orleans has suffered equally in its own terms of an unfair, one-sided portrait.

New Orleans has captured my imagination for over a decade. Back in 2005, I was 15 years old when Italian TV stations were flooded by harrowing images of levees and flood walls breaking down, streams of water relentlessly pounding, engulfing the indomitable spirit of the City of Jazz. You may remember the Super Dome, the legendary stadium of the Saints, turning into a makeshift shelter for those 25,000 residents who lost their homes and belongings to the fury of Hurricane Katrina. Dreadful. Merciless. Even though it was happening in a faraway place overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, a 10-hour-flight and 7 time zones away from where I was based, it felt like the apocalypse had struck near home.

The storm quickly swept over lives, buildings, roads and bridges, leaving behind desperation, mud and lingering questions of social justice. Pundits have often called Katrina an “unequal storm.” Indeed, the storm did not tear down all neighborhoods at an equal rate. Black homeowners were three times more likely to lose their home compared to their white counterparts.

Growing up, I became much more attentive to debates on social justice I observed taking place around me. I tuned into my surroundings. I like to say that it was Hurricane Katrina that initially prompted such questions and led me directly into the comforting, hopeful arms of sustainable development, the field I studied and trained in. Coming to see the world through the sustainability lens means tackling the thick web of political, social, economic and cultural connections that impact the wellbeing of our cities and communities. Sustainable development holds possibilities to bring about change and challenge power structures that entrench inequality.

Understanding New Orleans requires unpacking an intricate web of social, cultural and environmental realities. The long history of the Indian portage on Lake Pontchartrain colonized by the French and Spanish, then sold to the USA, mixes with a heritage of blood and tears shed in those plantations that relied on the toil of African slaves to pick up cotton. The sunny swamps peacefully crossed by alligators, the heartening spiced up delicacies of the Creole and Cajun cuisines, the evergreen beats of Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino. It’s a city that casts a spell of pride, dignity, and enthusiasm all around. It compels you to stop, smell, and see with a new perspective at every corner.

I was once walking down the riverfront when I saw a man sitting surrounded by sheets of cardboard shoddily attached to one another, and I wondered what he was up to in that makeshift cubicle. It was a scorching hot, humid October afternoon. Soon the rain would start pouring down. As I approached, I came to understand. The man was a street musician and with all those newspapers he was trying his best to protect his saxophone from the heat. The gentleman started playing as the steamboat nearby announced all passengers had boarded; it was time to sail the Almighty. That was the first lesson I learned in New Orleans. Those who truly believe in their passions, in what gives ultimate meaning to their lives, will do their best to protect them, they will sweat it out, make it happen, and get bystanders on board with their eagerness.

a-louisiana-plantation

I am fond of New Orleans because I owe a lot to this city. I learned what it means to be human, to care for one another, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Outsiders believe people stayed in New Orleans because they had nowhere else to go to. Is this how you would think of your own home? New Orleanians stayed because they love their city – a love without pretense. They saw it going underwater and yet the majority decided to remain with a stronger than ever commitment to their history and roots. They fought for their city. They resisted fear. Some of them are still very much engaged in the post-Katrina recovery, working to realise projects and dreams that feed into the overall resilience of the city.

Like Burnell Cotlon who gave a second chance to his city, starting in New Orleans’ hardest-hit neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward – the neighborhood he had grown up in. He invested all his lifetime savings to gift the Lower 9th with the first and until date the only grocery store since Katrina. Louisiana state’s 14.5-billion-dollar Road Home Program helped many but often delayed rebuilding homes in many low-income neighborhoods. The strongest critique arose from the evidence that houses damaged or destroyed in white affluent neighborhoods would be valued more than those in neighborhoods densely populated by blacks and wiped out by the rupture of the levees – among which was the Lower 9th.

Flyer promoting the new grocery store in the Lower 9th[1].jpg

When I first visited the city in 2014, you could walk for blocks and blocks in the ghostlike Lower 9th, many derelict buildings with crumbling facades, and encounter no store that remained in operation. Cotlon told reporters that mothers with several kids would have to catch at least three buses to reach the closest store, located in another parish. Where big retailers would not invest, a citizen did. The Caffin Avenue Plaza was open to respond to a real community-based need. When I visited again, at the end of 2016, a big blue street sign welcomed to the neighborhood where ‘things are moving faster’. Passing by the colorful house of Lower 9th-native living legend Fats Domino will put a smile on your face again. Cotlon is now ready to open a laundromat and embark on more rebuilding projects, as he announced on TV to Ellen DeGeneres (a New Orleanian herself who funded the laundromat). The Lower 9th Ward is back to stay.

New Orleans is anchored in poignant tales of justice and power, hope and commitment devoted to the struggle to rebuild a more socially just, resilient city. When there is an extensive appeal for social justice, we all become more vocal, proactive – more activist. A demand becomes an opportunity to seize. We can all make a difference. This is collective resistance. This is resilience at its best.


By Chiara De Luca

Chiara De Luca is a compassionate researcher and dynamic communicator, driven by a passion for social resilience and environmental justice. A graduate of the University of St Andrews, she has lived in seven countries (so far!) chasing the dream of applying her social sciences research and storytelling skills to promote human rights and address environmental challenges globally. She can be reached at deluca.chr@gmail.com.