Lynette Norris Wilkinson Lecture and Book Signing

The Living Museum was honored to host Lynette Norris Wilkinson, an award winning author who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, as part of the Living Museum Speaker Series events. Ms. Wilkinson gave a lecture to a packed room, and shared moving stories of strength and survival. Her talk was incredibly well recieved and was a beautiful addition to a weekend of Mardi Gras festivities.

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Ms. Wilkinson is the author of UntoldThe New Orleans 9th Ward You Never Knew, a book that features the stories of survival and community through the voices of sixteen Lower Ninth Ward residents. In Untold, Lynette Wilkinson delves deeply into the stories and voices of Lower 9th Ward Residents in their continued fight for survival and justice, during and since Hurricane Katrina.

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Through her eloquent depiction of the integrity, strength and resilience of Lower 9th Ward residents, Ms. Wilkinson inherently challenges the racialized mainstream media coverage that wrongly depicted residents in her community in 2005.  Untold provides thorough and detailed accounts of the true experiences of local residents, and remains the only book of its kind to do so.  Untold is an essential read to better understand the continued plight of the Lower 9th Ward community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The proceeds from Untold are donated to organizations helping residents in the Lower Ninth Ward to recover.  Check out her website and purchase a book!

Will they ever reopen the Claiborne Bridge?

The Judge Seeber Bridge (more commonly referred to as the Claiborne Bridge) has been closed since August 2nd so that the Department of Transportation and Development can give it a new layer of paint.

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When open, the DOTD estimates that the Claiborne Bridge carries over 26,000 commuters every day. Needless-to-say its prolonged closure has had a huge impact on traffic, pushing all commuters through St. Claude and significantly affecting access to and from the Lower Ninth Ward.

The bridge was originally slated to open on August 24th (a “short” 22 day project), but as that date approached the DOTD announced that the bridge would remain closed throughout Labor Day Weekend. In the following week, the DOTD pushed the date back yet again, announcing that the bridge couldn’t be reopened until mid-october. Now officials are citing the “Karen Delay” for yet another set back, and are only “optimistic” that the bridge could open “in the mid/late October time frame.”

9th Ward residents have repeatedly expressed their frustration with the DOTD’s lack of consideration. One community member posted to the Judge Seeber Bridge Maintenance Project Facebook Page:

“As the Claiborne bridge continues to be up, it is very difficult for those of us who need to access St. Claude from the Ninth Ward do so…It is getting increasingly frustrating to make it across the canal daily as St. Claude remains so congested and Florida Street with its own low bridge, rapidly deteriorating roadbed, three sets of train tracks and now increasing traffic seems to be really starting to wear on motorists.”

The owners of Café Dauphine in the Lower Ninth Ward told WWLTV that the bridge closure has negatively impacted their business as well, delaying kitchen set up and holding up important deliveries to the Marigny and Bywater area.

WATER040808Many local residents have also questioned the decision to close the bridge during Hurricane season. When the threat of Hurricane Karen was looming a week ago, Lower Ninth Ward residents were warned that on top of the Claiborne Bridge closure, “the St. Claude Bridge could be up during rush hour should the Coast Guard order an evacuation of the Industrial Canal.”

The prolonged bridge closure and disregard for the Lower Ninth Ward’s accessibility follows in a very long history of geographic isolation. Since the decision to construct the Industrial Canal in 1923, the Lower Ninth Ward has been both symbolically and physically cut off from the rest of New Orleans.

industrial-canal-lockjpg-bfc88d8cfe4fb072While residents are forced to suffer the negative impact of geographic isolation and the harmful effects of lead-based paint in the air, the private contractor (Texas Bridge Inc. of Humble Texas) is raking in a reported $4.8 million for the painting project.

Yet another example of the government prioritizing profits over people in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“It’s Just a Show-and-Tell” – Disaster Tourism in the Lower Ninth Ward

It’s not uncommon to see a tour bus or limousine with tinted windows wind its way slowly through the Lower Ninth Ward.

Often times you’ll see cameras dangling from car windows while tourists snap photos of boarded up houses and slabs of concrete where houses used to be. There’s no question that much of the infrastructural state of this community (eight years after the devastating levee failure) is nothing short of abhorrent. But these tours are voyeuristic and highly offensive to local residents, and according to WDSU “On Your Side,” they’re often illegal.

Lower Ninth Ward resident, Chasity Stinnett, told WDSU that at times she feels “paranoid, on display and uneasy about letting her children play outside.” Stinnett says, “It’s just a show-and-tell, I mean, we’re not animals, you know.”

According to the news clip, James Gray of the New Orleans City Council has pledged to support the Lower Ninth Ward residents who want bus tours out of their community. He told WDSU that “people here have clearly indicated that they don’t want to be like animals in a zoo, and there’s an ordinance to protect them, and we’re going to… see to it that the police department enforces that ordinance.”

This has been said before. The Lower Ninth Ward has a long history of community activism, and this social justice issue proves no different. There’s nothing new about local residents speaking out against the damaging impact of disaster tourism.

In addition to organizing and reaching out to public officials, residents have fought back by erecting powerful signs, directed specifically at tourists (like the one pictured). And just last year, Travelers Today published an article featuring local resident Vanessa Gueringer, who told the AP, “We’re fed up and tired of them coming through the neighborhood like we’re some sideshow…After all the suffering we have been through, we deserve more respect than this.” As tour companies continue to exploit the Lower Ninth Ward for profit, concerns of local residents are being ignored, and city ordinances (claiming to protect local residents) are going entirely unenforced.

Once it’s open, the Living Museum is intended to serve and honor local residents first and foremost, but it also has the potential to direct (what seems like) inevitable disaster tourism away from the voyeuristic and damaging practice of bus tours, to a place where residents’ voices are actually heard. We hope for the Living Museum to operate as a place where visitors can learn about and honor the rich history of this community, straight from the mouths of local residents, without endorsing illegal “Show-and-Tell” bus tours or burdening residents to tell their stories again and again.  

As local activist Jenga Mwendo so eloquently put it in her article Jungleland, Really? A Lower Ninth Ward Response, “For every vegetation covered lot, there is a story, and much of the story is hard working people trying to make the historic Lower 9th Ward whole again.” It’s the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum’s mission to make sure these powerful stories are honored and heard, while doing whatever we can to minimize the negative footprint of disaster tourism.

For more information on disaster tourism in the Lower Ninth Ward, check out the entire WDSU clip here, and make sure to read Jenga Mwendo’s powerful response article in full at the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development’s blog.

Off to a Hot Start

It’s official, the Living Museum crew has arrived at 1235 Deslonde Street for a summer of museum work and New Orleans heat. Image

The walls have been re-painted, photo permissions have been requested, the content is almost entirely finalized, the new website is up and running and the oral histories are being transcribed and coded for video production.

In the next couple of months we will be ordering, mounting, and perfecting each exhibit. Our goal is to open the Museum on August 24th!

Some highlights from this week:

  • Seeing an alligator by the levee

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  • Having Jeffrey style our hair

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  • Getting Museum work done at Flora Cafe

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Stay tuned for more Living Museum updates!

Allstate Returns to the Lower Ninth Ward

Allstate Insurance Company, the corporate sponsor for the 2013 Sugar Bowl, graced the Lower Ninth Ward with its presence once again on Wednesday, January 2nd.

According to a WDSU News report, fans and players from the Allstate Sugar Bowl “met up to clean the blighted and overgrown lots in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

When I was here two years ago, Allstate sent (upwards of 500) actual company employees along with fans and players to the Lower Ninth for a day of clean up and festivities in honor of the Sugar Bowl. I remember a marching band, a mobile stereo, a speaker’s podium, matching shirts and plenty of back patting.

While the Sugar Bowl volunteers undoubtedly had the Lower Ninth Ward in their hearts (as WDSU asserts), it’s hard to ignore the Allstate logos peppered throughout their gear and warm clothing.

As you may know, Allstate has had a contentious relationship with the Lower Ninth Ward, especially after the corporation fraudulently denied claims from Gulf Coast residents whose homes were destroyed in Katrina’s aftermath. Since Katrina, Allstate has been involved with numerous lawsuits, and in some cases fined millions of dollars, regarding arbitrary policies and illegal refusals during the claims process.

With a broader context in mind, is the Allstate Sugar Bowl “Day of Service” merely a way to repair a damaged image in the eyes of New Orleans (and Lower Ninth) residents? With the amount of money it takes to send all of these volunteers to the Lower Ninth each year, (not to mention the matching shirts, entertainment and media coverage), all for half a day of trash clean-up, it would appear as though the insurance company is more interested in a photo-op “quick fix” than a serious commitment to repairing the damage it has done in this community.

Lower Ninth Ward “Food Desert”

Finding healthy foods in the Lower Ninth Ward is more than just a challenge – it’s nearly impossible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Lower Ninth Ward is considered a “Food Desert,” meaning it has a population of 500 or more people who don’t have access to a grocery store within a mile from their homes.

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Photo from the USDA “Food Desert” Locator – the red dot is the Living Museum!

On October 20th, in association with National Food Day, The Lower Ninth Ward Food Access Coalition (a project of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development) took a stand for food security by hosting a “Grocery Store For-A-Day” event in the parking lot of All Souls Church and Community Center. The festival included live music, cooking demonstrations as well as a “pop-up” grocery store, and brought attention to the Lower Ninth Ward’s food desert status while raising money for the development of a mobile grocery store. The program was an incredible success, bringing widespread attention to the issue of food security and hundreds of people to the makeshift grocery store to celebrate. Mitchell Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, even proclaimed October 20th “Lower 9th Ward National Food Day,” affirming the CSED’s hard work.

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Renee Peck (via the Times Picayune)

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From the Grocery Store For-A-Day Facebook Page (http://www.facebook.com/events/111262469030816/)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2009 the USDA found that 23.5 million people lacked access to a supermarket within a mile of their home and a nationwide analysis found 418 rural “food desert” counties where all residents lived more than 10 miles from a supermarket or supercenter, accounting for 20 percent of all rural counties. Another multistate study found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of white Americans.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, the nearest full-service grocery story is about 3.5 miles away in St. Bernard Parish. According to Lower Ninth Ward activist Jenga Mwendo, about 30 percent of residents lack personal transportation, making a trip to Walmart in the neighboring city of Chalmette that much harder.

“If we had a grocery store it would be a catalyst for other economic development in our neighborhood,” Mwendo told the Times Picayune. “Given we lost about 75 percent of our population after Katrina having something like that would help bring people back and bring in new residents.”

For more on the Lower Ninth Ward food security initiative, check out CSED’s Food Action Plan.