Published by Greater New Orleans Foundation, Second Line Blog, July 29, 2010
I’ve spent most of my professional life for the past five years since Hurricane Katrina thinking about home. What home means; what it means to lose a home; and how it feels to be home. I’ve realized that home means so much more than just the physical attributes of a house or an apartment: it means the community that surrounds the building, and the community – and family – that infuses the physical with feelings of belonging, of safety, and of peace.
Recently the professional became personal when I attended a community meeting about new homes in my neighborhood. At issue is the proposed rehabilitation of a blighted building into new apartment homes for low-income individuals, some of whom are currently homeless.
The community meeting was held at a social service agency in a room with framed signs to remind visitors to be patient with each other. Posted at eye level for standing adults, the seated audience appeared unaware of the cautions: Remember where you came from. You can’t keep it unless you give it away. What goes around comes around. Responsible love and concern.
Unfortunately, the comments from the audience could not have been more discordant with the signs. One meeting attendee compared the proposed building to an atomic bomb, fearing its impact on the neighborhood. The African-American project manager for the non-profit housing developer was told by another member of the audience, “we don’t want more people like you living here.” Other members told the public official at the meeting that the neighborhood doesn’t want disabled people; one of the last public comments of the evening was, “these people belong in an institution.”
Are we trying to build neighborhoods where only some people get to live on wide avenues close to public transportation? I work every day with the assumption that many of us in New Orleans understand what it is like to be homeless, separated from the place we love, from our communities, without a place to call home. Almost five years after Katrina, the population of homeless individuals has doubled since before the storm, and low-wage workers – especially those hit by the newest catastrophe in the Gulf – struggle to find safe, stable homes at affordable rents.
One of the hosts of the community meeting, a participant in a job skills and food service training program, had cooked and served the meal to the assembled crowd. She stood at the back of the room in her chef’s jacket and said, “this is really hard for me to hear.”
What is scariest for me is that as we talk about how to rebuild our home, our great city, our great American city – who is showing up for the conversation? What does civic participation mean? With what kind of home will we end up if the only people who show up are the loudest, least welcoming people?
I showed up at the community meeting that night and I spoke up in favor of inclusion because I want my neighborhood to be one where everyone is welcome, regardless of race, income, or disability. But this conversation about how to rebuild our city doesn’t stop at the streets that mark the neighborhood boundary: it occurs in City Hall, in Baton Rouge, and in Washington. Will you speak up for our neighbors? Show up and speak up for the future of this city: a beautiful, diverse City where all residents find a place to call home.
Liza Cowan is a program officer for the Community Revitalization Fund at the Greater New Orleans Foundation.