Dreaming Big in the Big Easy

April 12, 2006
Tim Coates

NEW ORLEANS – Seven months after Hurricane Katrina only a tenth of pre-Katrina businesses and 40 percent of residents have returned to New Orleans. Houses still straddle the middle of streets in the worst hit neighborhoods. In a middle class neighborhood abutting the failed 17th street canal, not a single FEMA trailer signals this community’s rebirth. The stillness is eerie.

But elsewhere the city known for eccentrics, eclectics, music and food is slowly being revitalized. Yard signs championing the return of neighborhoods compete for space with signs representing the 23 mayoral candidates competing in the April 22 city elections.

Until we arrived, our group of Kennedy School and other Harvard graduate school students had little knowledge as to what our volunteering effort would actually entail. Led by Doug Ahlers, a fellow at the Belfer Center, we were committed to helping the neighborhood of Broadmoor develop its neighborhood revitalization plan. But what could we provide a devastated community with one week of on-site effort?

In post-Katrina New Orleans, any tether linking people and trust with government has been torn. Individual communities are now trying to plan for everything from economic development to education to finding people and getting them back into their homes.

While various details of our trip – the process, organization, day to day work – have been written about in detail elsewhere on this page, what I’ll remember most was the unrelenting energy and breadth of imagination displayed by the residents of Broadmoor.

The residents who have returned have formed committees representing their shared concerns: housing, repopulation, economic development and education. With everyone struggling through the same challenges, the community has been organizing itself to not only rebuild but to make it better than before.

During the first meeting I attended of the economic development committee for Broadmoor, an African-American business owner said, “I hope by coming into this group I can tell you what my dream is and make this group accessible to people not here. I can be a catalyst for people.”

An elderly white resident added, “We need more social gatherings. If we’re going to join together we need to talk to one another; we need reason to be together…Right from the beginning when children come up they ought to be indoctrinated with community service.”

This certainly was not the pragmatic and rational analysis of an economics lecture. It was better. It was real people moving beyond the rooted traditions and rules of society, daring to dream big.

How to achieve this dream is not clear to the residents of Broadmoor or to the group of students volunteering to help. Undoubtedly it will be arduous, yet we saw a desire to achieve crucial goals that will hopefully continue.

For our group of students, the opportunity to leave the classroom for a place where the concerns and livelihoods of real people are at stake will undoubtedly be one of the most significant experiences of our graduate education.

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