The thing that I saw.

This is what I saw.

I told you about this yesterday. I made this picture in the Lower 9th Ward. Houses stacked on other houses. Houses stacked on cars. Cars completely left to die after the water finally receded.

The Lower 9th Ward was a vibrant community on the downriver side of the Industrial Canal. It more-or-less sat by itself away from the rest of New Orleans. It started out as small truck farms feeding the restaurants of The French Quarter. Most of the folks who resided there lived in old family homes, many of which were built between 1900 and maybe 1930. They were smallish. They were insured for replacement costs when they were built. The houses passed from family member to family with out a deed or proof of mortgage.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Without the proper paperwork, FEMA funds and LRA funds were unavailable to the people who just lost everything. They might be able to file an insurance claim and be paid at full value. But, a house built at 1,200 square feet that cost maybe $8,000 to build in 1920, cost about $200,000 to replace. The current family members didn’t have that kind of money. The original insurance had never been upgraded and they couldn’t qualify for Federal money.

The community pretty much died.

Sure.

There was actor Brad Pitt’s foundation called Make It Right, who built maybe 40 new homes clustered around one or two streets. That didn’t make a dent. Worse, the very high end architects who volunteered to design energy efficient modern homes didn’t design houses for our very extreme climate. A number of them have serious issues. One was demolished because it couldn’t be repaired. Make It Right doesn’t seem to want to repair the others. As usual, the whole thing is ending up in court.

That’s the story.

Thank you all for your comments and good wishes. They matter. A lot.

I’ll post like I did yesterday when I can. But, producing yesterday’s post was very emotionally draining.

The picture. I saw it. I photographed it. This is a kind of photojournalism so I don’t tinker with it except to correct things like color and contrast. I do remember that when I made the picture it was so hot. So humid. We had one of those hot, hot summers. That’s what heated the gulf, which fueled the storm, which destroyed 80% of the city. Then, there was the smell. The stench of rotted everything. Of mold. Of the oil and chemicals that flooded everywhere. That’s what I remember when I look at this picture.

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Crushed by the weight.

Like a moth to a flame.

I kept going back. At first, every week or so. I had to know what would become of a once vibrant neighborhood of blue-collar people. While it is true that many people lost their lives out here, many more didn’t. It is still sacred ground. It always will be.

They were the rebuilders. The ones whose sense of pride and ownership brought them back to almost nothing day after day. They emptied their houses out. They removed pews from churches in hopes that they would dry out under our hot Louisiana sun.

Some even scraped away what remained of their houses in hopes that they could started rebuilding soon. Dump truck after dump truck helped them remove the remains and the debris. The home owners hoped to rebuild soon.

It was not to be.

So many of the home owners lived in houses that were built by their grandfathers or their great grandfathers. When one generation passed, the next generation simply moved into the family home.  There was no legal line of succession. Most homes were insured at, maybe 1920 replacement cost prices.

Without legal proof of ownership the residents could not qualify for anything. No FEMA funds. No LRH funds. No low-interest SBA loans. No nothing. Probably 90%  of these people never returned home.  They had no home to come back to. Their diaspora is far and wide. Many went to Houston. Many went to Atlanta. Some went further west. When we evacuated to New Mexico one of my 7th Ward neighbors family lived two doors down from us. Imagine our joy at seeing each other alive.

Yet many continued to care for their property. Even today. You’ll often see overgrown land with one neatly mowed and manicured property in the middle of that.

The best anyone did for this neighborhood was actor Brad Pitt, who founded the “Make-It-Right” organization.  They built about 30 house. They used very famous architects who designed modern structures designed to withstand storms. They builders used modern building materials.

The new houses may have been designed to withstand a storm, but they weren’t designed to deal with our extreme heat and humidity. You have to live here to understand. Some are falling apart. One is in such bad condition that demolition permits have been filed in order to tear it down. Brad Pitt is being sued in order to force Make It Right to repair the houses.

And, so it goes.

At least there’s this.

The picture. They were made over time. For instance, the top picture was made a few weeks after the storm. The middle two were made a month or so later. The bottom picture was made maybe six months after that. I suppose the toilets attached to very strong plumbing will live on. I have no idea if the seat cover was there before the storm or added later. I prefer to think it rode out the storm.

I continue to return today. Usually once every three months. Beside the Make It Right homes, a few people have managed to return and rebuild. There are houses scattered here and there. Many properties are still as the storm left them. Worse for wear after rotting in the hot sun, and severe storms, over thirteen years.  The rest of the neighborhood has returned to nature. Perhaps, that’s as it should be. This was always bottom land. Land so far below sea level that some streets leaked in the best of times.

And, so it goes.


Left in the flood waters.

What was once.  What isn’t is a distant memory.

These are things that I found during the early days of recovery following Hurricane Katrina’s destructive path. Or more precisely, the Federal Flood, given that the levees broke because of catastrophic failure.

I saw things. Terrible things. I’ll show you some of the more publishable things over the past few days. So terrible that when I finally returned to my own flooded house after photographing what remained of the Lower 9th Ward, I sat on my old friend Uncle Joe’s porch with him. I held my head in my hands. He put his arm on my shoulder. He said, “I told you not to go, but like a moth drawn to a flame you had to.”

He was right. He is usually right.

Uncle Joe is now 83 years old. He lost his house, but the Feds replaced it with a factory made house that looks just like his old house, but a little better. He’s a Creole man. He’s lived in Mississippi and New Orleans all his life. He’s seen everything. He’s been through every kind of racial issue there is. Still he smiles. Still he bares no ill will. He’s a guy that I can only aspire to be.

Heroes are where you find them. He’s one of mine.

Flooded musical instruments.

What I found.

You know how I feel about all marching bands. Big high school bands and the little brass bands that play at second lines. I love them all. I love their music. I love the compact and on point sound of a great high school band. I love the chaotic sound of a second brass band. It’s the same, but very different.

When I returned to New Orleans after the storm, I was standing on Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. Two Canadian women were standing next to me. I told them that if they ever were lucky enough to see the St. Augustine Marching 100 it would change their lives for the better. A minute after I said that, they came thundering up St. Charles in between the buildings that formed a sonic canyon. I almost couldn’t make pictures. My eyes were wet. I never thought that I’d see them again. It was a gift. It helped spur my return to New Orleans.

So.

When I found these pictures, I was broken-hearted. Whoever owned this stuff marched and played in the St. Aug’s Marching 100. If the hash marks mean what I think the mean, he played in the band for all four years of high school and came back as a band helper after he graduated in order to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of band members. It also means that he was very, very good.

A lot of people went out to the Lower 9th Ward to see what the water destroyed. A lot of them would pick stuff up as kind of bizarre souvenir. I couldn’t do that. Most of the 9th Ward is sacred ground, meaning a lot of people died there. I have no idea how these items came be there. But, I’m not messing around with ghosts.

Besides, I take pictures, not stuff.


Workingman’s cross.

For Christians today is Easter Sunday. For Jewish people it is the second day of Passover. For those who believe in other ways, they may stop to honor Jesus’ rebirth, but for them it is mostly about spring. More rebirth.

I’m spiritual, but not particularly religious. Yes, it’s true. I am a baptized Catholic and I attended Catholic grade and high schools, but that’s where it stops. Something must have happened a long time ago to make me stop and wonder.

For those of you who have been reading Storyteller for any length of time you know that I believe that, “The work is the prayer.” That came from two sources. A Buddhist monk who I happened to be talking to on a trip to Thailand said that to me. And, while reading that the Benedictine monks were the first digital scribes so many years ago when we were still using floppy discs and didn’t have scanners,  I came upon this. A monk was asked how he could reconcile his spiritual beliefs with secular work and he replied, “The work is the prayer.”  I thought, at the time, “If it’s good enough for two religions, it’s good enough for me.”

Anyway.

For many holidays, I struggle to find a picture. No, that’s not entirely correct. I struggle to find a different picture. The usual picture for Easter is a cross at dawn. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. The guy over standing over there did it.  This year it fell into my lap. It is a living example of  the saying that guides my photographic endeavours, “Don’t take the picture, let the picture take you.”

A cross.

One that is worn on the sweat stained shirt of a brass band member. A drummer to be exact. When I was photographing the Original OTC Steppers last Sunday, I saw this guy wearing the cross. I followed him to a bit of commotion on the parade’s break. Turns out another guy had a little too much to drink and fell on the ground. The drummer wearing the cross picked him up, talked to him for a minute and asked for medical assistance. An NOPD officer came over, looked at the situation and called for the EMTs. Our street cops are great. He could have made a big deal out of it. He didn’t.

I thought about it for a minute and made pictures of the drummer’s cross. The one that you are looking at. Seemed like the right thing to do. There’s an old Leon Russell song that talks about what I saw. He sang that when you saw some straggly, beat up old dude wandering down the street, you’d better treat him well because, “He might be the Prince of Peace returning.” I can hear Leon’s gruff old voice singing it now. In my head.

It’s not all as heavy as that. One of my neighbors posted something on Facebook about Easter that said something like, “It’s not only about the eggs, it’s also about the season of the lamb.” I immediately thought, “Mmmmm, seasoned lamb on the grill.” She’ll kill me for that one. Oh well. That’s how my mind works.

The picture. I already told you about it. But, it did do one thing for me. It helped me to let myself off the hook. I’ve been thinking about the cemetery picture at sunset. The one I made on St. Joseph’s Night. I was thinking I should have saved it for today. But, luck or fate was with me. Again.

One more thing.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Happy Spring.


The tuba starts it.

You know this already. The tuba starts it.

When you hear the tuba start playing bottom notes you know the second line is about to start. Not only do they sound the opening notes of the parade, but they start again when the parade resumes after taking a break along the route.

I made these pictures after I photographed the Indian funeral. I had to find them in mid parade. Luckily, I caught the second liners at a planned break in the Lower 9th Ward. Actually, they came to me. I say luckily because sometimes you can’t find them. You fall in behind them or too far out ahead. Or, you miss a turn.

I knew the pictures could not have the same “coming out the door” explosive quality. So, I nibbled at the edges. I looked for details. I looked for little moments. I looked for something that might be symbolic.

A wink and a nod.

Although you don’t see it in these pictures, I have a couple of bad outtakes that illustrate the physicality of these parades. And, why I need recovery time. In case you are wondering about 90% of my work isn’t worth publishing. That’s the trick. You don’t need to show anybody your bad stuff.

All in feathers.

The pictures. As always, see it. Photograph it. Don’t think. It’ll only get in the way. As the late and famous New York Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra once said to his manager, You want me to think and hit the ball?”

That’s really hard. Make it easier on yourself.

A little housekeeping. I made a nice Easter picture at this second line. You’ll see it tomorrow. Then, I’ll show you a series of spring tree pictures for the remainder of the week. Even though I was photographing these events, I made time to do other work. Lots and lots and lots of other work.


Camping out.

Today, you get two.

Two posts. One just an hour earlier than this one.

I scheduled one for yesterday morning as usual. But, I bought a new iPad, I changed some operating systems which caused WordPress to be so confused that I can’t even remove the App for the new iPad in order to reinstall it. Somewhere along the line that introduced a bug which kept yesterdays post from appearing as scheduled.

I’ve had people make suggestion about workarounds. Do this. Do that. Do this other thing. Keep in mind I am not a tech guy. That’s one reason that I use Apple products. That’s also the reason  that Storyteller hasn’t become the website that I’d hope to have built by now. It’s way too much for me. I’ve tried WordPress template sites. They don’t help. I tested one page and it hung up everything.

So, my apologies. I’m not one of these bloggers who thinks you should post ten times a day and then let it go. Just so you know, when I see a whole bunch of posts from one blogger on one day, I usually read one and trash the rest of them in email. It’s too much. Think about this. If you are busy, so I am. That’s just a variation of what the army teaches you. If you can see the enemy, the enemy can see you.

Anyway.

More Halloween. In the 9th Ward. Apparently, this dude camped out with his travel trailer. And, never left. Or, he was shot, which is kind of a usual thing in this neighborhood. I didn’t do much to this picture except to clean it up a little bit.


Glaring at you.

A little skull for you.

Because we are into our long Halloween weekend. Because it seems normal in the swamp that I call home. Because I saw it. Because I made the picture.

Simple. Like a skull.

The picture. It’s pretty much as I described it. f5.6 and be there. I worked on it a little in post production. Mostly to hide its flaws. My photograph’s flaws. Not the skull’s. Shooting a little after noon, does not a great picture make. I knew that. But, sometimes… you have no choice.


Skulls in the hood.

And, so it starts.

One of the biggest holidays in New Orleans, among other big holidays.

Halloween. This weekend and into next week.

How could it be otherwise, when we mask for just about everything else? I made this picture the other day, in the depths of Mordor. Or, the Lower 9th Ward. Whichever comes first.

The picture. Yes. I messed with it. I tinkered until it got that general “spooky” feel. Then, I kept going. One thing to know. Pictures like this work better — for me — if they can be taken from the ground, rather than looking down on the scene. Luckily, my camera’s LCD tilts upward. I’m well beyond the point of crawling around on my belly. If I ever was.


Where it all began.

This place. One time.

This isn’t just any field. Any forest. This is someone’s front lawn. There was a house here. Once. This is the Lower 9th Ward. Yeah, yeah. Sure. Some of it has been restored. Generally the middle part where Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Homes have been built. Those were built fairly early in the restoration of New Orleans. They look a little faded. The look a little worn. They were and are and good idea. But, Southeast Louisiana weather seems to be getting the better of them.

That’s another story.

The story is that this place is a food desert. A desert that stretches from well within the border of St Bernard Parish to the middle of The French Quarter where there is a small Rouses. That’s a regional grocery company who expanded after the storm. Yeah. there are a few “food stores” here and there. Stores like Chicken Mart, or Brothers, which is really a gas station. Prices are high and the selection? Well, let’s say it ain’t great. There is also a small family store deep within the Lower 9th. A one man operation. He’s a local hero. But, his prices are high and his selection ain’t great. Getting credit lines from big grocery suppliers is hard. Harder still if your business is out here.

A friend of mine started this conversation in a comments section. I forget if it was here or on his blog. Doesn’t matter. He said the city should do something. Maybe condemn the abandoned properties and sell it so that maybe a store could be built. That won’t work. Ownership titles are muddy. Ancestor succession is even harder to prove, or not prove. And, if the city can auction a piece of land it is likely they can’t do the same for contiguous land parcels. Trust me. I own land out there. I’ve tried.

Besides.

Look at this picture. Lots of overgrowth. Lots of return to nature. But, right there in the middle. What do you see? Mowed grass. Somebody owns this land. Somebody who has hope. Somebody who thinks that he might return sometime. Someday. Even if I could buy that land, do you think I want to be the guy who takes away that glimmer of hope?

The truth about the 9th ward is simple. The neighborhood is below sea level. It really isn’t a safe place to rebuild. It would be better off as it was when people started living there. Truck farms. The farmers produced food for the French Quarter restaurants. The secret to this land is simple. Anything grows there. Without much help. Some people are trying to do that now. Small farms dot some of the land. But, they are small. I think most of them try to feed the small group of returning residents.

The answer?

My friend sort of threw his hands up and said, maybe the whole thing should be plowed under. Maybe. Probably not. The answer is long and arduous. Many have tried. I know a legal assistant who spent almost a year trying to track down the descendents of landowners in hopes of clearing titles. After a year of traveling around the South, she and her firm gave up. I suppose the city could declare eminent domain and start clearing everything. Besides the 50 million lawsuits that would be filed, that costs a lot of money. Money that the city doesn’t have. And, won’t have. It’s already stretched to the breaking point trying to rebuild the police department, fixing the streets and rebuilding the water drainage system.

So. Here we are.

Stuck.

Like so much of our country.

The picture. I guess that I’m feeling better. I wrote a lot. And, it came pretty easily. That happens when you really have something to say. I suppose that’s a big point. I read a lot of writer’s blogs. Most of them are either exchanging tips about writing, or seem to have a kind of writer’s block.

I’ve always think two things about that.

One, stop blogging and talking about writing and just get to it. It’s a discipline. Stephen King — as famous and well-known as he is — gets up every morning, reviews what he wrote the day before and writes for four hours. He’s done for the day. That’s discipline.

Two. I already discussed it above. Sort of. Write. Keep writing. Don’t edit yourself. Just put the words down. Every day. For a specific period of daily time. Then walk away. Until the next day. No blogging. No semi-marketing. That comes after you’ve written your book.

There’s also a lot of conversation about research and traveling to the place that you are writing about. That’s all good. Do it BEFORE you sit down to write. Let what you’ve learned and seen roll around in your head where it really becomes part of the story.

I do sort of the reverse when I work. Pictures are different from words. Doh! If I’m going to travel to work then I read. I read fiction about the place I’m going to. I read history. And sometimes look at old maps. But, I never look at other photographer’s work. I don’t ever want to intentionally copy them. I don’t want them to influence me. I keep reading that you should look at pictures, find the location and go to it and take the same picture. If find these comments in those things like “ten tips that will make you a great photographer in an hour.” Why? That’s already been done. Probably to death. There used to be an old joke. “If you want to make your picture stay away from tripod holes.”

This picture? I just saw the scene. All the green was pretty to me so I stopped. I’m not sure I could find the exact location again. I know it’s in the Lower 9th Ward, but that’s about it. I did a little post on it, mostly to make it look old. The post work muted the colors. I brought them back because that was the whole point of the picture.