Today is Fat Tuesday, and New Orleans is full of partiers enjoying their last Carnival moments before the start of Lent tomorrow. But a few years back, when I visited the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, I was surprised and saddened to see how much re-building was still left to be done. Families living among ghost houses, or fields, in what were once thriving neighborhoods. I was inspired by the emotional resonance of the abandoned homes, and did a series of portraits of them – as I felt they were speaking eloquently about what had transpired in the neighborhood. And the residents have spoken, too. Fats Domino said, “I’m gonna wait it out. I don’t think I’ll ever leave the Ninth Ward.” (Robert Siegel, “Fats Domino, ‘Alive and Kickin’’ after Katrina,” All Things Considered, March 13, 2006, National Public Radio)
Recently, filmmaker Spike Lee spoke at Pratt Institute, and he had some vehement things to say about gentrification, and the racial divide that often still exists in cities across America. The Ninth Ward is a traditionally African-American neighborhood, and an artistic center for jazz, that most American of music forms. It seems sad to me that the will to bring this neighborhood back is not stronger than it is. It’s a holding ground of our cultural heritage and yet it has been largely abandoned. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is, I know that geographically it is a terrible idea to rebuild, but then again, emotionally, how can you not rebuild a place that means so much to so many people? There are some projects going on now that help, but it’s a shame there aren’t more.
My reportage essay on the Ninth District of New Orleans is going to be featured in an upcoming book, Understanding Illustration, by Jo Davies and Derek Brazell. The book focuses on the meaning and message of illustration, and features 36 other talented illustrators besides myself. I am gratified to be a part of this project, and I hope that the inclusion of my visual essay in the book may bring some attention to the Ninth Ward re-building that is going on.
If you are in London tonight, March 4, you can attend the panel discussion about Understanding Illustration at the Gallery at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, that begins at 18.30.
Read more about the struggles of the Ninth Ward in this interesting essay by Juliette Landphair in the Journal of American History here.