I am a historian of New Orleans but I have never seen pre-Katrina New Orleans with my own eyes. I assume I am one of the first generation of New Orleans historians that has never experienced the city before the hurricane. And, perhaps my most emotional conundrum in commemorating the 10th anniversary of Katrina is that I would not be studying New Orleans if there had been no Katrina. When the levees broke, I was a college student in Japan learning about racism in America and questioning neoliberalism. Katrina as depicted by the media looked to be an example of what I was hearing during lectures: poverty, racial inequality and urban crisis in America. Yet, New Orleans was not part of my world.
One year and a half had passed when I visited southern Louisiana for the first time in March 2007 as a volunteer worker. It appeared to me that New Orleans was still a city with debris, empty neighborhoods, and poverty, except the French Quarter, of course. But thanks to suggestions from my undergraduate advisor, I learned from books that New Orleans history was indeed full of community power and activism. Whereas massive devastation hurt communities, there was more history for me to salvage and learn to understand New Orleans. Since then, albeit indirect, history has been my means to communicate with New Orleans and its people.
As time passed, I saw fewer and fewer materials labeled as “currently unavailable due to restoration.” I began to see more projects that featured the voices of New Orleanians and their vernacular culture. Outside of the archives, I saw more and more new houses and stores on the streets. Louis Armstrong Park was reopened. I can now set foot in Congo Square. A lot of things did change. Probably because I am not always there, it is exceptionally spectacular to see changes all at once.
Yet, when I talked to people, things were different. I have heard many stories. Every story is different but there are certain patterns: relocations, economic difficulty, separation of families, charter schools, gentrification, and distrust in government. There are also many individual historical resources that were forever lost to water. Now the only means to recover the history is by listening. A lot of people did indeed raise their voices and these voices reflect the history of New Orleans. But there is always a stark contrast between people who want to leave all the problems in dark water and people who have to live with them.
I never saw New Orleans before Katrina. Yet, as a post-Katrina historian of New Orleans, the hurricane always reinforces my research. The Fillmore/McDonogh No.16 School stopped its operation as an educational facility since Katrina. Activism at the Fillmore School was forgotten and now the physical evidence of Mcdonough No.16 is being forgotten as well. My small project is perhaps my tribute to a long history of community struggle that is still not fully acknowledged and rather covered by multiple layers of forgetfulness.