A Look Back

Over four years ago, I starting taking pictures of a number of the abandoned, rotting public school buildings of New Orleans.

I didn’t intend to, it just happened. There was an initial effort to connect some dots, when I was urged by a fellow local blogger to see what community input into the School Facilities Master Plan meant. I learned that it didn’t mean a hell of a lot – it was window dressing for plans already in motion for areas of the city caught in a Catch-22 situation of New Orleans recovery after the events of August 29, 2005: utilities and city services would return if certain numbers of people came back to stay in these ruined areas, but more people would be more likely to stay if they were assured of those services right off the bat. New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park, and Treme were frontiers in that respect. Return and live here at your own risk, the city seemed to say. And nothing screamed that attitude louder than the ruined schools.

Two years into our second period of living in New Orleans and here I was, climbing through the wide-open shells of buildings that had been under water or had been boarded up despite their lack of damage from breached levees because there weren’t any plans as of yet for the hastily reorganized and heavily charterized Recovery School District to use them or demolish them. Beyond that initial foray into what happened with Lake Forest Montessori, I got curious for two reasons: the realization that there were many more school buildings that were going to face bulldozers without much say from the surrounding communities, and the blanket acceptance by so many I knew that the charters were going to be the cure for what had long ailed New Orleans’ public schools. The latter assurance by friends of mine that bluer skies were around the corner for public education here made no room for my questions and doubts – in fact, I was roundly scorned. Things had been SO BAD under the old OPSB that any idea that charters might not be the cure was instantly interpreted as a longing to return to the bad old days rather than an honest critique. I was also seen as a hypocrite because my son was currently attending a charter – if I dared question charters, why didn’t I just pull him out and send him to a traditional public school?

At the time, I guess I was looking for clues that some of these buildings could be saved. That the surrounding communities’ input would be taken more seriously if the schools that were beyond repair had to be demolished. That people’s lingering grief from events that happened nearly three years previous wouldn’t be used against them. That, despite the crimes the old OPSB had inflicted on the children and the facilities of the public schools pre-August 2005, the people actually entrusted with educating the kids had tried.

I discussed this some with Megan Braden-Perry a few weeks ago when I joined her on one of her trips on the RTA bus lines, but I could only articulate how heady a year 2008 was if one was a blogger in New Orleans. There was a feeling of urgency, of needing recovery in the city to move one way or the other…hopefully, it would move in a direction that would benefit those who called this city home no matter what part of the city they were in. I caught that fever and dared to think that the pictures I was taking might change some things. I look at those photos now and wonder who that person was.

No, I didn’t manage to take pictures of all the schools, but I did go through 33 of them. I had to stop when I discovered evidence of someone staying in the upper floor of one of the schools, at which time I felt like I’d seen far too much abandonment for my taste…for anyone’s taste. But I had to see it for myself.

I couldn’t understand at the time how so many could put their hands in front of their eyes and see nothing. Something in me still doesn’t understand…but I do know that whenever I feel the urge to give in to that same impulse in myself, I think of these places and I remember. I question. I critique. And I do my best to do it constructively, knowing that all that will be left if I and others don’t dare to do so will be something equivalent to the acres of crumbling schools I saw, moldering shells that accused us all of having stood by idly when their lives were on the line.

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