Homes Without Walls

“What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”

This is a quote from one of the powerful documentaries shown at the New Orleans Film Festival, A Village Called Versaille.  Versaille is a Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East that was severely flooded during Hurricane Katrina.  Yet it is known as one of the first neighborhoods to return, despite the fact that Versaille was often “off the map” — that is, literally unmarked, knocked off the edge of political maps.  One of the fascinating messages of the film is that in the post-K landscape, when politicians were moving forward with urban planning that ignored the existence of Versaille altogether, members of the community — old and young — came together for the first time and announced their presence at town hall and land use meetings.  Furthermore, they mobilized against a landfill made for Katrina trash.  Although this landfill was built despite their wishes, Versaille community members pursued their case in the courts and, when that didn’t work, stormed the landfill itself, blocking the trash trucks with their bodies.

Back to that quote: “What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”  This, I think, could be something voiced by the majority of New Orleanians.  It was, after all, walls that fell.  That is, the walls that defined where the water stops and where the city begins.  But underneath the many feet of flood water, home still remained, from one end to the other.  Versaille’s social peninsula status on the Easternmost margin didn’t make it any less real; the failure of its walls did not render it uninhabitable, nor uninhabited.  People are living there now.

That is one thing that struck me about the film: there wasn’t much talk about the levees that protect (?) or reduce the risk to (?) Versaille.  There are lots of things being built, and rebuilt, in Versaille; four years post-K, it is densely populated and widely described as thriving with business, everyday life, and celebration.  The people there are engaging in local community gardening cooperatives, striving to rebuild schools, and announcing to everyone that they are not foreigners, but Americans.  But I wondered about the levees surrounding New Orleans East.  Although the ones around the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge have been repaired, and are due to be raised, they have not been raised yet.  Where is New Orleans East on the priority list?  Are the people there living where there are no walls?

Which also begs the question: is it realistic to argue that people should simply move to higher ground, as many would suggest?  Versaille would undoubtedly have to move, according to certain scenarios dealing with the future of New Orleans.  Such a future may not include New Orleans East at all.  But Versaille is home right where it is, walls or not.  So what about those walls?

To be continued …

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