Archive for the First Encounters Category

Calculating Culture

Posted in First Encounters, NOLA, Research with tags , , , , , , on February 1, 2010 by lexis2praxis

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here.  A lot has happened, both in regard to the progress of my research and life in New Orleans.  I’ve been wondering how best to approach this blog: there are already so many great NOLA bloggers out there.  While I still want to blog about New Orleans as an engineered landscape, and about the use of levees and walls as the primary means of flood protection, nothing that happens here – culturally speaking – is removed from that.  And given the fact that I’ve learned that the degree to which New Orleans is protected is nearly entirely based on the calculation of economic assets, I think it’s important to write about what it’s like to live here.  Is there something to be said for protecting New Orleans because it is – economic assets aside – New Orleans?  In other words – is it really valuable, in a countable way, as a “cultural wetlands”?

So I will blog about the “culture” of New Orleans, an important component of which, of course, is engineering; and what it’s like to live with walls and water.

Maybe I’m just adding, and preaching, to the choir, but the outsider’s voice is different.  I’ve been practically all over the United States and several other countries, so I have some basis for comparison in terms of personal experience.  A recent transplant to New Orleans, I can speak to the way the place can capture you.  I also have no qualms about how this will “bias” my research.  All research is biased; all results are products of interactions and complex histories.  Plus, the process of study – learning – is really just allowing oneself to be changed.


First Big Storm

Posted in First Encounters, Storms with tags , , , on November 8, 2009 by lexis2praxis

It’s the night before my first big storm, and it’s very quiet and cool.  I went outside for a walk after the game, and could feel the electricity in the air, like there usually is when there’s a storm on the way.  But it also felt peaceful, the breeze gentle and blowing the leaves about in little eddies.

I was a little scared at first when I heard Ida was coming here, but all of my neighbors were way more hyped about the game.  Ida is supposed to turn into a tropical storm by the time she reaches the coast, so no one is very worried.  I closed my shutters at the front window, and bought some supplies for the potential power outage.  Most likely, Ida will dump a lot of rain and there will be some wind, but not quite hurricane force.

On the Anthropology of Levees

Posted in First Encounters, Research, Technologies with tags , , , on October 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about my research, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to post questions that people ask me, and respond to them here.  One of the most common ones I get is, “But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

This usually follows the question, “What are you doing in New Orleans?”  I answer something like, “I’m studying the reconstruction of the levees.  I’m looking at the history of the flood protection system, what’s involved in building levees, and the politics around all of that.”

“But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

An anthropology 101 lesson would introduce the fact that there are four main subfields in anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural or sociocultural anthropology.  After that, it’s easy to say that anthropologists are really able to study just about anything.  But that doesn’t answer the question very well.  Once I establish that I’m in the social science part of things, it remains to be explained why I’m interested in levees.

Recently I told a friend, “Levees are social.  They seem like passive, benign, even benevolent mounds of earth.  But like anything else, they are shaped by histories, and by controversy, and are political.  When they break, or when people argue about them, they become social.”  And then I said something about how that’s all related to larger themes like the local, and maybe the American, relationship between people, technology, and the environment or what’s called “natural”.

So my friend said, “Does that mean you’re comparing how people used to build levees with how they’re building them now?”  I’m not sure where that came from; maybe he thought anthropologists always focus on the past.  I’m not sure.  I tried to explain that I’m basically living in New Orleans, recording how levees are important and social by doing archival research, reading the news, talking with people, and so on, and how all of this is revealing a lot about what the competing ideas are about the city, what the city should be, whether it should be protected from floods, what protection means, and so on.  I must have gotten somewhere with him because then he asked, “How is what you’re doing different from sociology?”

There’s debate about whether there are any real differences between sociology and anthropology at this point.  Anthropology these days is usually less location-based and more topic-based, and there is some movements toward such things as experimental ethnographies, multi-sited ethnographies, and so forth.  But I still think that anthropology is in some ways unique, at least historically, although this doesn’t mean that sociologists can’t be more anthropological and vice versa.  I think that we’re more likely to use a particular methodological strategy, that is ethnography, and rely more heavily on qualitative research, while quantitative and survey-based approaches are more common in sociology.  This is a very blurry distinction, and it is certainly possible to use all kinds of methodologies in either field, but I think it’s still an important one.  Anthropologists often talk about things a little differently than sociologists do, and so we tend to get at different aspects of things in different ways.

What that means for me is that as an anthropologist, I’m always working.  Every time I go out to a coffee shop, or a club, or buy groceries, I’m participating and observing and “generating data” — to borrow a phrase from Professor Charles Harrington, who likes to emphasize that since all “data” are products of an interaction between the ethnographer and the ethnographed, we actually “generate” data rather than “gather” them, meaning that the data weren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the taking before the ethnographer got there.

My ears perk up especially when I hear something about levees, or floodwalls, or engineering, or Katrina, or “events”, and various other “keywords”, and in daily life here, learning about the city and viewing its art and movies and so on, I record notes about values and practices that are expressed on a daily basis in this engineered and waterlogged landscape.  Of course, I interview people and read books and look at the archives and such, but so much can be learned just by living here.  Anthropologists have made a profession out of the richness of everyday life, where an event like Katrina — and the breaking of the levees — continues to live long after the deluge itself.

Notes on the Strange

Posted in First Encounters with tags on September 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

One of the classic tropes of anthropology is that we make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Strange to me is the fact that the ice-cream truck (at least it sounds like an ice-cream truck) drives around this neighborhood after dark.  It’s 7:30 right now, and it has been wandering around the streets for a while, with its typical off-kilter somber tune interspersed with a valley girl style female voice saying “Hello!” every now and then in a very annoying fashion.

Something that is strange (for me) and easier to make familiar: the fact that yesterday, my roommate left his lights on and in the space of ten minutes, two people came to our door to tell us about it.  One of them said, “You might want to put a sign on it that says ‘I know’.”

Another thing about living here is the way terms of endearment are thrown around.  Everyone calls everyone else baby, and dear, and dahlin’, and so forth, fairly irrespective of gender, although age seems to play a role; older people are more likely to call everyone baby or whatever.  So I was walking down the street yesterday evening and I said hello to an older gentleman.  He replied, “Hey baby, how you doin?”  My initial, instinctual reaction was the kind I’m used to having when someone says “Hey baby.”  A moment of reflection, and I knew it wasn’t a cat-call, but a greeting.  So I responded, as people do here, “Alright.”  And then I got to thinking about how one knows the difference between a cat-call and a greeting.  Tone, inflection, context, body language… all of these are important indicators of which type of phrase it is.  But that’s something I’m being educated about here.  I’ve never lived anywhere where someone could say “Hey baby” in greeting.  So I’m hardwired to respond to it as a cat-call if it comes from a man.  I’m glad New Orleans has given me the opportunity to de/reconstruct this one.

On Having Become a Resident

Posted in First Encounters, Nature with tags , , , on September 20, 2009 by lexis2praxis

So I moved here in July.  It was hot, but not as hot as I’d feared.  Still, I found myself quickly aware that if I attempted to walk the same speed as I did in New York, I’d find myself drenched, even pouring, within a few minutes.  That was just gross, so I slowed down.  Now, I mosey on down the banquette like a snow plow shoveling humidity.

There are other things that became immediately apparent upon moving here.  For one, the 9% sales tax, which is higher than New York or California.  Related to that, the cost of living.  Having lived in New York for a few years, I thought the rent prices were cheap here.  And, compared to New York they are, but no one should be comparing anything with New York.  I quickly learned that people talk about prices — including rent, food, and attractions like the Audubon Institute — in terms of “pre-Katrina” and “post-Katrina”.  Po-boys seem to be the barometer: before, you could get a good po-boy for less than $5, maybe even $3.50.  Now, four years after Katrina, they’re at least $8.

The third thing that struck me about moving here — and bear in mind, this list is not in order of importance, because if it were, this would go at the top — is the pervasiveness, the sheer tenacity, of water.  Here, water is determined, insidious.  The statistics say something about that — the region is geographically about half water, half land, and it rains somewhere around 50 or 60 inches per year — but local folks immediately told me that water has a mind of its own here.  This was most evident to me when each new storm (and there are lots of those) brought water into my recently renovated, 150-year-old house in new and sometimes mind-boggling ways, sometimes never to return in quite the same way.  As each issue is fixed, water still finds its way in, even once teaming up with a brutal gust of wind to knock my locked front door wide open.

Of course, I can’t forget the bugs and creepy crawlies.  I haven’t lived in a place with so many venomous, colorful, and buzzing things since the Arizona desert.  “Wait till caterpillar season,” people tell me.  In Arizona, we had poisonous caterpillars, but there weren’t a lot of trees from where they could fall in droves and sting you.  Perhaps I will follow Michael Homan’s example, and bait the ‘pillars with peeps.

And last but not least and certainly not the least of it, I came here with the assumption that people here must know a lot more about levees, and talk about levees a lot more, than anyone else.  Most people I know don’t really know what a levee is exactly or what it looks like.  I was pretty sure it would be different here, and it is.  Particularly interesting is the way it enters everyday conversation as a thing that people are familiar with.  They might take their dog to the levee, for example, because there’s some grass there and it’s basically a park.  Or someone will give directions and say, “Turn right at the levee.”

The Ninth Ward

Posted in Art, First Encounters, Food, Nature, Tourism with tags , , on December 8, 2008 by lexis2praxis

I am back in New York now, well really New Jersey, and wish I could have stayed longer in NOLA.  It is a rather small city but very dense, very rich and saucy, like the food.  To continue the metaphor, few places have left me with such a strong lingering aftertaste.  I only scratched the surface, but there is a lot bubbling up, a lot of love and unity, a lot of pain, tension, anger, expression, empowerment.  At the NO Museum of Art I got into a short conversation with a NOLA lifer.  I asked if a nearby area, now under construction, was a city park.  “Before Katrina,” he said, and then stopped.  “I’m so tired of saying that.  But– before Katrina, it was a golf course.”  The conversation continued a while and we revealed that we were headed to the airport.  “I wish I could stay longer,” I said.  “You should move here,” said the man.  “We need more people.”

Yesterday was the last day, and we didn’t have much time before we had to go to the airport.  So we did a very shortened version of the Prospect .1 tour.  According to the website, Prospect .1 is the “largest biennial of contemporary art ever organized in the United States”.  It is also a very well curated exhibit, featuring three buses that stop at major attractions in a continous loop throughout the city, Wednesday through Sunday from 10:45am-6:00pm, from November 1 until January 18, 2009.  And shockingly enough, it’s all free– provided you register for a ticket on the website.  Clearly, Prospect .1 — which, incidentally, was organized by Dan Cameron, a New York artist — got some very nice funding from companies like the W Hotel and Prudential (for a full list of sponsors, see the P.1 website).

After breakfast at J’anita’s (we were aiming for a quick breakfast, but my impression is that NOLA will teach anyone to be patient — in any case, it was excellent food) we took the bus straight to the Ninth Ward.  The devastation there was still palpable, especially in the Lower 9th, which was of course the hardest hit.  In the Upper 9th, most existing structures remained more or less intact, and I’d say about half are currently inhabited — although that may in fact be a generous estimate.  Part of the problem is that habitation is somewhat ambiguous, since some people have been able to move back in, but haven’t been able to repair anything.  One house, windows shattered, boards hanging in tatters from the walls, sported signs that said “We are here” and “No bulldozing”.  Many of the clearly water-damaged, delapidated houses were for sale or rent, and ads posted on telephone poles included a “We Buy Houses” sign and a toll-free number for mold problems.  The Lower 9th was, well, mostly uninhabited.  The P.1 driver told us, gesturing out the window, “I have to tell you– there was a house here, and here, and here, and here… This place was full of businesses.  It was busy, full of people…”  It’s grassland and concrete foundations, now.  Most existing structures remain in a state of disrepair.  The driver told us that this was an area where more low-income people owned their homes than anywhere else in the United States, so “they’ve lost everything.”

The art was intense and poignant.  I hate to privilege one piece without talking about all of them, so suffice to say for now that it’s all worth seeing, and better to see than to read about.

Cupcakes and Sorrows in NOLA

Posted in First Encounters, Food, Tourism with tags , , on December 7, 2008 by lexis2praxis

I finally spent time in New Orleans this weekend.  I have been here so many times on the blogs, living vicariously through the words of others.  Now in winter, soaking in the odd combination of humidity, hot sun and icy breeze, I wandered the streets and marveled at the curious combination of dilapidated, abandoned structures and restored, bustling storefronts and colonial-style houses with trellises draped in houseplants.  I went to the Garden District first which, incidentally, was marked off as the “wrong side of the tracks” on my hotel map — “Stay in the downtown area and the French Quarter,” said the clerk.  I guess neighborhoods with people walking dogs are threatening… maybe it’s the dogs we tourists are supposed to avoid.  In any case, I first stopped in at Pralines by Jean.  Attracted by the chocolate mint and cream cheese-capped almond flavored cupcakes, I bought some for the road and talked to Jean for a while about her Katrina experiences.  She said her area wasn’t badly hit, but that it took her a while to get back in business because it was hard to get items such as sugar and flour, obviously very important ingredients for such decadent food.  She also said that it was hard to get her permits in order to get the business under way again, because after she had filed everything the first time, the city informed her that she had filed the wrong forms or something and had to do it all over again.  Despite the local corruption though, she said, “we love it here”.

Next I wandered through the neighborhood, taking pictures of spectacular houses, including the occasional wrecked and abandoned one, and noted that there are many For Rent signs in the Garden District.  I stumbled upon Magazine Street, where I was coersed by a few local artists and artisans and hip-looking shopkeepers to spend more money than I have on gifts for people I know.

This done I set off into the sunset through an industrial area toward downtown, just wandering.  The cowbirds or whatever they are congealed in a great black mass and settled on the vast network of telephone wires above me like dark messengers.  Once near the river, bracing against the icy wind, I felt the intensity of sorrows accumulated there like silt in the delta.  But there was also music and spice in the air, and I found myself glad to be here.