Imagine yourself traveling to that one place that you have been dying to see for as long as you can remember, but have never gotten the chance to visit. Now, imagine yourself standing there. If you feel excited or exhilarated, you probably understand how I, along with many other young teenagers, felt about my first trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. Visiting New Orleans was memorable while I was there, yet it also changed my view on life in many ways. Meeting many people who live in the city, viewing the areas where high crime and disaster are still present, and experiencing the rich culture of a new place all contributed to my desire to further help restore New Orleans, which has been in a state of calamity for years, especially after Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005. Sometimes I find myself talking about New Orleans non-stop. My friends notice, and I am glad.
When you have lived in a town like Montclair, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, for years, it is going to be a bit of a culture shock when you travel to New Orleans, a city with one of the nation’s highest crime rates. For teenagers who have lived their lives in nice, suburban areas, it truly opens up a new perspective when they are exposed to the more desolate areas of a city that has been hit by such disaster. In certain parts of the city, in the lower ninth ward for example, there are empty lots of land with overgrown grass, where the only indication that houses ever existed there are the cement steps that were not swept away when the tidal wave, that was released when the levees broke, went on to destroy the rest of the homes. Entire streets, houses, and stores are deserted. The people of New Orleans were forced to experience not only the flooding, deaths, and the horror of watching their city getting destroyed in front of their eyes as a direct result of our government’s failure to help, but also the aftermath that this failure causes every single day. I spoke to a thirteen year old who has lived in New Orleans her entire life. Though three years my junior, this girl had seen and experienced more tragedy than any of my friends at home and I have: she lost her home, friends, and family members; she got involved in the drug and sex scene at a shockingly young age; she fought and watched people she knew die as a result. To be able to see the areas of disaster and speak to a teenager who has experienced life in modern day New Orleans helped my understanding of exactly how bad the crime and homelessness are down there.
When one discusses New Orleans there is a topic that has been relevant since before Hurricane Katrina hit, a topic that cannot be ignored–the culture. An incentive for me to go visit was not only to volunteer, but to experience a rich culture in terms of music, art, food and many other areas, something that I believe my town and my state, for the most part, lack. As a teenager, I wanted to experience one of the most unique cities in the country, and doing so helped me further realize that there is more to life and to America than the suburbia I have grown up in. In New Orleans, I learned that there is absolutely nothing more exhilarating than dancing on a lively second line–especially in the pouring rain. Although signs of disaster lurk almost everywhere you go in New Orleans, the city has kept its culture fully in tact, a feat that many destroyed areas have failed to achieve. From street and graffiti artists, such as Banksy and the Grey Ghost, who battle each other through their street art, to beignets at Cafe Du Monde, to jazz festivals, clubs, and musicians on the street, the people of New Orleans have continued to find create beauty out of their suffering. People love to visit because of the life that still remains through the rubble. Teenagers around the country like myself are likely to find themselves opened up emotionally and creatively after visiting New Orleans, for we are at such an age where we yearn to explore and tend to learn a large amount about ourselves every time we experience something new. Experiencing the culture and the positive aspects of New Orleans helped me to appreciate it even more than I did after simply reading and hearing about it. The city does not need to work at recruiting people to come down and help rebuild, for its rich culture is like a beautiful woman to whom all the men, or in New Orleans' case, all the captivated volunteers, gravitate.
Everywhere you go, the people that you encounter will make an impression on you. Teenagers are some of the most impressionable people, since we are old enough to understand and to begin to explore different people in the world. Yet many of us have not travelled extensively, so everytime we travel we are opened up to a new and exilirating world. In a place like New Orleans, where devastation swept through and destroyed homes and buildings, it is inspiring to know that what makes the city unique has not been lost. Much of the music in New Orleans is great, the food delicious, the festivals and parties fun, and the history plentiful, but it would amount to nothing without it’s citizens. They create the culture. A woman whose house I worked on rebuilding, Ms. Pat, has lived in the city her entire life. I got the chance to meet her and to hear her talk about her story. There was something significant about that meeting. She looked at me and my peers, eyes bulging with excitement, and with a simple smile said, “Thank you my babies, you are my angels.” We were all overwhelmed to have had the chance to emotionally experience the effect we had upon this one woman’s life. Even people on the streets or in stores are eager to thank the volunteers for what they are doing. People miss their city. Meeting the people of New Orleans, such as Ms. Pat, helped me to realize that although they live far away, they are people and they are Americans, in need and in love with their city. After the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, the people, and especially the young people, deserve their city, and they deserve the chance to rebuild and to continue to build their lives.
Louis Armstrong sang, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans/When that’s where you left your heart?” As if we have all had our hearts broken, the people who go to or live in New Orleans tend to have an unusually hard time getting over the city. Personally and as a teenager, I believe that it was hard for me to get over the city because of the way I felt when I was there–the inspiration I felt–compared to how I feel when I am at home. Maybe such inspiration is felt by me, by other teenagers, and by people in general, when we visit New Orleans because there is a great amount of help needed, help that was needed even before the levees broke. Maybe it is because there are few cities as unique as New Orleans. There is a certain obligation I feel toward the city, an intuition that tells me my action is necessary. The struggles are despairing. The culture is exciting. The people, who face both the positive and negative situations present in the city, are simply unforgettable.
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