Karen Gadbois is the founder of Squandered Heritage, a Web site that chronicles demolitions in the city. She shows how citizens, acting locally, can check the power of planners who ignore local knowledge and try to plan from the top down. Karen is also one of the founders of the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation, which seeks to foster better communication and share best practices and information between social entrepreneurs in the city.
What is Squandered Heritage doing for the community?
I began Squandered Heritage as a memory project, which was coming from my background in visual arts. I was just trying to chronicle what had been there, and what is there. There’s an entire square block near my house that was burnt during the flood, and that was a difficult puzzle for me to go by it and try and remember what was there. I thought that our [built] environment had been so disturbed, that for those of us who really love our communities, the absence of portions of it were jarring. And so this was an effort to just begin to catalog what was damaged and what we could be potentially losing….
So part of this was about education, about recognizing a built environment is the appropriate one. We have an appropriate built environment in New Orleans, for the most part, in the older homes. And so I use it primarily in my own neighborhood to advocate and to prevent unwanted, unnecessary demolitions.
How did you become a voice for your neighborhood?
I started doing community work post storm in January 2006, and there was a development that was going forward for a Walgreens. We wanted a grocery store, so it was really kind of a primitive little lesson in politics for me….
We were sort of being offered the crumbs, and being told we should be glad that we were getting a crumb. And we all felt in our neighborhood that we had plenty of crumbs. What we needed was something more substantial. So the work in the community was about what we needed, which was food, a grocery store; it was not plastic toys and a Walgreens. But we were able to affect that design and get a grocery store.
So that lead me to doing the work of Squandered Heritage, and what I started…was simply going to City Hall and asking for basic information from department heads and finding that the information they were giving me was different every time. There weren’t consistent answers.
Why do you think that was?
On a good day I believe that it’s because everyone is not on charted territory, and that as hard as we work, people in city government [are] working that hard as well. They have laid off tremendous amount of the workforce, and probably some of the most knowledgeable people were let go in that mass firing, and some of the sort of least-effective people were left behind. So offices were in chaos; paper was in chaos; there was a lot of general scrambling to keep up.
The city had allowed people to apply for these demolitions without informing them that there’s a certain procedural process that they were going to go through. So people just [thought they] would be allowed to demolish their houses. And when I would ask the city attorney, each of the attorneys would give me a different answer as to what the community rights were in these kinds of decision-making processes….They really didn’t figure out any way to interface with citizens in a way that was meaningful.
Did community organizations interact with the city before the storm like they do today?
I think that’s changed, and I think that if you look at the upcoming mayoral election, you’ll see a hint of what has changed. We have one candidate who’s beginning to do some research into running his platform based on nonprofit work. There’s a recognition that the most effective change agents and heavy lifters have been either in nonprofit sector, or…just pure volunteer. So it’s community organizers and people who have done this work have a very clear agenda in terms of what they need to see happen politically. And the local politicians are getting to see us as resources for their own campaigns.
What does the New Orleans Institute do?
The New Orleans Institute is endeavoring to tie in together some of these organizations. For example, yesterday we met with someone from the Alliance for Affordable Energy, and they’re working on a workforce development program. I know that they’ve been in touch with Pam [Dashiell] and Holy Cross, but have they been in touch with other community groups that may work towards the same goals?
Name all the components of a civil society, and they’re often seen as separate entities. In order to create a better environment for all, these entities have to bleed into each other a little bit more. That’s part of what we’re trying to do at the institute.
How did the New Orleans Institute get started?
The work that I’ve done has crossed through the city for the most part, and so I’ve been able to make and form relationships with people all over the city. Usually when you work in one sector, you stay within because it’s plenty of work. It’s really hard to get out there and meet people and find out what other people are doing. I was working with Mary Rowe, who’s a fellow with Blue Moon, and Blue Moon provided some funding.
How can funders best decide where to invest in New Orleans?
I would suggest that in the same way you repair a house. You go into a house; you make an assessment; you see what the house needs; and you fix it. You don’t go to an architect and ask the architect to draw up plans to fix your house. I think that foundations have to find ways to have point people on the ground who will literally make those assessments and meet people. I mean we’re a very small network that does a tremendous amount of work. So it’s not that difficult to find us if you’re looking, but you have to be looking.
What is the goal of the New Orleans Institute?
The goals of the New Orleans Institute really are to foster better communication. I often think of ham-radio operators in the basement, and they’re trying to pick up a signal and flipping, flipping through channels trying to pick up that signal. And I think that the success of the organization is when everyone feels like they have equal access to these signals….
There needs to be a general sense of the entire region, beyond our borders of Orleans Parish—Southern Louisiana, the Gulf Coast in general. We can continue to build these relationships. New Orleans suffered a great loss when the levees broke, but if you go out of the region into Terrebonne Parish, or over to Mississippi, you see the devastation there where they had no levees. In some cases, they don’t have a need for levees, but they do have a need for heightened awareness of their built environments and protections from storms. So we are interconnected. We are not just one city that had tragedy befall it.
Why is it so important for a group like New Orleans Institute to help share information and knowledge?
Before I lived in New Orleans, I lived in Mexico. And I moved to Mexico City in 1988, which was three years after the devastating ’85 earthquake, and there were still literally buildings that had fallen to the ground, and one had to step around. And of course in my youthful arrogance, I thought there was something wrong with the city, Mexico City, that they hadn’t fixed it up. So it took me quite a few years, 20 years, to understand how a tragedy and a disaster of this proportion are not something you just pick up and fix.
But if I were to go back…and look for key people who helped the rebuilding of Mexico City, [they would be] really hard to find. There isn’t a sort of central [database]….I think that it would be a great disservice to any other community that suffered a disaster if it came to New Orleans, looking for help, and it couldn’t find us.
One of our partners, Beacon of Hope, went up to Cedar Rapids after the floods. It went over to Texas to help those people through FEMA woes and just the sort of nuts and bolts of first responders. We are the first responders after the disaster, the first first responders. And so that’s a valuable lesson.
What is it that the government should have learned from New Orleans that they shouldn’t repeat now?
One of the thing that was most tragic for me when I came back was there was a house down the street from us that had been a halfway house for drug addicts, [people with] mental illness, the gamut of the sort of society-forgotten people. Those residents were the people who patrolled my neighborhood. Those are the people who made sure that no one broke in my house. That knew that when the car was in the driveway that I was around and could mow my lawn. I mean those were people that are part of my neighborhood, and they were a part of my life….And this sort of government sort of overlooked the fact that the city is conglomerate of everybody.
You don’t have a city or community without those that are less fortunate. And there was a sort of idea that we were in some sort of Darwinian race here, like the only people that get to come back are the ones that are strong enough to fight or young enough to fight. One day I woke up and realized I was the oldest person in my neighborhood—at 51 years old—because the elderly just could not come back. They just couldn’t.
It’s within the range of government to understand that they have to bring their bureaucracies and their language to the place where people are. They have to meet them. We were often forced to sort of meet them where they are, which is City Hall. It’s very difficult to get them to meet you where you are….Rebuilding your community is not just about keeping those fine examples of determination. We all need to come along together.