Collective Sites of Memory: New Orleans

Storm clouds over the Mississippi River, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014
Storm clouds over the Mississippi River, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

New Orleans, Louisiana, French Quarter, May 2014.

I returned to New Orleans in May 2014 to attend the National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium. The last time I was in New Orleans was in the summer of 2005, less than a month before Hurricane Katrina tried to return the city to the sea. In Seattle, in the first few years after Katrina, I had taken care of many homeless and near homeless patients who had been displaced by the storm. I knew that most of these patients were among the more than 100,000 former residents of New Orleans who left in the aftermath of Katrina.

Now, almost a decade after the devastating hurricane and the national tragedy of how it was handled, I wondered how the citizens of New Orleans had chosen to remember it. I went back to New Orleans to participate in the conference and policy symposium, but also to track down their Katrina memorials, their collective sites of memory. Hurricane Katrina was, of course, both a natural and a man-made disaster, what with its socially determined patterns of protection and vulnerability based on race, class, and gender–not to mention the effects of environmental degradation and Global Warming. How individuals and communities deal with the aftermath of a large-scale and complex disaster was something I’d been pondering. I had recently visited the Christchurch, New Zealand post-earthquake sites of memory (and written about it in a series of blog posts, the most popular one here).

How do people deal with and bear witness to trauma?

I went in search of the National Katrina Memorial Park. No one, not even the concierge at my mega French Quarter conference hotel had ever heard of this memorial. With hazy directions and a very silly-simplified tourist map from my hotel, I hopped on a streetcar not named Desire and headed up Canal Street towards the Cities of the Dead.

The Katrina National Memorial Park is located at 5050 Canal Street, across the street from some strange Herb import store painted bright green (reminiscent of the Green Pharma’ing of Seattle since our state legalized marijuana). Entering the black wrought-iron gates and reading the first marker/sign greeting me inside, I realized that I had arrived at Potter’s Field, or the ‘City of the Poor and Forsaken Dead’ as I prefer to call it.

Potter's Field Crematory, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014
Potter’s Field/Charity Hospital Cemetery, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

It is the site of the Charity Hospital Cemetery, on land purchased by Charity Hospital in 1848, and called Potter’s Field in the lingo of the time. “It has historically been used to bury the unclaimed from throughout the city, including the victims of several yellow fever and influenza epidemics,” proclaims the sign. It also contains the ashes of people who “donated their remains to the Louisiana State Anatomical Board for medical education.”

Walking farther into the cemetery, I was greeted by these strange, shiny black marble structures, which another sign identified as the Katrina Memorial mausoleums. They contain the ashes of the dead.

Katrina National Memorial Park, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014
Katrina National Memorial Park, New Orleans. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

A sign states that the swirling pathways lined with these strange structures is supposed to mimic the shape of the hurricane. It is designed to “create a meditative labyrinth, a healing space for reflection.” The fact that the Katrina mausoleums most strongly echo back to the Nazi concentration camp boxcars for extermination of Jews, Gypsies, disabled, homeless and other ‘undesirables,’ did not make this space–this site of memory–either meditative or healing. Who, I wondered, was responsible for the design of this place?

Ah, of course! I thought, as I read a sign stating that this Katrina Memorial was created by Dr. Frank Minyad, Coroner of Orleans Parish. Dr. Minyard, an OB/GYN physician by training, a white man dubbed “Dr. Jazz” as well as “friend of the police” because of love of both trumpet-playing and covering up controversial ‘accidental’ deaths of black men while in police custody. Dr. Minyard, the self-proclaimed “community servant,” upholder of what he calls “the Palace of Truth,” at the time of Katrina our county’s longest-serving big city elected coroner (and not a forensic pathologist,) and a rather loathsome interviewee in Frontline’s 2011 stark, startling, and effective video episode Postmortum: Death Investigation Crisis in America. I show and discuss this video every spring in my undergraduate nursing health policy course, so I remembered Minyard very well.

As sat on a bench waiting for the Streetcar Not Named Desire back to my French Quarter tourist hotel, I felt sad, empty, and duped. This was not the community/collective site of memory of proper remembrance of the national shame, of “Is this America?” of post Hurricane Katrina that I had come in search of.

Sweet Charity Or Solidarity?

IMG_0678Or something in between?

When we are moved by compassion and empathy to do something to help people in need, what ethical principles should guide our actions? What should we as teachers be modeling for our students? Is it enough to have good intentions when what we do can have negative unintended (although many times predictable) consequences? The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all of that.

Of course, I have in mind here the latest large-scale natural disaster in our world, that of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. But closer to home (at least closer to my home) I was thinking about these questions yesterday while helping with a university health science interprofessional service-learning project called Teeth and Toes. I work with colleagues in the Schools of Medicine (Dr. Frederica Overstreet) and Dentistry (Dr. Bea Gandera) to train and precept groups of health science students in the provision of basic foot and dental care to Seattle’s homeless populations. We build on long-standing relationships with quality homeless service providers (such as the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, Mary’s Place, and Downtown Emergency Service Center) to provide this ‘charity care‘ throughout the academic year. We try to build into the student training some element of upstream systems-level thinking about health and homelessness and student self-reflection, but we could do more (given more time and resources, of course!). Despite its current shortcomings, the Teeth and Toes clinics are one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Charity care is feel-good care for the giver much more so than for the receiver of care. Charity care can reinforce the status quo, including the pervasive belief that individuals are the sole cause of their own problems. But charity care can also be a starting point to a widening world view and to greater civic engagement and involvement in systems-level change. Charity can be a political act. Charity and solidarity can both be sweet.

Good resources on this topic (or closely related topics):

  • Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck (Viking, 1998).
  • Crossing Boundaries–Violation or Obligation (excellent short article!) by Gordon Schiff, MD. In JAMA 310(12): 1233-1234. September 25, 2013.
  • From Charity to Justice: The Potential of University-Community Collaboration for Social Change by Sarah Marcello and Bob Edwards. American Behavioral Scientist, vol 43) 895-912. February 2000.
  • When Healers Get Too Friendly, by Abigail Zuger, MD. NYT, November 11, 2013.