Project Details

 

During the last week of February 2005, I took advantage of a week vacation from teaching high school in Manhattan to escape the icy sidewalks of New York and visit some friends who had just moved to New Orleans. After two days of basking in the balmy air, I finally hopped aboard a streetcar and set out to explore the French Quarter. A few passes up and down Bourbon Street, wafting in its funky aroma of mercantile debauchery with my fellow tourists, left me amused but unimpressed, and I was soon venturing beyond its vomit soaked sidewalks in search of a more informed embodiment of the city’s spirit. A leisurely stroll along the fog draped shores of the Mississippi led me to the benches outside the immaculately manicured greenery of Jackson Square: ground zero in New Orleans’ battle against the profit killing blight of homelessness.


Although I had intended on a purely recreational visit, I soon found myself mesmerized by the stories that emanated from these benches. Being intimately familiar with the homeless situation in New York, I discovered a stark contrast. While the major complaint at home seemed to be the scarcity of affordable housing, here my conversations centered on the lack of living wage jobs. Several individuals I spoke with were working under the table on Bourbon Street for several dollars per hour. Since emergency shelter is provided free of charge in New York, I was surprised to find that inevitable requests for money were often made in the pretense of paying five dollars to spend the night inside a shelter. Although I didn’t witness any police activity in the Square, I heard frequent complaints of overzealous enforcement of quality of life violations for panhandling and sleeping in public.


With only three days left in my vacation, I certainly didn’t have enough time for a detailed factual exploration. Instead I borrowed a microphone and set out to capture the emotional essence of the esoteric tribe of street dwellers that call these benches home. While I doubt that my hurried effort will make any substantial impact on public perceptions, I hope that it might inspire other oral historians to delve into the lives of these fascinating storytellers.


Jim Flynn
New York
May, 2005

New York May, 2005