One afternoon last week, two New Orleans police homicide detectives in an unmarked car drove into a gritty Seventh Ward residential neighborhood -- a neighborhood that can serve as a proving ground for Mayor Ray Nagin's community-minded "Care Again" program and a grassroots "Drumming for Life" concert series.
Clusters of apparently jobless young men gathered on littered street corners. The neighborhood's one-story shotgun homes were noticeably devoid of Christmas decorations and holiday cheer. The detectives pointed out sites of various double-homicides and even triple murders that in recent years have helped establish New Orleans as the nation's crime capital for cities with a population of 250,000 or more.
Motioning toward the empty St. Roch playground, Det. Sgt. Fred Austin recalled a grisly scene linked to a deadly drug gang, whose members were sent to federal prison. Lt. Jimmy Keen, commander of the homicide division, observed the wide swath of poverty, drugs and joblessness in the area. "There are too many people that are unemployed back here," Keen says.
Now, with the holidays here and the coming of the New Year, each of us has an opportunity to embrace new hope. On Jan. 9, under the umbrella of the mayor's Care Again campaign, 300 conventioneers from a Ben & Jerry's ice cream convention will team with Habitat for Humanity volunteers to restore four houses in St. Roch, says Matt Konigsmark, director of marketing for the city. Meanwhile, the Friends of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) and the mayor's office will clean up St. Roch playground, one of five NORD facilities citywide targeted for improvements. In another Care Again project slated for the New Year, "The Shades of Praise: the New Orleans Interracial Gospel Choir" will continue its concert series with stops in Algiers on Jan. 4 and eastern New Orleans on Jan. 12.
Care Again is about music and clean-ups -- and more. "The mayor's goal is to make New Orleans the number one place to live, work and raise a family," says Konigsmark. Care Again acts as an informational clearinghouse for individuals and organizations alike; the city's Web site matches up volunteers with more than 50 organizations ready to tackle community needs. By Dec. 15, Care Again's "volunteer scoreboard" boasted 2,700, including 700 student volunteers from Tulane University, 100 employees each from Hibernia bank and the Louisiana Division of Probation and Parole, and 20 girls from a local Brownies troop. (For more information visit www.newneworleans.net or call 598-CARE.)
The Care Again campaign is perhaps best known for its television commercials, which urge us to overcome three natural barriers to improving New Orleans -- apathy, complacency and cynicism. After the $500,000 marketing campaign for 2003 runs its course, Care Again plans to swing into a litter abatement blitz supported by donated airtime from local media.
As Nagin said of rising crime in his State of the City address on May 6: "City government cannot solve this problem on our own. This needs to be a community-wide effort. ... This is our call to action."
Meanwhile, a call for peace comes from the "Drumming for Life" concerts, which began in Congo Square in response to the violence of 1994 -- a year New Orleans was the nation's murder capital. After a long absence, the drummers are back. "The idea is to try and end [violence] during the holiday season so there will be no murders, Christmas through New Year's Day," says Luther Gray, spokesman for the 10 volunteer drummers. (For more information, call 495-0463.)
There were five murders during the last week of 2002, Gray notes. This year, he says, the drums will be used in the African tradition to "wake up the village" to the danger of violence. The message is peace, and the village is New Orleans. "We feel that our youth are becoming victims of a culture of death, because we as adults have not been stepping up and getting involved in their lives and giving them values," Gray says.
You can't hear the Congo Square drums in all of New Orleans, of course. Recognizing this, Gray and the other drummers have brought their message and their drums to local public schools, community centers and churches throughout the city. Last week, passing a former crime scene, Keen commented ruefully that the beating of the drums couldn't be heard in the Seventh Ward. In response, Gray says, "If the officer would like for us to come to that spot, then we will go there.
"The police cannot solve this problem; they are called after the fact," Gray says. "Our schools and economy have to improve but we have to change our culture, because life is so meaningless right now to so many young people. We have to present a culture of life versus a culture of death. We feel it is a good time to try and get the message out and hopefully it will carry over into the New Year."
These are messages we can all live with. Drum for life. Care again. Peace in our city.