August 16, 2007

Renaissance Clash

This is the second of three posts featuring photographer Alan Chin’s latest images from the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. The series profiles the Renaissance Trailer Park (NOLA article, April ’06) on the fringes of Baton Rouge.  The BAG also asked Alan to provide some description of events.

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(click for full size)

By Alan Chin

This was a "town meeting" in which residents were trying to elect a new committee of representatives. The guy in the MSPP T-shirt is Wilbert Ross, the President of the Residents’ Committee, who had resigned the day before pending a new election. He wanted to continue in his role, however, whereas others wanted new faces.

The meeting started with a discussion on formaldehyde poisoning, then moved n to whether Ross should continue being the president of the residents’ council. His partisans said that he should, another faction wanted to oust him.  After a woman called him a "crack head," he had to be physically restrained, as you can see.  (The woman in the next shot with her hand in the air is strenuously pro-Ross, while the woman in the shot after that — who looks like she’s having a revelatory moment —  is expressing anti-Ross sentiments.)

Without any clear discussion, the meeting degenerated into bitter acrimony with a lot of screaming and yelling, ending up in a crushing emotional deflation and no resolution of anything.

My photos could be of a church meeting or a personal dispute. But even without the specifics, I think they show how this as a place that is emotionally wrought, on edge — and chaotic whenever the residents officially gather.

People actually don’t socialize much, however, even though there are 1500 people in 600 trailers.  Most stay inside the air-conditioned trailers and keep to themselves, or just a few others. There did not seem to be any real sense of community or solidarity, despite the fact that they do acknowledge their common interests and problems.

Part of it is the heat. There is no shade anywhere among the rows and rows of trailers, and it’s scorching hot half the year in Louisiana.  Several residents said that they did not really know the families living right alongside them, regardless for months or years. One man died right before I got there; his body lay in his trailer without anyone noticing for three days in the July heat.

Probably in the autumn and winter people do hang out more. But in summer, even the basketball court is empty all day long. Another reason, also, is that this is a disparate group of people who did not naturally choose to live in the same neighborhood. And it is not that stable a population.  As the more capable families leave, they are replaced by new people coming from smaller trailer parks that are progressively being closed down.

Many of the residents are there because they were the kind of people who didn’t have great family or social networks to begin with, and were estranged or alienated even before Katrina. They had nowhere else to go, and once in the camp, they got stuck there.

So Renaissance Village is the largest FEMA camp, and will be, at some point, the last. Which means that the population at each stage becomes the most impoverished, the most vulnerable, the most unemployable. And that, in turn, means that the social element breaks down more and more, as the more natural leaders leave.

(Previous Chin New Orleans posts at The BAG: Renaissance Village From The Outside (8/16/07); The Katrina Landscape (5/3/06); St. Rita Ongoing (10/8/05);  And Then I Saw These (9/27/05).  All images courtesy of Alan Chin.  Louisiana. 2007.  Posted by permission.)

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Michael Shaw
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