Here I am, about two months from starting my expedition as a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee. Most adventurers would be rushing to get passports, eco-friendly bug repellents and whatever you call those ropes that keep you from plummeting off the mountain you’re scaling. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about visas or carabiners, because I am exploring in my own backyard.
I know, the words “young explorer” and “my own backyard” may sound a little Brownie Girl Scout. But my backyard is actually New Orleans and a Young Explorers Grant from the Geographic provides seed funding to individuals ages 18 to 25 to help launch their careers in the fields of research, conservation and exploration.
In a couple of months, I will begin my oral history project about 20th Century immigrant culture in the New Orleans Ninth Ward. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, people across the country read stories and saw photos of disaster and devastation in the Ninth Ward. But before Katrina, the neighborhood was a cultural hotspot.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Ninth Ward was a vibrant cluster of immigrant boroughs. This gumbo of ethnicities provided New Orleans with some of its key ingredients: jazz, food and faith.
Though the Ninth Ward perseveres, several buildings stand damaged and plants are unkempt and overgrown. Many of the residents who remember the community in its heyday are now elderly and dying. This creates an urgency to document the significant district. I am also inspired to record the area because of a personal connection.
My father and paternal grandparents were born and raised in the Ninth Ward. My 92-year-old grandmother remembers the Italian grocery store around the corner, Latino neighbors and the jazz club her uncle owned. Her memories and those of her peers contribute to the history of New Orleans life in the 1920s and ‘30s.
I am currently looking for others who once called the Ninth Ward home to interview for my exploration. If you know anyone who lived in the neighborhood at any time between 1920 and 1960 and would like additional information please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.