Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Streetcar Named St. Charles

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, NEW ORLEANS, LA -- One of the great things about New Orleans is its streetcar system. But the other thing about New Orleans is that when it rains, it really rains. Combine the two and you have one big adventure, particularly as the evening darkness descends upon the St. Charles route from the French Quarter to Uptown. I took this route a few weeks ago and was able to get some pictures, although even with an umbrella, both me and my camera got drenched. Yet the ride was indeed an adventure -- not only because the street car was crowded with people either going home from work, or scouring the city looking for a place to eat outside the drunken sidewalks of Canal Street -- but because you just never knew when you would actually get on one of these streetcars.

Once on with a mostly-seated crowd of equally drenched people, the streetcar slowly jerked forward making loud screeching noises as the driver steered with its few controls. The streetcar itself was interesting because it looked like something out of the early 1900s. Stops would come up and the driver would yell out to the soaked crowd expecting to get on to wait for the next car. This happened repeatedly and I decided I was lucky to be on the car.

But more importantly, through the rain-spattered streetcar windows I got a unique look at this famous city's streets. From what I could see it was beautiful and alive on a Wednesday night. It was almost magical. I also got to see what was ahead from the streetcar driver's perspective -- one rainy city with bright colorful lights and low visibility. This made me think of all the heroes and victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the fact that there is no streetcar route to the Lower Ninth Ward. I wondered if I was seeing some Katrina ghosts mysteriously embedded within this beautiful but precarious scene.

Then, very abruptly, the streetcar stopped and the driver announced that this was the last stop due to construction. "There's a bus across the street," he yelled.  I heard surprised expressions, resigned moans and groans, and even a few explicetives among the riders.  My colleague and I walked across the street only to find no bus waiting. Then I turned around to take one last picture of my streetcar named St. Charles adventure only to find that the streetcar had abruptly left.  "A ghost streetcar?" I dismissed this thought quickly as we continued on our way to dinner, walking in the rain discussing Ernest Hemingway of all people, and deciding to take a cab back.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. You can contact her at

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Urban Wilderness

Posted by Sam Jones, ATLANTA, GA -- City dwellers across the country go out of their way to enjoy open spaces, taking in a little bit of the outdoors whenever they can in municipal parks or redeveloped waterfronts.  What they don't seek out, however, are the vast stretches of vacant land full of interesting graffiti, rubble, rust, and overgrown grass. Perhaps such spaces represent an urban wilderness of sorts, ones that once were sites of important industrial activity, but now are abandoned and waiting for something else to happen. Atlanta has many of these empty spaces, particularly since the Housing Bust of 2008. In fact, along the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) East-West train line there is an eye-catching one -- near, quite ironically,  a large luxury condominium development.

How could this be? Well, this empty lot marks an unofficial border between two of Atlanta’s most prominent neighborhoods, one Black, and the other White. Both neighborhoods have political clout. But for whatever reason, this lot has not yet been considered prime real estate.  So it's forgotten-- at least for now. In some ways this place is visually striking because of its vastness, proximity to the MARTA line, and the luxury condo development, as well as all the colorful graffiti painted on its old rusted trestles and piles of rock. In other ways, it's unsettling. If you venture into it, there are plenty of used heroin needles, crack pipes, condoms (well at least folks are practicing safe sex), as well as rats running around. It is a wilderness to be sure, but certainly not a tourist attraction. 

Sam Jones is a senior majoring in Sociology at Georgia State University. He has also been an intern and volunteer on the GSU Urban Health Initiative  He can be contacted at


Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Spray Painted Voice in an Abandoned Place

Posted by Chandra Ward, ATLANTA, GA -- Lack of affordable housing has always been a serious issue for people with very low incomes in the United States. But since the Housing Bust of 2008 the situation has become dire for many households. This is particularly the case on the upper Southwest side of Atlanta, a predominately low income African American area hack-sawed by mortgage fraud, foreclosure, and widespread abandonment. The collateral damage includes both single family homeowners and real estate companies with large apartment complexes. And this couldn't be more pronounced than in a neighborhood off of Joseph E. Boone Ave.  But someone is letting their voice be heard.

This person, whose tag name is Tai, has spray painted messages on abandoned apartment buildings and houses in the area. Tai's message is that no one seems to care.  Indeed, given that this has been allowed to occur, it does seem like no one cares. The city doesn't seem to care, developers don't seem to care -- in fact, perhaps no one but Tai really cares. Ironically, unlike Tai's references to "the projects", the apartments buildings are not former public housing. Rather, they are victims of private market absentee slum lords, all of whom probably walked away with a hefty profit.

It's unclear if Tai is a resident, but it does seems likely.  For one thing, Tai's canvases are similar to those of many youth who feel like mainstream America has marginalized them and silenced their voices. Tai is breaking this silence to bring attention to this forgotten place.  People still reside on the other side of the street, where there is a fully-occupied low-income apartment complex.   These residents, including men and women of all ages, as well as children, must traverse up and down the street passing the abandonment complex, one that is used as an unofficial garbage dump.  I found a stuffed animal in the deserted parking lot.  Perhaps it was left by a child that once lived here. Where is this child now? This question is left unanswered just like the pleas from Tai.


Chandra Ward is the Assistant Editor of Social Shutter and a Doctoral student in the Sociology Department of Georgia State University. She is also a Team Leader on the GSU Urban Health Initiative.  She can be reached at

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Real “Post Katrina Blues”

Posted by Nia Reed, NEW ORLEANS, LA -- When I was walking down New Orleans's Art Gallery District about a week ago, I came across what I thought was the most adorable, funny display. In the window was a sleeping cat, sprawled out and seemly purring in front of a painting called Post Katrina Blues by Terrance Osborne.

The painting reflected the horrifying images of houses submerged in Katrina's rising waters, but the cuddly, sleeping cat distracted me from the haunting message of the work. Then I decided to visit the Lower Ninth Ward, the poverty-stricken, predominantly African American neighborhood hit perhaps the hardest by the  hurricane. There, I saw images that were too disturbing, too real and too sobering to be distracted by anything but what I can only identify as the real Post Katrina Blues.
I had ventured from the nationally popular French Quarter, Crawfishing, and CafĂ© DuMonde, places that seem to have moved on from Katrina. That side of “NOLA” is captured in the billboards of Drew Brees, the Fleur de Lis symbol, as well as the lively music by street performers on Bourbon Street. But just a short 10 minute drive across the bridge sat block after block of grossly damaged homes, representing the eery and sad emptiness of the Lower Ninth. Katrina hit in 2005. I visited the neighborhood on March 2, 2012 -- a little over six years later. Why hasn't this community experienced the same level of rebuilding as the French Quarter? Why is it still riddled with dilapidated homes and debris from gutted constructions? 
When crossing the bridge over to the Lower Ninth there are deceptive images of fixed or new roofs. But the closer to the homes I drove, the more visible gross government neglect and abandonment became. Homes were boarded up, or more typically, gutted with the insides splattered all over the front sidewalk almost like a made-for-TV murder-for-hire movie.
FEMA insists that it has done, and continues to do, everything possible to restore homes in this hard hit area. Yet the fact that a significant number of residents remain dislocated from their homes and families tells another story. A visit to the Lower Ninth renders such political rhetoric null and void because the actual landscape tells a very different story. Private agencies and celebrities (including Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie) continue to donate time and money to help restore the homes, lives, and communities of individuals and families who once resided here. But they alone cannot rebuild it all. In fact the restoration efforts appear to be coming along at about the same rhythmic cadence of the Blues.

Nia Reed is a Doctoral student in Sociology at Georgia State University and a Team Leader on the GSU Urban Health Initiative.  She can be reached at

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Beyond Broken Windows: Drab Gray Paint versus Graffiti

Editor's Note: James Q. Wilson, the Political Scientist who developed the Broken Windows Theory, passed away last Friday at the age of 80. Click here to read his obituary from the Associated Press.

Posted by Angie Luvara, ATLANTA, GA -- There is a theory of crime called Broken Windows, suggesting that when broken windows, graffiti, and litter start appearing in a neighborhood, so will crime. This theory never did sit well with me, but I couldn’t really put it into words until I moved to Cabbagetown, a small, artsy neighborhood in Atlanta just east of downtown.

Broken Windows Theory claims that these indicators are signs of “neighborhood decay”. If the broken windows aren't fixed, and if the graffiti isn't removed then it's assumed that neighborhood residents lack cohesiveness and ownership of their space. In other words, if the people who live there cared about their neighborhood, they would "clean it up". Well, what happens when neighborhood residents don’t see these indicators as negative? What if they don’t look at graffiti as a sign of neighborhood decay but instead see it as art? What if they view the Mardi Gras necklaces strewn on the fire hydrant on their street as beautiful, not as litter? This is precisely where Broken Windows falls short.

I found the perfect example of this the other day when I was walking home. Someone, likely an employee from the City of Atlanta, had covered the colorful graffiti on an abandoned building at the edge of Cabbagetown with drab gray paint. In response, someone else had written “this eyesore is the problem, not graffiti” on one of the painted sides of the building. This amateur graffiti sums up so simply the failure of Broken Windows to account for collective values among neighborhood residents. Perhaps the prevalence of graffiti doesn't signify neighborhood decline. Perhaps, just maybe, the residents actually prefer graffiti to the drab gray paint so often used to cover up its beauty. Cabbagetown has had graffiti for quite some time and hasn't developed a crime problem.

Angie Luvara is a photographer and Managing Editor of Social Shutter. She is also a Doctoral student in Sociology at Georgia State University. To view more of her photography, go to her blog at