The media images of New Orleans devastated by post-Katrina flooding are indelible—levees breached, miles of homes underwater, bodies floating down streets, people stranded on roofs and packed into the Superdome. What happened after the waters went down got a whole lot less airplay.
Daniel Wolff’s new book The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back
(Bloomsbury, 2012) aims to change that. So do the documentaries he’s co-producing with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, new-minted recipient of the Woodstock Film Festival’s Maverick Award. New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward
started as five half-hour segments on PBS’s “Tavis Smiley Show” and was later recut as a documentary feature; after numerous festival screenings and a theatrical run in New York, I’m Carolyn Parker is currently airing on PBS’s “POV” series. Three more documentaries are still in the works.
Wolff is a rangy, affable man with a crooked smile and a wardrobe of baseball caps, outspoken t-shirts, and khaki shorts. Though he’s lived in Nyack for decades, he’s proposed meeting at Bear Mountain State Park. Sitting at a picnic table overlooking pristine Hessian Lake, he seems like a born multitasker, eating a burger and keeping one eye on a neighboring football game as he discusses his work.
He and Demme are neighbors whose first collaboration was The Agronomist
, a 2003 documentary about slain Haitian broadcaster/activist Jean Dominique, a mutual acquaintance. “We were walking our kids to school together, and asked, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” The same question spurred their first trip to New Orleans. They arrived with a video camera five months after the hurricane, when, Wolff reports, “The news people were mostly gone. We started hearing about ‘Katrina fatigue’ before we arrived. So people were glad to see us. They were excited that someone was going to be telling their story.”
There was little preplanning. “We got down there, rented a car, and drove to what seemed to be the hardest-hit areas. People would tell us their stories, then point us to somebody else we should talk to,” says Wolff. “It was all very seat of the pants, very rough.” Demme did most of the camerawork; Wolff listened and took lots of notes.
“Our original plan was to film for one year—four visits, one in each season, the story of everyone getting happily back into their homes.” When they realized that wouldn’t happen, they vowed to keep going back until all their principal interview subjects were back in their homes. It took five-and-a-half years. Demme and Wolff returned every few months to document their progress, and ongoing struggles with recalcitrant insurance companies, inadequate FEMA trailers, corrupt contractors, and endless bureaucracy; they amassed over 500 hours of footage.
Three years into the process, Wolff decided to write a book too. “There were things I could get at in a book that would be harder to do in a film,” he explains. “They’re very good at putting you right there, but it’s hard to pull back for historical background.”
The Fight for Home offers both context and vivid details, like a woman two-stepping with her rescued dog on the sidewalk, or this description of a subdivision in Violet, 18 months after the flood: “Down a long straight block, humps of dead appliances sit by the curb: stoves, iceboxes. The nearly identical houses wait under the bright sun, most of their carports empty, sometimes an abandoned vehicle left to rust on flat tires. The smell is of garbage and drying marshland. There’s almost no sound: no hammering, little traffic. Way down the street, a crew is chainsawing the big trunk of a limbless tree.”
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New Orleans natives are famously great storytellers, and Wolff has a Studs Terkel-like ear for dialogue rhythms (“We broke as a joke down here”; “Everything’s mumble-jumble.”) Here’s Suncere, a dreadlocked activist with a tattoo of Africa under one eye, describing why he came from North Carolina to volunteer with Common Ground: “If I don’t take myself down here to help my folks out, I might as well get a potato peeler and start peeling off my skin.” Though his intent was to help African-Americans, Suncere also wound up working with Vietnamese immigrants, Native Americans, and Cajuns like Mike, whose house he first approached on a dare because it was flying “a huge-ass Confederate flag.” Stocky and “sun-raw pink,” Mike burst into tears of gratitude that Suncere and his buddy had shown up to help; they became lasting friends.
“This has always been a gumbo. And that’s never gonna change. God loves color! God loves diversity!” testifies Pastor Mel, an ex-crackhead preacher whose flock of recovering addicts rescued dozens of Gentilly residents in flat-bottomed boats, some of them marveling that they were doing so instead of looting.
Wolff’s reportage includes dozens of local residents, out-of-state volunteers, politicians, and such surreal incursions as busloads of visitors on “disaster tours,” a blasted industrial landscape turned into a trailer park fenced like a refugee camp, and a pink-wrapped art installation commissioned by Brad Pitt to raise funds for building new homes. Even the graffiti is eloquent: NOT 4 SALE @ ANY $ I’M STAYING PUT!
The Fight for Home also makes room for historical background, tracing New Orleans’ ethnic mix from the busiest slave market in the antebellum South to enforced desegregation during Reconstruction and again in the 1960s, along with the city’s gradual economic decline. “The media cliché after the floods was that it ‘lifted the veil off poverty.’ What veil? If you’re poor, there’s no veil. And the trouble is that if that’s how you see it, the veil goes back down,” Wolff asserts. “The quick news item on New Orleans is essentially that they were victims. These people had rich and compelling lives before and after the flood. It’s easy for people with a certain amount of money to walk by these people, and we have no idea. If we call them ‘victims,’ they’re easier to dismiss.”
He gets up to fetch a stray napkin, picked up by the wind, and remains on his feet. “The longer we kept going down, the more important the story seemed to become, and the more universal,” he says. “It seemed to me that all the issues this country is grappling with were there in one city: low-income housing, federal stimulus programs, public education, public health, race, class. It’s all there.”
Wolff’s previous nonfiction books tackle many of the same underlying issues, often coming at them through the side door. In You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke (Virgin Books, 1996), he spirals outward from the story of Cooke, one of the first black Gospel singers to cross over to a “mainstream” (read: white) pop audience, to the Civil Rights era. In 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury, 2005), “I can use Bruce Springsteen as a way into Asbury Park, and then talk about the Ku Klux Klan in the Northeast.”
How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them (Bloomsbury, 2009) describes the nontraditional early educations of a dozen famous Americans, from Benjamin Franklin and Sojourner Truth to Elvis Presley. Posing the question “How did they learn what they needed to know?” Wolff also examines the roots of the public school system, founded to “Americanize” immigrants and foster obedience. (Pledge of Allegiance, anyone?)
“If you talk long enough about education, the definition starts to broaden,” he says. “People tell you about how they learned woodcarving from their uncle. FDR would probably say the Hudson River was part of his education. We need to have this dialogue, not just ‘How did your kid do on his math test?’”
Wolff’s own education took place in Mamaroneck, where he did a lot of sailing. He was a good student, if not an attentive one. “According to my mother, I got asked to leave a number of schools, probably because I was a wiseass.” He learned what he needed to know in large part by hitchhiking during the 1970s. “The story of America is a great story, with all its successes and failures. I was never able to get that from history books, but I sure got that from riding around in cars with all those oddballs who picked me up.”
A self-described “general practitioner,” Wolff has sampled a wide variety of creative genres. Alongside his nonfiction and film credits, he writes music criticism and liner notes; his notes for The Complete Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers earned a Grammy nomination. He contributed introductory essays to Eric Meola’s Born to Run: The Unseen Photos and two books by the late African-American photographer Ernest Withers, as well as a historical essay about the Lenape for Riverkeeper. He’s also collaborated with his wife, choreographer Marta Renzi (sister of John Sayles’s producing partner Maggie Renzi), on spoken-word texts for dance performance. And he’s published two volumes of poems, with a third to be published next year. (“That’s just for cash,” he deadpans.)
“I don’t think of myself as a writer with a capital W. I’m a human being who’s curious about things and has developed some communication skills,” insists Wolff, who rebels at the notion of specialization. “Nature doesn’t get branded. It doesn’t go, ‘You’re just going to be about the wildflowers; too bad about the bees.’ It’s a mix. It’s the Hudson River; it’s the freshwater and saltwater, all the different elements that combine so you get an interesting ecosystem. I’m interested in connecting things. The wider apart things are, the more interesting it gets to draw the connections.”