NEWS BEAT: Documenting the New Orleans that Was

As New Orleans struggles to define its future after Hurricane Katrina, a new project is asking residents to share memories, stories, photographs and other materials from the city’s past.

Called “Do You Know What It Means?” the project is a Web-based effort to help the public understand the unique culture, traditions and ways of life in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re inviting the public to come forward and help us document what life was like before Katrina,” says project director Amy Stein. “As the submissions come in, we’ll be able to piece together and show people the story of how New Orleans was before the storm.”

Through interviews and the collection of photographs, family histories and other artifacts, this archive, located at www.doyouknowwhatitmeans.org, aims to chronicle and preserve the untold stories of the people of New Orleans in a multifaceted and accessible public digital archive.

The first batch of material posted on the site documents a community originally formed in St. Bernard Parish known as Fazendeville that was displaced by the construction of the national park at the Chalmette Battlefield in 1964. These people largely moved to the Lower Ninth Ward, where they were displaced yet again by Hurricane Katrina last year.

“Do You Know What it Means?” was conceived by alumni and staff from the School of Visual Arts in New York and is based on the example of “Here is New York” – an on-line and gallery-based exhibit of thousands of New York photographs organized after the 9/11 attacks. “Here is New York” had 1.5 million visitors to its storefront gallery. Its Web site has received more than 2 billion on-line visits.

“Both projects aim to function as living memorials and to restore our sense of equilibrium as a nation, as a city and particularly as a community,” says project co-founder Charles Traub, chair of the school’s MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department.

“We hope to create a place on the Internet that’s live, that’s real, something where people from any area of this city can come together and say, ‘here’s our family album, here’s our neighborhood album, here’s our street album,’” says Traub. “If we’ve lost a great deal, maybe we can build something back, a link that preserves a cultural identity.”

Several local institutions are involved, including the Historic New Orleans Collection – providing archiving and preservation assistance – and the University of New Orleans – providing staff and students to help analyze gathered material.

The project is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and will rely heavily on volunteers. To learn more about sharing your own materials, go to www.doyouknowwhatitmeans.org. — I.M.

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