Safe House in New Orleans

We drive slowly. Lining both sides of the street are homes coming undone at the seams and parked cars, many just rusting hulks, wrecked and stripped. Women sitting on porches eye the neighborhood’s activities and note our passing. Kids walk aimlessly down the street. It is a hot and humid Saturday afternoon.

Some blocks down on the left, is a white, a very white, shot-gun house with a gaping but expertly-made circular opening in its front. There on hinges and swung wide open is a massive round silver-gray bank-vault door. Dave, who’s driving, stops the car. We get out, climb up on the rickety brick sidewalk, and enter the house.

Inside, it is hot, stuffy, and dark. The walls are plastered with faux $100 bills. The hands of children have been at work. Instead of the image of Mr Benjamin Franklin with his receding hair line, long locks of wavy hair, and quirky smile peering out at me, there are drawings of everything from basic stick figures to superb self-portraits to numerous interpretations of Hello Kitty.

A woman greets us and explains. “New Orleans has high levels of lead in the soil. This project is to bring attention to the problem and help get the money we need to get the lead out.” She points to a large map of the city on the back wall. It’s colored in with varying shades of pink and dark red. A lot of the red looks almost black. “That shows the level of lead contamination in every area of the city,” She says. “It’s all over.”

My eyes are wide open. I realize that where I am staying in the city is colored dark red, almost black.

She continues. “Children all over the country are making their own $100 bills. After two years an armored truck will collect them and bring them to Washington, D.C. There we’ll ask to exchange the children’s bills for real ones to get the lead out.”

This is the Safe House.

Mel_Chin_Safe_House_New Orleans

The work of conceptual artist, Mel Chin, the house contains $50,000 in faux $100 bills created by school children and community members. Long interested in the coming together of art and earth science, the artist started researching the issue of lead in New Orleans and the cost to remediate it in 2006. He discovered that lead in the soil has affected the well-being of New Orleanians since long before hurricane Katrina, and that the cost to remediate the soil would be $300 million. Knowing that the amount was too high to raise, the idea of making the money came to him. That was the beginning of the Safe House and the Fundred Project. The Project is on-going, so have a peak, get your kids involved, make some bills, and send them to a collection point near you.

The power of Mel Chin’s Safe House, the city, and its people acted on me. Some days after being there I wrote this poem.

Safe House

A New Orleanian’s Prayer

I am my own house

Inside of me live my dreams

And in them my fears and desires

They make me crazy, Oh Lord

Drive me to drink and drugs

Put a gun in my hand and an attitude on my face.

I am my own house

Teach me to read and write

And do mathematics, too

So I can express without fear

The hurt that’s piled up so high inside, Oh Lord

So I can make my way with paperwork, calculations, and bed-time stories

And clear my head of doubt

I’m no fool; I know that.

I am my own house

Teach me a skill that I can call my own

And get me a job that pays a good living wage

So I can gather round me my family,

The little ones and old ones, too, Oh Lord

Put whole food on the table and fill their heads with peace

Build my self-esteem as I help them build theirs.

I am my own house, Oh Lord

Just give me the door and I’ll walk in.

All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum

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