Sunday, September 27, 2009

Welcome to Oregon: Letters from Children

Homemade cards by children are some of the most interesting things to read and observe. Usually those children have been instructed to create something for such a grand and momentous event that they will never understand until they are adults, but still they craft well-intentioned messages filled with informative pieces of tourism advice and truly inviting pieces of information. Whether the knew that the messages they wrote were intended for people uprooted by one of the largest natural disasters and government fiascos in modern history, it is hard to say. And whether those same children knew that none of their messages actually made it into the hands of Hurricane Katrina victims is also unknown.

After the storm, after the levies broke and houses and lives were washed away throughout the Gulf Coast, the abandoned high school across the street from my apartment was re-opened as a Red Cross shelter. The people of Portland anticipated a few hundred "storm refugees," maybe more, maybe less, to be bussed in as soon as the evacuations took place. Portland was, of course, only a few thousand of miles away from landfall of the storm. So who knew when people would show up?

And while eager news men waited in their vans for the first from Louisiana to arrive. A huge chain-link cyclone fence around the school. I asked a police officer who had given his time to patrol the block during this period what he thought of what was going. He told me that he decided to volunteer in uniform on his days off, "But, you know, I think it is all bullshit with this fence...You know, there is a serious need for the people who lost their homes, but look over there two blocks away. We have a whole bunch of people living on the streets right here...And we have the fence up to keep them out. Shouldn't we give them shelter too? The church over there tries to help. But we should really be helping out all who come for help." I thanked the officer. His candid honesty was refreshing while everyone doted over the anticipated guests while ignoring the needs so apparent in front of them.

The Katrina victims never showed. The Red Cross signs came down a week later, cots were packed away, but the cyclone fence stayed up for many months. The letters the school children of Portland wrote to welcome our new residents were put into a box and shoved into a space in storage to be forgotten for years the way ephemera and good intentions that never actually succeed are often forgotten.

The old highschool was revived just briefly for a few weeks by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art: TBA Fest. Various artists took over the building creating installations in the old classrooms while other art occurred throughout the building. One exhibit included these forgotten cards. 

I stood at the display case reading the letters, thinking about the events and the fence. And eavesdropped on the overfed aging yuppie art patrons remember make comments about how moving this piece was.
"Is this real?" a lady with gray hair, sparkly jewelry asks with a hint of disbelief. 
"Ah yes. Remember dear, this building held the hurricane victims," her obese husband responds proudly. He sounds proud of the letters, proud of Portland, proud of being a wealthy art patron, proud that this very school held so many lives hurt by such an awful storm.
"Oh that's right, I forgot they lived here." She responded.

And with that, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. "Actually, none of the survivors of the hurricane set foot in this building. The Red Cross was here for less than a week, and one they were told this place was not going to be used, the city locked the building up." I walked away at that point. Leaving the art patrons standing there looking at all of the empty gestures of welcome. I figured I could say more. I could tell them that I watched what happened at the school from my very window, but they didn't care. My comments would be put in a box and stuffed into a basement only to be forgotten.

Posted by Picasa

No comments:

Post a Comment