The Love of Place

May 24, 2013

 A sense of place is powerful in New Orleans, where people tend to identify strongly with their neighborhoods. But while the culture and tradition of these neighborhoods may enrich the local lifestyle, a new initiative is analyzing how other particulars of place can have precisely the opposite effect. The program is called Orleans Place Matters and it takes a hard look at neighborhood-level factors ranging from housing and transportation to discrimination and the legacy of segregation.

“So we see and are not surprised by the Lower Ninth Ward, Central City, parts of Treme, parts of the Seventh Ward with extremely low life outcomes, because of the history, because of the inability to bring equity to those places,” says Andre Perry, an education policy expert at Loyola University. “Just to be clear, in some communities, the life expectancy rate is 55.5 years compared to 80 for others, so there’s a stark difference.”

Perry is the team leader for Orleans Place Matters. This local program is part of a national initiative from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group based in Washington, D.C. In cities across the country, its Place Matters program gives community organizations the data and analysis they need, both to understand what factors impact health in their neighborhoods and to advocate for effective change.

“We’re going to continue to produce reports and produce data that community members can leverage to get better policy for their communities,” Perry says. “Families need data to go to city council and go to the mayor and say, look this is what’s happening. And so we want to provide that data for them.”

In New Orleans, much of the Place Matters effort has centered on improving public education. Marsha Broussard, with the Louisiana Public Health Institute, says that’s because higher levels of education generally lead to higher income and better health overall. But, she says, the Orleans Place Matters research helps show how school reform on its own isn’t always enough to raise a student’s academic prospects. It also comes down to where they call home.

“Essentially, that’s the neighborhood that they live in, whether or not they can play after school, whether or not they feel safe walking to and from school, those types of things play into it,” says Broussard. “Are they hungry when they get home? What is the situation with parents? Are parents employed, are they able to provide them with the tools that they need or are they emotionally available to them for the supports that they need? Those are some of the things that kids bring with them that definitely impact upon their performance in school.”

Jobs, recreation, crime — there’s no single answer to these issues. But Perry says the data behind Orleans Place Matters can help turn the local affection for New Orleans neighborhoods into better advocacy on their behalf.

“The one thing we have in New Orleans is the love of place. Now we just have to honor that love with actual community resources,” he says. “There comes a point where if you don’t provide jobs and health care and clean, well-performing schools, you’re exploiting people’s love for place and so we don’t want to be a place where there’s a lot of emotional love and a lack of resources.”

 Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Orleans Place Matters, click here