Most if not all of the major spiritual traditions on our planet seem to embrace the path as a metaphor. Maybe that's why I've found the prospect of a greenway in the Lafitte Corridor so inspiring over the years. There's been something very compelling about imagining a trail in what is currently fallow, empty land — and treading that ground with others who share the dream each year.
I thought I should share my personal FOLC tale, since it's central to the origin of the group. During my terms as president (2009-2012) anytime I was asked to present, this is basically the story I told:
In the spring of 2005 I was walking with a friend near Bayou St. John, and we saw workers in the process of removing part of the Norfolk-Southern line, literally pulling up the rails as we watched. My friend took one look and said, "That would make a good rails-to-trails project."
This got my attention because I'm a bicycle commuter. I've ridden my bike to work pretty much every day since 2000, and so I know from experience that it's a wonderful way to get around. It's good for my physical health and mental well-being; it's good for my pocketbook; it's even good for the planet. But I also know that we could do a lot better by our bicyclists and our pedestrians. We need safer places to ride and to walk.
I got on Google Maps and looked at the satellite view of the area. I traced the rail line over three miles on my computer, but I knew I'd need to walk that land to really appreciate it. So on May 21, 2005, I got together with a couple friends to do just that. We hiked from Armstrong Park to Canal Boulevard in Lakeview. I took a couple hundred photos and got a sunburn.
This exploratory scoping convinced me the idea had merit. I could imagine a trail connecting these neighborhoods. It would be a great asset for the people of the city.
That summer I did more research. I discovered I wasn't the first person to have such ideas. It had been in city plans since the 90s at least. (I would later find ideas had been kicking around since the 70s.) Yet it never seemed to move forward. It never became a priority.
I also went to the website of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. I downloaded a book on how to get projects like this going. I read it over the summer, and by the time I was finished I faced a crucial decision: Yes, the idea had merit, but to promote it, to get it moving, that would take work. A lot of work. Was I ready to make that commitment?
Then Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, the City of New Orleans flooded, and suddenly this was the last thing on my mind, or anyone's mind. Suddenly we were focused on survival, and then recovery.
Over the months that followed, I was amongst the two million people displaced by the storm and its aftermath. I was amongst the hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians who returned to the city to rebuild. I was amongst the many citizens who felt it was my civic duty to be involved in the recovery process. In the midst of trying to put the pieces of my personal life back together, I was also attending meetings. Lots of meetings. Planning meetings. Recovery meetings. Many of us started to make connections to other New Orleanians who shared our concern and our commitment to the city and its future.
I also spent a lot of time scanning information on the internet, trying to keep up with what was happening. I noticed one day (February 10, 2006) that a big chunk of land was going up for sale, some of the very land where I'd imagined a trail. I alerted a number of people I'd met through the planning process, people who understood the potential of this land and were concerned about what might be lost. We got together and discussed it. It seemed a developer wanted to build a big movie studio there, with an attached vocational school. This seemed like positive economic development, and we didn't want to oppose that. The plans included a trail at the edge of the movie studio. This provided the impetus for a group of us to get together again; we submitted a grant proposal to the state, proposing to build a full three-mile trail.
(It's worth noting that previous ideas for the Lafitte Corridor generally looked at only half that span, 1.5 miles from Bayou to Basin. I am quite proud that we doubled the scope of the idea.)
Then something very strange happened. It was an afternoon in May, 2006. I was at the neighborhood laundromat because my washer and dryer had been destroyed in the floods and my house was still being reconstructed. I was bored out of my mind, watching the clothes tumble around in the machine. My mind wandered, and I reflected on how crazy life was in post-Katrina New Orleans, and I wondered what I had been doing at that time a year ago, before my world turned upside down. I remembered the hike I made with two friends in May of 2005. We were coming up on the anniversary of that date.
So on a lark, I sent out a message: It's the "Second Annual Hike of the Lafitte Corridor." I posted it to my blog and on the neighborhood discussion boards. "We will meet at the main entrance to Armstrong Park at noon on Sunday, May 21st." I wondered if anyone would come.
Lo and behold, seventeen people showed up. On that hike, as neighbors discussed what we could do to move the idea forward, Friends of Lafitte Corridor was formed.
We've been hiking ever since. We've had hundreds of people come and hike on a trail that hasn't been built yet. This is a testimony to power of the imagination, and the desire New Orleanians have to get this trail built. The day is coming, and I hope it's soon, when we will hike on a completed trail, and all this will seem like ancient history. The path will be transformed from imaginary to real; yet there is much that remains to be done, and FOLC will face many new challenges in the future. It's my hope that our annual hike will endure as a powerful symbol of what we can accomplish when we walk this path together. In so doing, we renew our commitment to each other and to the Earth.