Under the Level
New Orleans & New York

Imagine 80 percent of the city you live in under water. Imagine losing your home to rising flood waters and gale force winds. Imagine waiting for five days for help with little food and water and no access to medical supplies because you didnít have the financial means to evacuate.

Imagine it is two years later and your neighborhood is still reeling from the effects. Maybe your childís school is closed. Your former day care facility never reopened. Many of the stores you shopped at closed down and simply never reopened. Some of the restaurants you used to enjoy are gone. The office building you worked at is damaged beyond repair. Your neighbors, your friends, your family have left, many to never return. Imagine your life still in complete upheaval.

It's hard to imagine and that's part of the problem.

Under the Level is a visual and technological exploration of using urban intervention as a vehicle to raise consciousness about the situation currently facing the city of New Orleans and to engage people in a dialogue about issues of social significance that have thus far been under-represented in the national media. Under the Level seeks to provide impetus for people to become involved emotionally and intellectually in this connection through a reference they not only have a greater ability to understand but are potentially more responsive to -- their own home. The goal of Under the Levelís interventions is to unite members of these different cities together through common channels that residents may not realize they share. As diverse, culturally significant and incredibly unique cities, New York and New Orleans share much more than simply their coastal location. It is our hope that through the urban space of our home here in New York we can begin to understand what has happened to their home and perhaps be moved to do something about it.

Please visit and contribute to the blog for recent news on efforts in New Orleans.
underthelevel.org/blog

 

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Implementation

Under the Level utilizes research on rising sea levels and climate change effects to project damage to New York neighborhoods in the face of a significant storm. Depending on the projected sea level and the degree to which the neighborhood could be flooded or destroyed, they are matched to neighborhoods in New Orleans affected by Katrina. In order to signify this similarity, we have re-appropriated the "X" spray painted on many homes and buildings within New Orleans to signify that the location was searched by FEMA and other government agencies, and reapplied the symbol to black and yellow stickers. These stickers build off the design of the original marking, but while those were not intended for public consumption, the Under the Level stickers are readable by anyone. They also display a phone number, extension number and this website address. You can call and enter the extension to hear a message about the condition of that particular place, matching it to similar conditions in New Orleans during Katrina.

In the first phase of the project, these stickers were placed on certain streets in the East Village/Lower East Side and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These neighborhoods were chosen for their flood potential and visibility. In the second phase of the project, as part of Under the Levelís integration into the Conflux Festival, a walking tour of specific locations in Williamsburg was created and implemented. You can view locations and map information through our interactive mapping system or download a printable map on the Visit Locations page. You can also obtain more information about the data behind our mapping system under Resources.

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Background

Under the Level was inspired by the New York to New Orleans project, a grant funded collaboration between New York Universityís Interactive Telecommunications Program and Xavier University in New Orleans. The project had several goals:

  • to initiate a discussion between these two universities concerning the institutional responsibility to community
  • to assist the Xavier Art Department and interested students in developing skills related to new forms of digital technologies
  • to assist the Home New Orleans project, a collaboration between various community groups within the city, in obtaining a virtual presence for their various members.

As part of this collaboration, the participants involved in Under the Level traveled down to New Orleans in March of 2007. We were appalled to see state that many neighborhoods in New Orleans were still in eighteen months later. The Lower 9th Ward was still in complete ruins, parks and vacant lots were still littered with debris, gutted or destroyed houses still lined city blocks and the markings of FEMA and other governmental agencies and a distinct and frightening water line were still visible throughout the city. In addition to evidence of devastation, we also found it amazing that the city itself was still suffering from lack of basic services. Garbage collection had only just begun a week before we arrived and there was still no centralized method of recycling many materials. Schools were still closed and day care centers and after school programs, other than those run by volunteer groups, were virtually non-existent. Large stores were still closed down and large skyscrapers in the downtown area were destroyed and abandoned.

Through this project, our hope is to raise awareness of the ongoing and largely ignored situation in New Orleans through the lens of how vulnerable our own coastal city of New York is to rising sea levels and climate change. The problem in New Orleans is so much bigger than just a hurricane's path of destruction; it's about social justice and the responsibility of local and federal governments to provide humane and immediate assistance in times of disaster. Itís also about neglect and the absence of empathy and understanding from large portions of the national population. It is about what happens when we forget and ignore.

Participants

Under the Level is a collaborative effort between Catherine Colman and Angela Pablo. It was created as a final project submission for the Urban Computing Class at the Interactive Telecommunications Program during the spring semester of 2007. Under the Level was initially exhibited at the ITP Spring Show 2007. It will also be part of the 2007 Conflux Festival from September 13-16, a psychogeography festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Workshops will be held on Thursday, September 13th and Saturday, September 15th from 11am to 12:30pm with impromptu walking tours to follow.

Under the Level would like to thank Steven Jackson for his amazing work on our interactive mapping feature. We would also like to thank Adam Greenfield and Kevin Slavin for guiding our project development, particularly in its early stages, and providing us with much needed feedback. We would also like to thank Marianne Petit and Shawn Van Every for their efforts in coordinating the New York to New Orleans Project without which this project would not have been possible. Additionally we must also thank all those involved in the NY2NO collaboration, both here in New York and at Xavier University and within the community groups around the city. We would particularly like to thank Linda Jackson of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowner's Association. She is truly an inspirational woman. Every resident of the Lower 9th Ward is lucky to have such an amazing person working for and representing their needs. And lastly, we must thank ITP and Conflux for supporting our ideas and giving us outlets to promote our project and the cause it represents.