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Ten years after Katrina, a 'new' New Orleans emerges

An engaged populace and a surge of Millennials lead an urban renaissance, though recovery is still not complete.

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    Dwayne Burns plays the trumpet with the All Star Trio in Jackson Square in New Orleans' French Quarter.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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American taxpayers put New Orleans back on its feet after hurricane Katrina. Matt Haines helped take it from there.

The young New Yorker came to New Orleans in 2009 as part of Ameri-
 Corps to help resurrect the city after one of the worst natural disasters in US history, and, like more than 30,000 other people, never left. He bought a rickety house in the rough St. Claude neighborhood, fixed it up, then bought another. Today he still lives in that second shotgun house – a classic narrow rectangular box with a brightly painted Gothic facade. 

Mr. Haines’s idealistic work for a nonprofit that trains teachers is part of a broad push across the city to improve the lives and prospects of New Orleans’ African-American community, much of which remains mired in deep poverty. But he finds what happens on his porch just as rewarding. When he paints the ornate detail on the front of his home, or plants a gardenia in a pot, his neighbors notice. Always. It’s a reminder of the unique sense of community that still exists in this 300-year-old city even as a “new” New Orleans – one decidedly different than before – rises out of the roiling waters of destruction.

“What I like about New Orleans is that, unlike in a lot of other places, even small things you do make a big difference,” he says.

A confluence of federal dollars, swamp-tested Cajun and Creole resilience, and a “Brooklyn on the Bayou” bohemian aesthetic has brought New Orleans to a place few could have imagined in the dreary aftermath of Aug. 29, 2005. Then, the nation watched transfixed and horrified as 85 percent of a major American city flooded to the eaves, killing hundreds, stranding thousands in attics, and leaving legions of others without homes.

Today, 10 years later, New Orleans is America’s “Lazarus city.” Its main commercial and residential areas are back. Its hardest-hit neighborhoods are reviving. Since 2007, the city has attracted a higher percentage of college-educated Millennials than any other urban area.

New Orleans is creating start-up businesses at a rate 64 percent higher than the national average, has launched the most ambitious charter school movement in the United States, and is improving its ethics-deficient political and police institutions – all while preserving, for the most part, its bacchanalian identity and gumbo culture.

This is not to say the Crescent City is a complete urban success story. Crime remains virulent, poverty entrenched, and some 100,000 New Orleanians who fled the storm, the vast majority of them poor and black, have never returned. They have been largely replaced by an influx of enterprising young whites, leading some to wonder whether Katrina didn’t unwittingly unleash the nation’s most jarring gentrification movement, forever altering the city’s soul.

Nor could New Orleans’ revival have happened without a record $71 billion in federal aid that’s poured into southeastern Louisiana. Most of it has come in the past six years – for building levees, hospitals, and schools; extending streetcar lines; and even fixing the air conditioning for the cockatoo exhibit at the zoo.

Yet the passion behind the city’s resurrection has come not from political leaders or cash-doling bureaucrats, but an engaged populace. It rallied early on around the already-emerging health-care and bioscience industries, as well as the city’s always-revelrous arts, music, and food scene. As Judith Rodin, who, as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, played a major philanthropic role in the city’s recovery, puts it: “New Orleans is not a top-down city.”

Given what the city’s residents have accomplished, often defying expectation and the laws of hydrology, the predominant narrative about New Orleans today may not be what the nation has done for it, as much as what it now means to the nation. 

“New Orleans is the greatest comeback story since Lazarus came back from the dead,” says John Travis Marshall, a Georgia State University law professor who worked as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority until 2011. “We had not seen a challenge like this in city rebuilding since World War II.”

•     •     • 

Before Katrina, Tia Moore-Henry lived in the Lower Ninth Ward – the impoverished neighborhood that became an emblem of the worst destruction after the hurricane hit. Like thousands of others, her home was destroyed by the surging waters, and she and her husband fled the city, staying with relatives in Lafayette, La. 

But they eventually came back, lured by his family’s deep roots in the area and the promise of a fresh start – for them and the city. After looking around, they decided to settle in the old neighborhood, opening a restaurant across from his family’s ancestral shotgun home. Now three years old, Café Dauphine remains the only sit-down restaurant in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Despite its singular status, the cafe’s presence signifies that even the most devastated neighborhoods of the city are slowly coming back. New household data show that the urban area has repopulated to nearly 90 percent of its original size and that the fastest growth is occurring in the hardest-hit areas. This includes the former swamps-turned-suburbs on the south shore of Lake Pont-
 chartrain, as well as neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward, where, during the storm, homes were swept away like driftwood. 

Not far from Ms. Moore-Henry’s restaurant, a small outpost of remaining shotgun homes are getting brightly colored face-lifts. They’re occupied by writers and 20-somethings from North Carolina who drive Toyota Land Cruisers. On a recent evening, a young couple in flip-flops walk their bulldog on the grassy knoll along a levee. Elsewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward, construction workers are building a new high school.

The nearby Bywater District is a trendy neighborhood in transition, too. Millennials shuttle to and from work on bicycles. Rows of rehabbed homes sit next to raffish ones, and locals congregate at Elizabeth’s Restaurant, a popular haunt with plastic tablecloths, gaudy art on the walls, and the scent of blackened drum and praline bacon emanating from the kitchen.

To Moore-Henry, the recovery phase has both added verve to the city and provided opportunity for a broad group of people. Yet the transformation hasn’t been exactly what she expected, in a good way. “I always imagined we’d build a city where everything was brand-new,” she says. “Instead, it’s like we’re propping the old city up.”

There’s no doubt the city is different demographically: It has become whiter, more Hispanic, and less black since Katrina. Drawn in part by the city’s romantic imperfections, the newcomers who have arrived in a mass migration have been led by celebrities and the creative class.

David Simon’s decision to film the TV series “Treme,” a drama that followed the lives of area residents as they struggled with the hurricane’s aftermath, became a local economic phenomenon by itself. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have become emblematic of recovery efforts with their Make It Right foundation, which builds environmentally friendly homes for those in poor neighborhoods. Sandra Bullock is a local. Last year, writer Roy Blount Jr. and actress Jessica Lange bought apartments in the city.

And two years ago, Alan Ferguson, who has directed music videos for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Fall Out Boy, moved here from Brooklyn with his wife, Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, in part for the warmer climate, but mostly because both of them had come to love the city.

“It’s a magical place,” Mr. Ferguson says, as he shoots hoops alone at a city park. “Don’t tell anyone back in New York, but this place is fast becoming my favorite city in the world.”

Many of those who are coming don’t have movie credits after their names but are part of an energetic new professional class. According to demographer Wendell Cox, the number of college graduates in the New Orleans area grew by 44,000 between 2007 and 2012 – a 25 percent increase. That rate was double the national average. New Orleans tied San Antonio for the largest increase, prompting Forbes magazine to dub them America’s top “brainpower” cities. 

Much of the jump in New Orleans’ numbers was due to people returning to the city after the storm. But many were first-time arrivals, lured by the prospect of new jobs and the city’s “Big Easy” ethos. 

They have helped fuel an entrepreneurial spirit and attract new businesses to the area. High-tech companies such as Globalstar, a satellite communications firm, have moved their corporate headquarters to the area, while the arts and culture communities continue to flourish: Nonprofit groups, many of which cater to these communities, are growing at twice the rate here than they are in other major cities. 

Physically, New Orleans is changing, too. The city has carved out 53 miles of dedicated bike lanes on surface streets and off-street paths, up from five miles before Katrina hit. It is the country’s fifth-ranked bicycle-commuting metropolis. The city has also installed major new outdoor recreation areas such as Crescent Park, a 1.4-mile ribbon of green along the Mississippi River where residents watch ships lumber by, and lined Lakeshore Drive, which skirts Lake Pontchartrain, with palm trees. 

•     •     • 

Yet some of the biggest changes in New Orleans have been institutional. Everyone remembers the months right after Katrina: Squabbling among authorities at the state, local, and federal levels turned recovery efforts into a bayou burlesque show.

Instead of commandeering a sense of solidarity, political leaders, including then-Mayor Ray Nagin, bickered and blamed each other, often dividing the city by race for political gain. Meanwhile, other leaders, including Ed Blakely, whom Mr. Nagin hired to be the city’s recovery chief, dissed the citizens of New Orleans as “lazy,” even calling them “buffoons,” as the recovery faltered. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials displayed their own ineptitude. 

Two years after the storm, only a trickle of the promised federal dollars had arrived in local hands, and a state buyout program was mired in controversy and corruption. Locals who lost their homes languished in FEMA trailers and fought over plans for the future of the city. As Jed Horne, author of “Breach of Faith,” puts it, the city “crawfished” for several years – going side to side rather than forward.

“The people had to overcome endless impediments ... the inequities of a state buyout program, the inequities of screwed-up regulations, all of which left people wondering what they should do, and then left them with little money to do it,” says Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards,” a just-released book about the role of New Orleanians in the recovery of the city. (The title is taken from an iconic piece of post-storm graffiti protesting perceived national indifference to New Orleans’ plight.)

Since then, a series of broad ethics reforms has helped rebuild civic trust. Some credit the election of former Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, under whose administration the reforms have been put in place, as well as last year’s sentencing of Nagin for wire fraud and money laundering in connection with recovery contracts. When first elected in 2010, Mr. Landrieu became the first white mayor of New Orleans in three decades, rising above a stubborn racial divide as a majority of African-Americans voted for him. He was reelected by a large majority in 2014.

One example of the new-sheriff-in-town mood: In late July, the city’s inspector general issued a scathing report – with photos – showing that some of the city’s parking meter officers were breaking city ordinances by talking on their phones in coffee shops all day, and then retaliating with parking tickets against those who complained about it. 

The city’s police department, also heavily criticized after Katrina for its violent crackdown on looters, has instituted its own changes – most notably abandoning the mass incarceration tactics of the past. And the city’s schools, troubled even before the storm hit, may have undergone the most sweeping transformation: The entire public school system has transitioned to charter schools. Officials set strict and enforceable standards for student performance. 

The transition has come at a heavy cost – several thousand teachers were fired – and remains controversial to this day. Yet the city’s graduation rate has gone from a dismal 55 percent of students to more than 74 percent, and the number of kids attending failing schools has gone from more than 1 in 3 to less than 1 in 10.

“After that early desperation and after philanthropy started to kick in, you started to see a New Orleans that was suddenly fashionable, partly because it was cheap. It became the new Bohemia, the new San Francisco, the new Seattle, the place to be,” says Mr. Horne, the author of “Breach of Faith.”

As far-reaching as many of the changes have been in classrooms and cop precincts, much of the impetus behind the new New Orleans has come from individuals themselves. A broad network of citizen activists has sprung up that lobbies for neighborhood causes of all kinds. One group, the Women of the Storm, focuses on the region’s politically powerful levee boards, trying to influence decisions over everything from water flows to wetland controls. 

“The recovery of New Orleans is one of the best examples of a civil society in action that I’ve seen in many, many decades,” says Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University in New Orleans from 1998 to 2014. “Individuals, groups of individuals, the private sector were all empowered to make change in the city and they did it, despite the odds against them.”

Some of the grass-roots pressure challenged the backroom politics and interest groups that have long dominated Louisiana politics. 

New Orleans taught us that “cities have to resist the temptation to build back the way things were before, even though it’s human nature to go back to the same ways,” says Ms. Rodin of The Rockefeller Foundation, who wrote the New Orleans-inspired book “The Resilience Dividend.” “New Orleans learned that it couldn’t go back, because of all the vulnerabilities that led to the disaster, including not just weak levees, but vulnerabilities of race and weak government. So they really used this opportunity to fundamentally transform the city.”

•     •     • 

Still, the “new” New Orleans is hardly a Huey Long egalitarian utopia. Many neighborhoods remain impoverished. Crime is a persistent problem: New Orleans has tallied more than 108 murders already this year, and property crimes, though down dramatically when taking into consideration the city’s smaller size, still occur with more frequency than the US average.

New Orleans carries the dubious distinction of ranking second in the nation (behind Atlanta) for having the greatest inequality among residents, according to Bloomberg. Incomes for blacks have risen only slightly in the past 10 years, while household incomes for whites have gone up by 35 percent.

Yet such concerns may be trivial when compared with the liquid threat that still exists nearby – the muddy water lurking just beyond the levees protecting the famed French Quarter and the rest of the city. The biggest chunk of the recovery money went to bolster these barriers, though the US Army Corps of Engineers admits that the improved levees could still be vulnerable to a Katrina-type storm – and climate change seems to be bringing more headstrong weather every year.

New Orleans, as writer John McPhee pointed out in “The Control of Nature,” has a long history of allowing flood memories to fade, only to face another onslaught.

A cane pole fisherman on the levee puts it more bluntly: “All we need is a hurricane to come straight up that river, and it’s all over.”

Still, behind the decisions of residents and corporations to reinvest in New Orleans lies a sense of pragmatism and necessity. After all, locals point out, earthquakes, tornadoes, and fires threaten other cities, just as the Mississippi’s flow can turn treacherous.

“I’d rather have [high] water than a fire burning on a mountain,” says Robert Smith, an African-American grandfather who can trace his family’s roots in the Lower Ninth Ward back several generations. “I’m familiar with here, but I don’t know about no forest fire. I know around here, the river getting high, time to get ... out.”

Steven Diniz is undaunted, too. The part-time photographer specializes in house reconstruction. He is rehabbing what used to be a shabby, vegetation-choked cabin in the hot Bywater neighborhood that he picked up after a friend’s tip-off, snatching it before it ever hit the market. Fixed up, but retaining the original “barge board” walls and outdoor washing machine, the two-unit shotgun home could bring more than $400,000 on the real estate market. Instead, he will rent it, for $1,400 a month per unit.

Such activity, now moving deeper into even threadbare neighborhoods, is fueling the local economy. Carpenters and drywallers are as sought after as beignets at Café Du Monde.

But the platinum home prices are also causing problems for the city’s working class – particularly the legions of service workers who cater to the booming tourist trade. New Orleans is a city of renters, with more than 50 percent of residents paying someone else’s mortgage, compared with the national average of 34 percent.

And the surprise real estate boom has revealed another inequity, one of many grievances residents still harbor from the recovery era: Federal buyout and recovery grants to homeowners were based largely on pre-storm property values, which meant that the primarily poorer African-American residents who are now seeing half-million-dollar homes being built next door tended to receive the smallest rebuilding grants. That miscalculation has become an obvious insult today, as speculators such as Mr. Diniz drive up property values.

“The real irony is that gentrification is really being felt all over the city in the sense of outsiders moving in, and that’s a mixed blessing,” says author Ms. Gratz. “For the people at the lowest rung of the ladder, there remains an air of desperation, [because life] has not improved for them as it has for the middle- and upper-income levels.”

The other question is whether the influx of gym-toned Millennials is changing the character of the city, turning it into another one-dimensional place of lattes and lovers of “Orange Is the New Black.” It isn’t. New Orleans’ past seems eminently stronger than its trendy present. The city’s unique European, African, and Caribbean roots can withstand the arrival of Apple Watches and designer bicycles. 

In the French Quarter, organic jazz still spills from the bars beneath the wrought-iron railings. Bourbon Street still pulsates at 3 a.m. with its R-rated pulchritude. Every restaurant carries its rendition of po’ boys and crawfish pie despite the arrival of a new generation of three-star chefs. Al Hirt would still recognize the place.

“The strength of New Orleans has always come from its diversity – that’s where jazz comes from, the mingling of many different forms of music, from different types of people, and that’s where its good food comes from,” says New Orleans native Walter Isaacson, the former vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the current chief executive officer of The Aspen Institute. “And the storm reminded us that we’re all in the same boat, and gave us an edgy aftertaste of danger that energizes people in the city to be more creative.”

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