Gentrification Binds New Orleans on Katrina 10-Year Anniversary

Nola 1If I had to pick a word that represents where New Orleans finds itself on this 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina it would be “changed.” The city still stands and from most accounts is thriving with a new energy and vigor not evident previously.

But neither is the Crescent City the same city it once was before the storm washed away nearly 2,000 lives and countless homes. Neither is my life the same. I am a changed person because of this storm, and both New Orleans and myself travel a path through life in an alternative reality.

My wife at the time and I had been going to New Orleans for years. It was my go to place to get away from the hectic life in Washington, DC. Finally in October of 2004 we decided to move there. For several glorious months I lived on my own in a mirror-walled apartment on the corner of St. Louis & Bourbon Streets in the French Quarter, in what was a former bordello known as Chez Bourbon.

It belonged to Chris Owens, a noted burlesque performer who lived on property with her boy toy we referred to affectionately as Mr. Hair. Owens owned and operated the club that faced Bourbon Street, where she performed nightly. To say there were a few characters that lived and worked in this facility would be a gross underestimate. I got to know bounty hunters, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps and a variety of castaways that didn’t fit the mold where they previously lived in locations far from New Orleans – all while I worked a normal day job at a prestigious law firm on Poydras Street.

My time there only lasted a few months, which was best, because I would have hurt myself had I lived there much longer. How can you not love having a “To-Go” cocktail window in your building. But this joint served its purpose as the rent was cheap, the joint was furnished and it was walking distance to work. Come late December 2004, our condo was ready for move-in and I bid Chez Bourbon farewell.

This was the first place we had ever bought. It was in an old cotton mill located in the Central Business District, with huge ceilings, exposed wood beams, giant windows overlooking the courtyard, and walking distance to the French Quarter. It was a cool spot. We lived there for seven months before Katrina came calling.

ClawhammerI will skip going into what that moment was like. Let’s just say anyone who was out at Armstrong International Airport trying to secure a rental car the day before Katrina hit will never forget the scene.

If you can imagine what it looks like when society begins to break down that was it. Decisions matter, and if you didn’t heed some caution and make an exit strategy in case things got bad, which they did, then there were consequences, and some folks did not handle that moment well.

My wife and I drove away from our home in New Orleans with our cat, Jordan, early on August 28, 2005 and headed to my parent’s home in Frankfort, KY. The counterflow plan was in effect, so all lanes on the interstate were outbound, flowing away from New Orleans. It was like some mad NASCAR scramble, with vehicles cutting across medians and ripping north.

After the levees breached and the waters rose there was a brief moment of uncertainty. Reports from the Superdome and the convention center made things seem dire. There were a few days when humanity, and law and order, were absent from New Orleans, but it returned. Of course it took the military to restore that order, but it returned.

Nola 2I rejoined my law firm colleagues the following month. We set up shop in Baton Rouge temporarily, but I was able to return to our condo during the night with a Governor’s Pass one of the partners loaned me and found our property unharmed, aside from the disgusting smell emanating from the refrigerator that had been without power for over a month. Others in our building were not so lucky.

Still, my wife and I returned to New Orleans. There was a civic sense to fight from within the city limits to bring New Orleans back, but those were hard days. Nearly 2,000 people had died. I routinely had folks in and around my office openly mourning the deaths of their family members.

You have to pause and think about that for a moment. Imagine coming to your workplace day in and day out, and having colleagues weeping grievously about missing or dead family members, combined with an executive attitude to soldier up and get back to work for the good of our clients. It makes for an other-worldly work environment. Ask the folks around New York who went through 9/11.

Most everyone also was endlessly on their personal phones daily, arguing with insurance companies about property damage and what their policies would or would not cover. People may not have been fighting for their literal lives, but many were fighting for their mental lives.

Nola 4There also was the tattered infrastructure. Going to places like the grocery store meant driving through vacant neighborhoods, past houses that had steeped in murky water for months. The eery writing of rescue workers remained scrawled across the fronts of all the houses, denoting whether people or animals were found inside dead or alive. I remember this giant radio tower was toppled across a vacant neighborhood and remained there for months. The damage was immense and inescapable.

My wife and I had been in New Orleans less than a year. We didn’t have the roots or support structure needed to anchor our presence. We were looking for something to counterbalance the disaster and couldn’t find it, so we sold our home and left New Orleans, thinking we would give our city some space to grieve and heal.

This is when my alternate reality began. We never would have left had it not been for Katrina. I had a good job, and my wife was working for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. We were becoming part of the Big Easy. We were just finding our way and were excited to see where this adventure would go next. I was preparing to return to college and earn my master’s degree. Instead of ultimately going to the University of Iowa, I most likely would have attended LSU.

We ended up living with my wife’s family in Galena, IL for a time, and with my folks in Kentucky. We traveled throughout the western U.S. to scout different cities and universities to potentially attend and ultimately moved to Iowa City, where I earned an MA in journalism. At the same time my wife was wooed back to New Orleans in 2006 for Jazz Fest by its creator, Quint Davis, and began living there full-time for several months leading up to and after the festival.

The city was indeed coming back but was fueled by antidepressants and alcohol. By the time I graduated in 2009, I was already traveling a darker path and upon returning to a city that never sleeps, and charged with covering its nightlife activities, this was like throwing napalm on a house fire. I went en fuego.

Nola 6It surprisingly lasted a couple years, but I had to get out. My marriage was gone and I needed out of the life that New Orleans offered. I was done with super-parades, 24/7 clubs, and the attempted obscuring of a deep-rooted depression behind the faux-happiness of a smiling mask. Yes the Saints did win the Super Bowl in 2009, but that was just another excuse to consume.

I returned to Kentucky, this time by myself. Now I can’t say whether I would still be married had Katrina not hit, but it put a chain reaction in motion that was not in my playbook otherwise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I’m surrounded by people I love today, and I have a family that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Similar for New Orleans, it is back and better than ever in many ways, but it’s different. This historically black city is much whiter now, as more than 100,000 former African American residents are scattered across a variety of U.S. cities. White millennials have brought an energy and a vibrancy to New Orleans that wasn’t here pre-K.

Some came to renovate and rebuild the old houses, others came with their Do-It-Yourself attitudes and entrepreneurial spirit and began new businesses that are flourishing.

No doubt it’s tough being 20-something in America these days. They are the hardest hit generation by the current economy. The older workforce is continuing to work instead of retiring, so jobs are hard to come by, even for those who are college educated. Others in their 30s hit glass ceilings because of gender, sexual orientation, race or lack of seniority. Both these groups are examples of who inhabit the renewed Crescent City.

They have come to a place where they feel they can become a part of something and rise actually based on hard work. With these folks has come a healthier lifestyle embraced in northern cities like vegetarian food options, regular exercise, yoga and other health-conscious choices. Those are all now being woven into the fabric of New Orleans.

Don’t get me wrong, New Orleans is still a debacherous locale, it just has a vegetarian option that wasn’t available pre-K.

That vegetarian option means far more than just having a health alternative. It depicts a shifted demographic living in the city.

It’s great that you can see folks out running and biking in the streets, which you didn’t see much pre-K, but the new inhabitants from the north also brought their money. They came down and bought up housing in what were developing neighborhoods like the Marigny and Bywater. Where previously these were thriving artist communities mixed between white and black, now they are all white because home prices have skyrocketed.

New Orleans is meant to be a mixing bowl of races, creeds and collaborations. Neighborhoods spill out around the bending Mississippi River, where previously folks found their way into all the different niches and crannies. If you price out the old families that have lived on the margins for generations, if you price out the musicians who hop sets with different bands all week, and the restaurant workers can’t afford a spot and the artists can’t afford studio space, then New Orleans begins to become like Disneyland.

No one wants to hear cover bands playing “Drop Me Off In New Orleans” nor do you want people from the Midwest making their interpretation of what gumbo used to be. Most other American cities are already homogenized, selling the same stuff that can be found everywhere else. That isn’t New Orleans. It may be a hot mess, but it is an original hot mess, full of unique independent small businesses and it would be a tragedy to see all this rebirth of prosperity, only to have the city’s identity lost as a consequence.

New Orleans already was a city in decline before the storm. Many things needed to be changed because they were not sustainable in the way they were being addressed previously. The public school system is a great example.

Nola 7On this 10-year anniversary I worry for my former city and her residents. There are many positive changes, but she seems like a bit of a lost soul. For those that lived on the margins before Katrina, it’s likely this supposed new positivity hasn’t found its way to you yet. Go look in the Lower 9th Ward. Aside from the great work guys like Brad Pitt have done, such as with his Make It Right Foundation, many areas still appear as they did in 2005. Lots where former homes sat are overtaken by weeds, and across the city crime remains rampant because opportunity is a distant hope.

It’s like a decision has been made to marginalize the original residents and hold them off of this new found prosperity, which is the same thing engineers are trying to do with the water that ultimately seeks to overtake New Orleans.

A glistening new levee system has been built in the wake of Katrina and it sounds impressive. But in the last 80 years, Louisiana has lost 1,900 miles of its coastal wetlands. That’s an area roughly the size of Delaware, and was the state’s natural defense system to approaching hurricanes.

An ambitious master plan has been devised to protect this area, but it comes with a hefty 50-year, $50 billion price tag. Part of that amount is earmarked to be funded with money from the recent $18.7 billion that BP is having to pay Gulf states for its oil spill disaster, but I find it doubtful Congress is going to be interested in funding much of the remaining amount as it would have to be shouldered by tax payers.

New Orleans finds itself as a guarded city behind storm walls and levees – on paper ready to protect itself from a 100-year storm. Remember Katrina slowed down before making landfall east of New Orleans in Mississippi. The disastrous aftereffects that occurred were the result of a glancing blow. Imagine what would have happened had the hurricane hit the city directly.

Nola 5Officials are correct to be seeking additional funds to further build water defense systems, because New Orleans, like Miami, Galveston and Lower Manhattan, need to be ready for unthinkable storms that were considered to happen maybe every 300 to 500-years before, but are sadly imaginable in the near future.

Unfortunately America generally is a reactionary populace. Convincing folks to fund precautionary storm efforts, or conservation initiatives in conjunction with global warming and climate change, are very challenging in our current polarized political climate.

I wish New Orleans well, and on this anniversary I hope the cocktails are flowing liberally, the brass horns are ringing out across the city and folks are out dancing in the streets. There is reason to celebrate – just keep one eye on that rising water.

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