New Orleans The Comeback City

The Katrina crosses can still be found all over New Orleans. Rescue teams started spray-painting the X’s on homes across the city after the 2005 hurricane and ensuing flood caused by collapsing levees. That graffiti told a bleak story, revealing when each house was searched, the team that searched it, and how many bodies had been found inside.

As New Orleans began the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding itself, the crosses became part of the city’s multilayered historical landscape. When owners applied fresh coats of colour to their cottages and timber-framed houses, they sometimes chose to paint around the crosses. Or to reapply the crosses, once the restoration was done. Or to affix a wrought iron version to the spot where the painted cross had once been.

New Orleans is not about to forget the nightmare that was Katrina. More than ten years out, along with the swamp tours, cemetery tours, plantation tours, French Quarter tours, food tours, riverboat tours, and haunted tours, tourists can view, for a fee, what remains of the devastation.

“People want to do those tours and they should,” said John Pope, part of the Times-Picayune team that won two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage in 2006. Pope is a tall, thin, decorous man who seems born to wear a bow tie. He’d invited me to a restaurant called the Upperline, a New Orleans institution run by septuagenarian JoAnn Clevenger. A classic Uptown crowd had filled the converted 1877 town house by the time we arrived. Most of the patrons were white and prosperous, but also radiated that seductive mixture of Southern gentility and florid eccentricity so unique to New Orleans.

Like so many people from New Orleans, Pope cannot describe the days following Katrina without weeping. More than 1800 people in Mississippi and Louisiana died directly or indirectly as a result of the hurricane, and nearly 80% of the city was underwater; estimates of the damage hover at around $151 billion. The levees failed to hold back the flood, not because of heavy rain, but thanks to years of bureaucratic indifference.

“People realised every level of government had let us down,” Pope explained, his eyes welling again. And so, New Orleans’s citizens decided to save their city themselves.

The view from Piety Bridge in Crescent Park provides a panoramic perspective of New Orleans old and new. The park, which opened last year, stretches along the Mississippi River for almost three kilometres. It’s a thoroughly modern venue, accessorised with native shrubbery, hiking and biking trails, and a performing arts space carved from an aged warehouse. While the downtown towers gleam upriver, barges, tankers and cruise ships parade regally by.

Turn around and look north and there’s the gentrifying Bywater district. Just across Chartres Street sits Elizabeth’s Restaurant, a neighbourhood institution nestled in a century-old white clapboard building. The menu is a homage to New Orleans’ Southern past and current artisanal trends: praline bacon, foie gras truffled aioli baked oysters, and a spinach salad with crispy hog jowls. Hipsters and techmoguls-to-be hunch over their laptops, drinking Sazeracs and NOLA Hopitoulas beer. Elizabeth’s is a perfect spot to bear witness to a city in transition.

In fact, New Orleans has become something its citizens could scarcely imagine before 2005: a laboratory for everything from architecture to education, from food to the arts, from music to medicine – to the very nature of progress itself. Crescent Park, for instance, was designed by a global all-star urban design team that includes George Hargreaves, Michael Maltzan, and David Adjaye, in conjunction with the New Orleans-based firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.

The reconstruction of the flooded Lower Ninth Ward was instigated by the Brad Pitt-sponsored Make it Right Foundation, with new homes constructed by the likes of architects Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban.

The art scene, once an afterthought here, is also coming into its own. Prospect New Orleans, the city’s art biennial, has attracted worldwide attention with some 61 artists showing at 18 venues. The Warehouse District (now called the Arts District) has blossomed with galleries, institutions like The National World War II Museum and restaurants to serve the boom in visitors.

The sprawling City Park was underwater during Katrina; on a recent sunny Saturday, it was brimming with life again. Tourists and locals vied for outdoor tables at the Morning Call Café; the air carried the happy cries of children from Storyland, where generations of New Orleans kids have ridden in Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage and joined Pinocchio atop the famous blue whale.

Along with restoration has come reinvention. The city that once profited so much from its past has become a magnet for start-ups. Forbes labelled New Orleans the No. 1 ‘Brainpower City’ in the US in 2014, and has ranked it behind only San Jose and San Francisco for tech expansion. The rate of new businesses launching in the city is 56% higher than the US average, with software, gaming and film production companies leading the way. Major corporations like GE and the communications firm Globalstar have settled in, too. Tulane University, briefly closed and threatened with obliteration post-Katrina, now has a centre for public service; Louisiana State University has built itself an enormous billion-dollar medical complex.

There are more restaurants in town now than there were before the storm. Places like Pêche and Herbsaint have rewritten the rules of New Orleans cuisine. “There’s been a renaissance in the way people are cooking here,” Donald Link, the chef-owner of Pêche, told me, adding that New Orleans cooking can no longer be defined by standbys like shrimp creole. “We can still be a Louisiana restaurant and grow that tradition,” he explained.

In fact, there is so much more to do and see that people sometimes, under their breath, whisper that, maybe, Katrina made New Orleans a better place. Before the storm, New Orleans was an island of unbeatable tourist attractions surrounded by archipelagoes of atrocious poverty; it was a city riddled with crime, featured the highest incarceration rate in the country, and was hooked on municipal corruption.

Scott Cowen, the former president of Tulane who wrote a book about his post-Katrina experience called The Inevitable City, told me, “Katrina created an obligation to rethink the future of the city and all the issues we had that we’re now seeking to improve. What’s different today is this notion of civic engagement. When we almost lost the city we all loved, people said, ‘If I don’t roll up my sleeves, nothing will get done.’”

So there is now Women of the Storm, a culturally, socially and economically diverse group that essentially shamed the federal government into attending to New Orleans’ victims, as well as Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which spurred reform of the city’s levee boards. But it wasn’t just the locals who were galvanised by the disaster.

The city’s population is down about 100,000 people since 2005, and as predicted, many of those no longer here were poor. New Orleans now has fewer African Americans, more Latinos, and a lot more young people with college degrees.

According to Cowen, the newcomers were drawn to the food,­ music, language and architecture of New Orleans just like any other tourists. But now, they are also “seeing employment and other opportunities they didn’t see before Katrina”. And so they’ve stayed, opening businesses, restoring homes, and learning to argue about who has the best biscuits and grits in town.

By contrast, Erika Lewis has been in New Orleans for a decade. An attractive young woman with a deadpan stage demeanour, she came from upstate New York in 2005, drawn to the city’s music scene. Like a lot of musicians here, Lewis started out busking in the French Quarter.

She quickly made friends and connections, and is now the lead singer of a group called Tuba Skinny, which plays traditional New Orleans music – spirituals, ragtime, blues and jazz – with a modern twist. I caught up with the band on a Friday night at a club called d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, where their music was inspiring couples to show off their moves.

Frenchmen is just downriver from the Quarter in another gentrifying neighbourhood, the Faubourg Marigny, and is the anti-Bourbon Street, a place less devoted to drinking and partying than to savouring music, whether it’s jazz, reggae or blues. “Bourbon is the place to go if you want to party in an intense way,” Lewis told me. “But people who want to take it easy and hear music go to Frenchmen.” Someone like Lewis is both a harbinger of change and a passionate preservationist; her work is a tribute to a bygone era, but her presence suggests that time, and New Orleans, won’t stand still.

Change – which once occurred glacially or not at all – is now coming swiftly, and it’s impossible not to worry that the ease and authenticity of a place like Frenchmen will disappear. The same might be said of New Orleans itself. Already, the earlier waves of newcomers can be heard to complain about rising rents and home prices, as developers have moved in on once affordable neighbourhoods like the Bywater and the Marigny. And if public housing was once a blight on some stretches of New Orleans, the destruction of those buildings to make way for new developments prompts all sorts of other questions.

This was brought home to me the day I visited Ronald Lewis, a 64-year-old native of New Orleans who gained local fame as a designer of Mardi Gras Indian costumes, those beaded and feathered Native American-ish ensembles worn by members of old black families in local parades. Lewis has spent his entire life in the Lower Ninth, and lost most of his memorabilia in the flood. In 2006, architecture students from the University of Kansas built him a new studio, which is crammed full of brilliantly coloured headdresses, sequined high heels and books on Mardi Gras history.

Lewis is a stocky man but a little stooped, with weathered skin the colour of chicory-laced coffee. “When we had white flight in the ’60s, our family helped rebuild this city,” he said. “After Hurricane Betsy, in the ’60s, people came back and rebuilt. Then, with Katrina, lots of people were too old to come back.”

Today he spends time warring with anti-development neighbours over a new mixed-use project to be called Holy Cross. Lewis wants the economic uplift that Holy Cross would likely bring, but some of his neighbours don’t want the big-box stores and cookie-cutter housing that are part of the plan. “Let’s talk about how we can really rebuild this city,” Lewis told me. “We’re on life support here because of the lack of economic development.”

In the next ten years, those kinds of arguments are likely to be heard more often in New Orleans, as the city continues to be remade.

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