Since Katrina, a new entrepreneurial drive and creative spirit have engulfed the city. Residency, tourism, and convention numbers have increased since a post-Katrina downturn. Construction cranes crisscross the airspace (particularly along Tulane Avenue, where construction of an ambitious new biomedical corridor is under way), and cameras and booms are seemingly everywhere as the local film industry is, well, booming. Rebuilding and startup projects helped protect New Orleans from the depths of the 2008 recession.
The hopping Frenchmen Street club scene shows no sign of stopping, and there are an astounding 600 more restaurants in the city than there were pre-Katrina. The HBO series Tremé portrayed authentic New Orleans with a (mostly) spot-on eye and a killer soundtrack, focusing a new fascination on the local culture.
Once untrammeled streets like Oak, Freret, and St. Claude have blossomed with business and activity (Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. is primed to join the list soon). The public schools, rebuilt largely as charters, have the test numbers to confirm that the possible is provable.
Still, all is not rosy. While the tourist zones show zero signs of ill wind, those venturing into certain neighborhoods will still find pristine, rebuilt homes next to abandoned blights. Redevelopment of the decimated Lower 9th Ward is sluggish. It’s a massive tabula rasa cleared of its upended homes populated by a few pioneering resettlers and the architectural anachronisms of Make It Right homes (Brad Pitt’s foundation). Yet amid their stark backdrop, these homes and their owners embrace their in-your-face presence, as if to proclaim, “Damn right we’re here. And we’ve got solar panels.”
The grim images that focused the eyes of the world on New Orleans in August, 2005 are not easily erased, nor should they be. The category 5 storm was downgraded to a category 3 when it hit New Orleans, but the surge was too much for the city’s federal levee system. Its failure flooded 80% of the city, causing 1,836 recorded deaths and all form of astounding, horrifying loss. Some 28,000 people took refuge in the Superdome, the ill-prepared refuge of last resort.
Four and a half years later, the Dome’s home football team, the New Orleans Saints, at long last came marching in with their first-ever Super Bowl victory. The long-derided [‘]Aints restored what billions in rebuilding funds couldn’t: civic pride.
It may seem trivial, even disrespectful, to cite a football game as a turning point in the city’s rebirth—but it isn’t. The effects of this real and symbolic victory reached far beyond the ecstatic, extended celebrations—and they cannot be understated. It was one of many high points in 2010: The prior week, Mitch Landrieu won the mayoral race with 66% of the vote, marking the end to the previous administration’s fumbling, inertia, and corruption. The week after the Saints victory, the largest Mardi Gras crowds in 25 years watched the hyper-exultant parades roll. Two months later, a then-record half-million revelers packed the streets for the French Quarter Fest. The good times were rolling once again, at full speed.
And then, the whammy. One. More. Time. (Eye roll, headshake.)
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill hit, with potent imagery again painting New Orleans black with a wide, crude brush. In reality, New Orleans is some 150 miles from the spill, and those images of taint were far worse than the reality (though state-mates in the affected areas were hard-hit). New Orleans remained utterly unsullied, and much testing showed the sumptuous Gulf seafood was (and is) safe and plentiful.
Although locals will forever mark time as B.K. or A.K. (Before Katrina or After Katrina), New Orleaneans just did what they do: proclaimed their undying love for their city; mixed a cocktail, and set to tidying up. Oh, and throw a few parties for half a million people, and host a Super Bowl, and earn top awards on umpteen “Best of” travel polls.
The indomitable spirit is intact. The oysters are still sweet, the jasmine air still sultry. Rebirth Brass Band still plays the Maple Leaf on Tuesdays, and parades erupt at random. New Orleans is still the best city in the United States, and the bons temps—like those beloved Saints of field and song—go marching in and on, and we’re right there with them. You should be, too. Go, and be in that number.
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