Happy 300th brithday indeed, New Orleans. The city celebrated its tricentennial in 2018, and the party continues apace. A new entrepreneurial drive and creative spirit engulfed the city after Katrina. The annual number of visitors to Louisiana has set records for the past 4 years running. The hotel market is growing like kudzu, with the opening of more than 20 new or renovated properties since 2015, with still more in the works. The Rampart Street streetcar line hums along from the Marigny to the CBD, and the sprawling, ambitious biodistrict along Tulane Avenue is buzzing. Louis Armstrong Airport recently welcomed its first international flights in nearly 3 decades, and its enormous North Terminal addition should be complete by the time you read this.
Off-the-beaten-path streets like Oak, Freret, St. Claude Avenue, and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard have blossomed with activity. The number of restaurants in the city (1,500+) is nearly double the pre-Katrina. The hopping Frenchmen Street club scene continues to boom. Sure, some say it’s jumped the shark, but we say good luck finding a better street in the U.S.A. for music, people-watching, and sheer exhilaration. HBO’s series Tremé portrayed authentic New Orleans with a (mostly) spot-on eye and a killer soundtrack, focusing a new fascination on the local culture.
It’s a thrilling time in the city that time forgot—and with the countless travel-press accolades being rained upon New Orleans, the buzz is about as loud as Rebirth Brass Band playing the tin-ceilinged Maple Leaf bar.
Still, all is not rosy. While the tourist zones show few signs of ill wind, folks venturing into certain neighborhoods will still find pristine, rebuilt homes next to abandoned blight. In the decimated Lower 9th Ward, redevelopment chugs along slowly, but proudly, with small but significant new developments and the architecturally curious “Make It Right” homes (Brad Pitt’s foundation). Other areas are repopulating and redeveloping radically, gentrifying rapidly, and threatening, some believe, the very authenticity that attracted the gentrifiers (and tourists) in the first place. The sociological, economic, and cultural impact of the city’s shifting demographics is a source of much concern and debate, as exemplified by the displacement of long-term renters by speculators and profiteering Airbnb landlords. Crime and the hobbled criminal-justice system remain complicated, vexing problems, and more water woes plague the city in its struggle to maintain and update an ancient pumping system and prevent (too-common) street flooding. More recently, as with so many American cities, New Orleans’ persistent and persistently unresolved struggle with the racial divide flared up in the eye of the world, as four Confederate monuments were removed from their long-held positions of reverence. Even more recently, markers are going up all over New Orleans memorializing the city's sorry history as a major slave-trading hub, and recognizing the influence of enslaved people on the region's development.
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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