My first trip to NOLA came as a young and naive college freshman in search of the Mardi Gras experience over a decade ago (and what an experience it was). On that trip, I quickly fell in love with the city’s food, music, and architecture. There is truly a unique and American feel to the amazing blend of cultures that gel into one personality at the mouth of the river that so personifies American Grandeur and the pioneer spirit of the New World. Following that first trip, I trekked from Atlanta to New Orleans another dozen or so times, and each time learned and experienced something new in the city. This past April, I returned to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf.
Because of my fascination with New Orleans, I tracked Katrina with great concern and mourned the losses suffered–human, spiritual and physical–in the storm’s wake. I really had no clue what to expect on my first visit since that disastrous time. Sure enough, I was thoroughly impressed. Before I delve farther into the specifics, I need to make clear one caveat: I did not actively seek out touring through the particularly hard hit areas, but I did pursue conversations with a diverse array of locals. I am not naive, but I went to New Orleans in search of highlights and signs of strength with an open mind and an awareness to some of the complexities and inequities in the rebuilding effort.
A prominent theme throughout the city was a common purpose amongst the locals. It was amazing to experience the New Orleanean’s sincere love of their home and hunger to rebound, rebuild and thrive together. I got this sense that New Orleans was like a New York City at the turn of the 20th century or Chicago following the Great Fire, or the spirit of the “Greatest Generation” following World War II. Everyone in the city openly appeared determined to chip in and play their part in not only rebuilding the city, but developing and spreading its cultural influence. In some respects, I think that Katrina and the post-Katrina diaspora of New Orleaneans stranded throughout the country helped build up a buzz about the city’s unique and personal strengths. Many tourists were making first-time visits and the city center was full of an abundance of travelers from throughout the U.S.A and Europe, and as far away as Australia. While the city always attracted tourists, it was even more prominent than expected.
(A brief digression: this sense of oneness, hometown pride and unity in purpose is something missing from the big picture United States today. While there are fragmented ideas and people from divergent backgrounds, everyone understands that there is a common goal to unite behind in New Orleans. Nationally, on the other hand, there is a huge void in the political and economic culture of the U.S. What does our country value? What is our economic competitive advantage? How do we, as Americans want others to see us? Historically, this country was amazing at bringing together a diverse array of cultures all with the goal of living the American Dream. New Orleans seemingly does this well right now, America does not. These are some philosophical ideas that I would like to explore at more length moving forward.)
This is the real world, and as such, not everything is perfect. I did observe some deeply enmeshed cynicism from the people I encountered. One common theme, sometimes subtle and several times overt during my trip, was the recognition of the need for tourism in the effort to rebuild. On our cab ride from the airport to the hotel, our taxi driver urged us to “spend as much money as we can in New Orleans, because the city really needs it.” The uptown area was beyond the early recovery stages and seemed to be thriving, while the lower, poorer parts of the city looked the part. A sense of injustice continues to pervade the handling of issues leading up to and following the Katrina disaster and the tagline “heck of a job Brownie” lives on in the music and vernacular of the the New Orleans people.
I get the sense that New Orleans has to a large extent completed the initial bounce-back from the storm and is now in the process of building upward. The city’s football team, the Saints, perfectly embody this trend. Once known as the ‘Aints, they are now the joy of this incredibly prideful land. People all over now sport the black and gold of what has now become America’s team (I held off on mentioning the Saints because I think they are an effect rather than a cause in the city’s rejuvenation and I don’t want the two to be confused). The people of New Orleans understand that their culture is a main attraction–both spiritually and economically–and it is rallying around that fact in redesigning itself to maximize the benefits from that identity on a national level. This upward growth will go a long way towards creating a sustainable and safe future for this wonder of a land at the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi.