Disclaimer: While I am not a native New Orleanian, I have been lucky to call it home for the past three and a half years.
Cities, not states or Washington D.C., should be the focus of our national attention. This thesis has been circulated and shared by a number of books released this year, namely Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution. Cities are America's laboratories of innovation and collaboration, where progress comes before politics.
New Orleans, or NOLA as the city is affectionately known, is a prime example. Historically one of the largest cities in the Southern United States and an economic engine at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Big Easy fell on difficult times in the latter half of the 20th century. Residents moved elsewhere across the South, schools failed, and crime rose. Then the city hit its trough after years of federal neglect collided with a Category 3 hurricane named Katrina. New Orleans descended into floods, looting, and lawsuits broadcast by the media across the country. It was not completely crazy to ask if New Orleans would rise again and if it's beloved Saints would really be moved to San Antonio.
Well, more than eight years later, the city has returned: rejuvenated. New Orleans was presented with that blank slate of opportunity that comes paired with the despair of a historic tragedy. The city, in turn, has painted that blank slate with a work resembling an urban renaissance.
The Crescent City has always been a top tourist destination with its unique cuisine, jazzy music clubs, and deep history. It came as no surprise when National Geographic named New Orleans one of its 20 most recommended places to visit in 2014, one of only two locations in the United States selected. In February, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome hosted Superbowl XLVII reeling in over $480 million in economic impact for the city, surpassing expectations. In September, the Katrina-ravaged Saenger Theater re-opened and has since hosted the Tony-Award winning Book of Mormon. Convention goers regularly fill the newly built, expanded, and renovated hotels and in a few months, the celebrity-centric NBA All-Star Weekend will take over the city.
For celebrity watchers that want to avoid Los Angeles and New York, New Orleans has become the nation's 3rd largest film market and a trip to Whole Foods could yield a run in with Will Ferrell. Tulane students were given a heads-up about simulated gunfire in the library in November -- because 22 Jump Street starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum was busy filming.
Other industries have thrived as well. In the past year, the city has seen an influx of business investment and a boom in retail. Developers will begin working on a $70 million renovation of the Riverwalk, transforming it into the nation's first outlet mall in a downtown setting. The city has also welcomed large-scale retailers like Costco. Since the storm hit in 2005, NOLA has over 500 more restaurants. Combine this with an entrepreneurship rate 56 percent higher than the national average and it comes as no surprise that in 2011, Forbes ranked the city America's #1 "Brain Magnet." In December 2013, Forbes named New Orleans the number 1 city "Where Working-Age Americans are Moving."
The influx of a younger, entrepreneurial population has led to the revitalization of specific neighborhoods as well. The historic Bywater, for example, has taken on the charms of Brooklyn with upstart restaurants and local art galleries. Neighborhood hot-spot Mariza was named by Esquire as one of the Top Best New Restaurants of 2013.
New Orleans, like all cities will always have its flaws. Crime, for one, has been synonymous with New Orleans for decades. Yet even crime metrics show a city moving in the right direction -- in 2013, the murder rate declined by over 20 percent.
The city's schools, long the poster-child for the urban public school decay, have become the epicenter of national education reform efforts. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall before the 2005-06 school year, an astounding 68 of the city's 117 public schools were categorized as failing. Now, 67 percent of students are in schools rated with an A or B. New Orleans' students are on the path to a brighter future.
There is something about the city of New Orleans so obviously present, but not-so-obviously describable. New Orleans is a gumbo; a mixture of ingredients that come together and create something undeniably unique. It is a city with energy, creativity, and individuality that represents the best of what American cities are doing today. NOLA leaves an indelible imprint on all who call it home.