Funky and fascinating New Orleans has seen its share of hard times. After Katrina’s destruction in 2005, may wondered how -- or if -- the city could ever recover. Whole neighborhoods were wiped out and much of the city was submerged. The cost in human life (1,800 killed by the storm) and suffering have been staggering. But NOLA has not given up. More than seven years later, the city has rebuilt many areas and billions of dollars have been pumped into public works and the levee system.
It’s true that some things will never be the same; many long-time residents have left, and though some yearn to return, there’s often a question of what they have to come back to. Poverty remains stubbornly high, and there’s an urgent need to reckon with a broken criminal justice system where incarceration is often driven by profit.
But there’s lots of buzz about how NOLA is making positive changes. Fresh perspectives have flourished since the storm shook up the status quo. The New Deal-style public works approach to rebuilding (the opposite of austerity!) helped the city weather the recession. Investors and young people are increasingly seeing possibilities.
On a recent visit, I talked to residents across the spectrum who shared a new sense of pride in a city that is no longer a symbol of what can go wrong, but of many things that can go right. NOLA is still one of the best places in America to hear music (Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor are still temples of jazz), but here are a few new reasons to visit a city that may well be in the midst of a renaissance.
1. The Brain Gain
Before Katrina, launching a business or trying to attract interest in a new idea would run you up against exclusive networks that used to wield power in the city. These have been broken up by the storm, and NOLA has seen an entrepreneurial burst hot enough for Forbes to name NOLA “the biggest brain magnet in the country." Entrepreneurial activity is now 40 times the national average.
There has been an influx of college-educated people motivated both by the desire to see their ideas come to life and a yearning to be part of the city’s recovery. The film industry is thriving, with production increasing 175 percent since pre-Katrina days. (If you haven't yet seen Beasts of the Southern Wild by NOLA filmmaker Benh Zeitlinsee, don't wait any longer). NOLA’s Technology Corridor, a 12-mile stretch of interstate featuring the NASA Michoud facility, is expanding, and digital media and bioscience industries are on the rise. What some are calling the “brain gain movement” has brought Teach for America corps members to the city, and a slew of startups related to education have popped up recently (a movement towards privatized education, however, is likely to be counterproductive). According to Reuters, NOLA is committed to turning itself into “Silicon Valley on the Bayou” and giving cities like Austin, Texas a run for their money as a technology hub.
2. The WWII Museum
The WWII Museum is the #1 attraction for NOLA on TripAdvisor, and with good reason. Brimming with artifacts, oral histories and other accounts (audio, written, video), the museum has attracted over 3 million visitors since launching in 2000.
I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: the Boeing Center on Jan. 12, 2013. Veterans from all over the country were invited and duly applauded for their service, including a spry 86-year-old named Clarence Stirewalt who signed up for the war effort at 16 (he lied about his age) and worked on an attack transport ship in Pearl Harbor. The ceremony included remarks by museum supporter Tom Brokow and Roscoe Brown, a WWII veteran and Tuskegee airman who spoke of how the war served to push racial integration forward. Brokow mentioned that upon returning from the war, black officers were not allowed to enter officer’s clubs in many states -- despite the fact that German officers taken as prisoners of war were allowed to do so! Highlighting the contributions of black veterans was a hopeful step forward for both the country and the city of New Orleans, which has seen more than its share of racial tensions. One bone to pick: there was, to my recollection, only a single mention of the contributions of women during the ceremony, a brief nod by Senator Mary Landrieu.
The new center shows off the artillery, tanks and airplanes used in the war, including a reassembled B-17E Flying Fortress named My Gal Sal which is viewed by a breathtaking catwalk. My Gal Sal went down on an icecap in Greenland where the crew struggled to stay alive and signaled for help for 11 days before being rescued. The most exciting interactive feature is Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience, which gives you a taste of what life was like in WWII’s Pacific Theater. The Tang sank 33 ships before it was hit by one of its own missiles on a war patrol. Each exhibit visitor is given a card representing an actual crew member, and you are invited to explore the station manned by that member and perform battle actions as the Tang engages Japanese forces.
3. The Food
New Orleans has fewer people now than before the storm, but interestingly, more restaurants. Some think it’s an even better place to eat today, as newcomers are adding flavors and keeping old-timers on their toes. You can, of course, enjoy the classics, such as the delightfully old-school Grill Room at the historic Windsor Hotel, where you are serenaded by live piano as you enjoy selections from a menu that’s not resting on its laurels like those at some of the other venerable NOLA eateries. For French Quarter people-watching, get yourself a window seat overlooking Bourbon Street at Bourbon House at the Astor Crowne Plaza (a superb and convenient hotel, btw) and let the carnival of life cruise by as you enjoy local seafood (try the oysters).
My favorite post-Katrina restaurant has to be Cochon (just a few blocks from the WWII Museum) where celebrated Chef Donald Link works his Cajun magic on pork, seafood and game. Believe me, this man can even turn a dish of cucumbers into something memorable. His dishes are not innovative for the sake of being innovative -- they are innovative for the sake of tasting damn good. Other post-Katrina restaurants to try include Root, a Warehouse District newcomer that uses high-tech gear to create flavorful dishes like tea-smoked chicken, and Apolline, a cozy Creole spot on Magazine Street, where the chef is appreciated for his succulent seafood dishes like sautéd black drum.
4. The Parks
The lush vegetation and enchanting outdoor spaces of NOLA are among the most appealing things about the city. Parks were ravaged by Katrina, but happily they have been restored. Louis Armstrong Park, across from the French Quarter, has finally been brought back to life thanks to tireless community activists and city efforts and is once again safe to visit. A new summer music series attracted 50,000 people in its first year, and hopes to grow to twice that size in 2013. The magnificent orchids of the Botanical Garden in New Orleans City Park were nearly wiped out by Katrina, but they are back and were featured in the 2012 Fall Garden Festival.
5. The People
The gumbo of cultures, ethnicities and traditions makes New Orleans one of the most fascinating mixes of human beings in America. Folks tend to be warm, enthusiastic about their city and eager to talk to visitors. Everyone I spoke with on my recent visit was eager to sing the praises of post-Katrina rejuvenation, though many acknowledged that not all New Orleanians have benefitted equally from the city’s renaissance. The Lower 9th Ward, a low-income black neighborhood devastated by the storm, still lacks basic facilities like grocery stores.
The Lower 9th is rebuilding slowly, and there is much appreciation for the houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation (however odd their styles appear next to more traditional dwellings). Musicians' Village, a new residential area featuring a state-of-the-art music center, was kicked off by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis to provide a home for musicians dislocated by the storm.
Some Lower 9th residents are irked by buses that bring visitors on tours of the area. If you really want to get to know the locals and do something to help, think of signing up for a “voluntour” program with an outfit like Habitat for Humanity. I did this a few years ago, and I can tell you, if someone with as many thumbs as I have can hang sheetrock, there is hope for anybody. The best part of volunteering is meeting the residents and hearing the stories of how they have coped with unimaginable hardship, and of course, sharing the sense of enjoyment for life that never seems to dissipate no matter what the challenges.