Katrina at four

In New Orleans, a bohemian renaissance

RICHARD OLIVIERFour years after Katrina, tourism is still up and down in New Orleans, but there have been many changes that have created opportunity and optimism. RICHARD OLIVIERFour years after Katrina, tourism is still up and down in New Orleans, but there have been many changes that have created opportunity and optimism. (Richard Olivier)
By Jed Horne

The Boston Globe asked for a Katrina anniversary piece. Here’s what I came up with.

HANNAH ADAMS, a Bostonian, was in the drama department at Vassar when Katrina struck. Today, four years later, she plies her theater skills as a community organizer in New Orleans. She works as a sometime “tester’’ for the Fair Housing Action Coalition, which sends a white and a black would-be “tenant’’ in search of apartments, to see if landlords discriminate against the black applicant.

An MIT grad then working in community development in Brooklyn, Jeff Hebert had resigned himself to an exile’s life. He figured the New Orleans economy would never indulge his dream of building in his native Louisiana. Katrina changed all that, and today he’s a homeowner working for a New Orleans planning and architecture firm. His focus: transforming dozens of city schools into centers of community, with health clinics, branch libraries, meeting rooms, and recreation facilities – a challenge as much political as architectural.

Then there’s Amy Wolfe, who wears her allegiances on her sleeve – or just below it: a tattoo around her wrist that depicts a map of the Mississippi River with a big star and street grid identifying Algiers. That’s the part of New Orleans where, as a young Katrina volunteer down from New York, she discovered the work in an emergency clinic that has turned health care into a career for her and New Orleans into her home.

Adams, Hebert, and Wolfe are three in a small army of generally well-educated outsiders who have flocked to New Orleans since Katrina – to start a school, scatter foundation grants, save the world, write a blog or a screenplay, become a rock god, or just generally kick back in one of the few cities in America where, even after a post-Katrina rent spike, it’s still possible to live the bohemian life without a trust fund or help from home.

New Orleans? A magnet for the hip, the young, and the restless? Prior to Katrina the place was better known for its subtropical sulk. New Orleans as poster child for entropy and decline gave way after Katrina to a grimmer summation: The city was dead, or about to be – a victim of rising seas, rising crime, and political thievery.

Four years later disaster has turned out to be – at least for some – a tremendous opportunity. Tourism is off, courtesy of the recession, but the economy appears to have been buffered against a Vegas-style swoon by the bucketloads of Katrina recovery dollars.

Incredibly, there are more restaurants than before Katrina. Bars wail long into the night; coffee shops are atwitter with bug-eyed, hyper-caffeinated visionaries plotting recovery – whether their own or New Orleans’s hardly makes a difference.

Bohemia on the Bayou is only one of many post-Katrina wrinkles. The working-class analogue is an equally welcome infusion of Latinos. They arrived as storm chasers, gutted sodden houses, fixed roofs, wired money to families back home in Morelia and Tegucigalpa and finally said to hell with Western Union and brought the whole gang up North, high rents be damned.

Many of the Latinos appear to be here to stay. The bayou bohos . . . maybe not so much. With privilege comes mobility, but given greater means and conspicuous consumer tastes, they have had the more immediate impact on the arts scene, on retail, on housing, nightlife and, perhaps, politics.

It makes many of them nervous, the easy accusation that they’re opportunists, gentrifiers, here today and perhaps gone tomorrow – middle-class “cultural imperialists’’ of all races in a city whose soul is black and poor. But not many people serious about New Orleans’s urgent needs are singing the blues. There’s no denying the newcomers’ role in energizing the recovery.

Salvaging hope from ruin and despair was the dream dared by many who stuck around after Hurricane Katrina. The slate had been erased. Folks began doodling visions of a city transformed.

Some of it has happened. The school system, which flatlined well before Katrina, has been jolted back to life by a shake-up as radical as any in big-city American education. Indeed, salient among the newcomers are young teachers and principals – sometimes startlingly young – funneled here through programs like Teach for America. Early metrics suggest that the experiment, with a heavy reliance on charter schools, is working. Reading and math scores are shooting up. And this in a city where even valedictorians at some high schools were, before Katrina, sub-literate.

Other recovery efforts remain works in progress. The city has an improved flood defense, but as yet nowhere near what it would need to withstand even another sideswipe like Katrina. Most of New Orleans’s vast and deeply blighted public housing projects have been knocked down. The question is whether the temporarily ousted tenants will find their way back into the “mixed income’’ communities that will replace the old government-run ghettos.

And of course some stuff hasn’t happened at all: Katrina destroyed the centerpiece of the city’s public health establishment (Charity Hospital) and also the VA hospital alongside it. Planners and politicians thrilled to the notion of a tandem replacement. Instead, the hospital project is stalled – a demonstration of the feckless political leadership that has sapped post-Katrina Louisiana. The city and FEMA continue to fight over proper reimbursement rates. Neither a lame-duck mayor, Ray Nagin, nor a duckling governor, Bobby Jindal, has been able to close the deal. A federal mediator may be asked to intervene.

Make that a double latte with a shot of chocolate, please.

If it’s not quite San Francisco in the ’60s, it’s Prague just after the Soviet collapse – with that sense among artists, entrepreneurs, and would-be Vaclav Havels that widespread destruction has created an opportunity for carte-blanche reinvention of the city itself.

Not all the denizens of our Bayou Bohemia are upstarts. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have sponsored cutting-edge architecture in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and are still in and out of the French Quarter mansion they bought after Katrina. David Simon, the genius behind the ground-breaking series “The Wire,’’ came down and shot a pilot last spring on life among musicians struggling to put post-Katrina lives back together. HBO has green-lighted the project, infusing New Orleans with a army of actors and writers and set-dressers and camera crews.

One reliable demographer puts the city’s population at 90 percent what it was before Katrina. That number feels a little high. There are still too many parts of town where empty lots or derelict buildings outnumber those up and running. But without a doubt, a tipping point has been reached.

Perhaps it’s the very sense of risk, of life on the edge of oblivion, that gives Bohemia on the Bayou its moody allure. And storm surge and howling wind is not the only threat. The murder rate is sky high, as street level drug dealers struggle over turf. Now and then the killing spills over, a sharp reminder that the violence of a famously passionate city is not always confined to society’s margins.

As we mark Katrina’s fourth anniversary today, life in New Orleans is more than ever like ice-skating on a soap bubble. All due condolences to Maine for what happened with Bill, but so far the hurricane season – fortunately – has been mild. A rough storm so fast on Katrina’s heels, and even the dreamers might break camp. If so, they’ll leave with a memory. For at least a few years in the aftermath of catastrophe, New Orleans was the place to be. They helped make it that way.

One Response to “Katrina at four”

  1. Have to admire those who try to make the city better. Thanks for continuing to record the progress and lack of progress in New Orleans.

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