Originally published in Travel + Leisure, November 2007
SOME THINGS ARE EXACTLY as you remember them. The entangled aromas of sweet jasmine and olive trees, cigars and creosote, chicory and burnt sugar and river mud. The air so soft you’re inclined to reach for a spoon. The Garden District mansions, with their porch fans and cut-glass fleurs-de-lis. The candy floss cottages and shotgun houses of the Marigny, an improvisation in clapboard and pastel. And all over, a cityscape overcome by vegetation: drooping banana trees, 20-foot stands of bamboo, live-oak roots bursting through the sidewalks.
The French Quarter remains as Walker Percy described it half a century ago: “The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace…. Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.” And after a massive sanitation overhaul, the Quarter is noticeably cleaner nowadays. (This, in what was known as the City That Never Sweeps.) Bourbon Street, like it or loathe it, revels again in skanky, Skynyrd-y skrawnk. Chefs at Acme continue to defy the laws of physics and good sense by drizzling a half-cup of butter into six oyster shells.
You’ll find the same jambalaya at Mother’s, the same cold-brewed iced coffee at Royal Blend, the same Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House. Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers still blow the roof off Vaughn’s every Thursday, while over at Tipitina’s, Little Freddie King, now 67, still does a convincing chicken dance. Dixie beer—a New Orleans icon since 1907—has finally resurfaced, although it’s now made in Wisconsin. (The company’s red-brick brewery on Tulane Avenue was inundated with floodwater.) The Saints are back in full swing at the Superdome—and if the sight of that building still inspires a certain disquiet, perhaps that will fade with more time.
New Orleans, as you know it, is still very much alive: in the flicker of a gas lamp, the whiff of a crawfish boil, the caterwaul of a trombone. Confine yourself to the tourist playground, from the Quarter to the zoo, and you might never be reminded that something happened here. But ride out to New Orleans East, to Gentilly, to the Lower Ninth Ward, the worst-flooded parts of town, and you find the wreckage, still shocking to behold. In a town with unusually low density to begin with, whole neighborhoods now have only a few residents per block. Walk through Lakeview near the 17th Street Canal—where a levee breach unleashed a 10-foot wall of water from Lake Pontchartrain—and you’ll pass six boarded-up houses before seeing a single occupied one. Flying into New Orleans, you look down on a curiously colorful cityscape, where hundreds of damaged roofs, still awaiting repair, are covered with bright blue plastic tarps. Only then do you begin to comprehend the scale of the devastation: 230,000 homes destroyed, 1,580 lives lost.
Even in mostly recovered neighborhoods, you’ll notice the persistence of “Katrina tattoos,” the X marks spray painted on façades by rescue workers after the storm, noting when the property was searched, by whom, and whether any survivors—or bodies—were found. Most have been painted over, but some are intact, left deliberately as symbols of perseverance. One Marigny resident has even had his cast in iron and mounted by his front door.
Two years on, Katrina still defines the landscape—physically, politically, socially, economically. It’s in the paper every day, a dozen mentions at least. “Katrina lit” fills the bookshops. Time is now measured from that terrible week in 2005: “Before the storm,” “During the storm,” “Since the storm….” Quotidian exchanges can evolve into harrowing tales of loss or survival; the collective urge to move on from Katrina is outstripped by the need to talk about it. “Before the storm, everyone in New Orleans spoke in fictions,” one resident told me. “Now every conversation is a focus group.”
The hurricane left its own vocabulary. People talk of houses getting “blue-roofed.” They recount being “domed” (sent to the Superdome); of being “Tex-iled”; and of finally being “de-vacked” and allowed to return home. All this new shorthand can be jarring, as when a shopkeeper told me her sales were half what they’d been “pre-K.” Katrina is also part of the visitor’s agenda. Tour buses now make stops in the obliterated Lower Ninth Ward. Souvenir shops are jammed with hurricane kitsch and glib T-shirts (FEMA: Fix everything my ass; or I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this lousy t-shirt, a cadillac, and a plasma tv). The storm has even given rise to a satirical monthly paper called The Levee (motto: We don’t hold anything back), full of fake stories mocking the fitful recovery effort. From a recent issue: “ ’We need time to start planning how to deal with all these plans,’ [Mayor] Nagin said, deflecting critics who say the Office of Plan Planning is redundant.”
For all the frustration with “plan-planning,” there are signs of progress. Though overall visitor numbers dropped to 3.7 million last year (from a record 10.1 million in 2004), this year’s Jazz Fest drew its largest crowds since 2003, and Mardi Gras attendance was up to 800,000 (the pre-storm average was 1 million). New Orleans casinos are positively booming (that’s more depressing than encouraging, really, but there you go); the massive Harrah’s downtown is having its best year ever. Meanwhile, developers have begun to remake the city: the hulking, sixties-era World Trade Center is being transformed by developer Carlton Brown into a hotel and cultural center that will include a Johnson & Wales cooking school. Pritzker Prize–winner Thom Mayne has been enlisted to design a national jazz museum as the centerpiece of a new, 20-acre performing arts district.
The most dramatic changes, however, are set to happen along the river—which is certainly due for them. For a town that once drew its entire livelihood from the Mississippi, New Orleans has an oddly stilted relationship with its waterfront: the city basically spent its first two centuries forging connections with the river, then much of the last one blocking it off. Safety concerns were one reason, but there was more to it than that. For the average citizen not employed at the port, the river ceased to have much value except as a breezy thing to jog along—and in most places you can’t even do that. Whole stretches of it are hidden behind concrete barriers, dilapidated wharves, power plants, and no trespassing signs. “We need to reconnect New Orleans to its riverfront, which has been literally walled off for so long,” says native son Sean Cummings, a hotelier and developer who is spearheading a sweeping revitalization plan. The targeted area: a six-mile-long strip of city-owned land on the river, running from the Lower Garden District to Bywater.
“The other goal,” Cummings explains, “is to bring something new to New Orleans, an eye-opening statement, that will take the city into the 21st century.” For that, Cummings recruited an all-star team led by Enrique Norten (currently designing the new Guggenheim museum in Guadalajara); Alex Krieger, chair of Harvard’s Urban Planning & Design department; New Orleans–based architect Allen Eskew; and George Hargreaves, another Harvard professor and a leading landscape architect. Their plan, Reinventing the Crescent, is indeed a full-scale reinvention. Cummings brazenly predicts it will be “the most significant addition to the city since the French Quarter.” The final draft was unveiled at a public forum this summer, where a standing-room crowd of 300 received the proposals with a mix of excitement and anxiety.
Krieger took pains to reassure the audience that this was primarily an open-space plan: “Out of 174 acres, only about 20 percent can be built upon, and we’re doing even less than that.” The proposal does make room for provocative new buildings, including an ecumenical chapel, a hotel, and several mid-rise condo towers. But between these “architectural moments” would be playgrounds, flower gardens, sculpture installations, cafés, performance spaces, and farmers’ markets. An outdoor wetlands exhibit would be installed outside the popular Aquarium of the Americas. Along the underwhelming Moonwalk promenade in the French Quarter, parking lots and concrete stairs would give way to sloping lawns and landscaped terraces. At Bywater Point, where now sits an obsolete naval base, the designers envision breezy parkland, with ball fields, community gardens, and a waterfront amphitheater. Wind turbines installed throughout the site will power lighting and may keep the entire project off the grid.
Throughout the presentation, images of other urban waterfronts flashed on the overhead screen, not just of in major cities like Sydney and Chicago but in Providence, Milwaukee, and Chattanooga. (Chattanooga?) “As you can see, other cities have converted their waterfronts into remarkable public spaces,” Krieger told the crowd. “Montreal relocated its port downriver and converted its functional backyard into a new front door for the city—their own version of the French Quarter.” Nor are the upsides merely cosmetic: according to Krieger, the RTC plan would create 4,500 permanent jobs; add $40 million to the tax base; and bring a projected $3 billion in new investment to the city.
After the presentation, people inspected a 3-D model of the proposed plan as they would a UFO that had landed on the town green. “It looks so small,” said one woman. “Look, there’s my house!” said another. Reaction was mixed. Some praised the RTC designs as a long-overdue step forward, with economic benefits that could assist the city’s recovery. Others dismissed the plan as a “quick-fix silver bullet,” emphasizing condos and luxury hotels at the expense of modest, traditional, low-rise neighborhoods. Still, with Mayor Nagin and other leaders on board, the RTC plan is sure to go forward; the goal is completion by the city’s tricentennial in 2018.
Then again, New Orleans has spent decades trying to solve its waterfront. Much of what defines the riverbank today can be attributed to one man: local developer Lester Kabacoff. It was Kabacoff who lobbied for mounting a World’s Fair along the Mississippi in 1984. Though the fair was a bust, it did usher in a more visitor-friendly riverfront. A generation later, Kabacoff is hailed as “the father of New Orleans tourism.”
Lester’s son, Pres Kabacoff, is a city revitalization specialist who was instrumental in reviving New Orleans’ historic Warehouse District. He is impressed by the ambition of the RTC plan. “These are some of the best thinkers around—we should be so lucky to do all the things that they’re proposing,” Kabacoff told me. “New Orleans always needs to add to the show, as I call it—to expand the tourist playground.” Is he concerned about a clash between the contemporary architecture proposed by the RTC and the historic cityscape that defines New Orleans? ”Not at all,” he said. “All of this can coexist. I may be a preservationist, but I’m not an antiquarian.”
Before the storm, Kabacoff had himself conceived a plan to revive 4,000 acres of downtown. He imagined a more walkable, European-style city, with elegant parks and promenades, rejuvenated old-world architecture—even its own Eiffel Tower, a 15-story fleur-de-lis rising above the riverbank. “I took to calling us the Afro-Caribbean Paris,” he said, “because in many ways we’re really the northernmost island in the Caribbean.” The Caribbean analogy comes up a lot. In an essay published in Metropolis magazine earlier this year, the urban planner Andrés Duany described New Orleans as being “not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities.” As in the Caribbean, Duany noted, the culture of New Orleans arose from a surfeit of leisure time: “time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever…time to practice and listen to music…time to make costumes and to parade…time to spend all day marking the passing of friends.” However, as life in the city becomes more challenging—demanding greater amounts of time, money, effort, and anxiety—”the culture that arises from leisure” risks being lost.
Food and music, it is said, are the twin pillars of New Orleans culture. They are certainly the foundations of its tourism.
The good news is that the culinary scene has mostly recovered. While many restaurants never reopened after the storm, and business is still relatively slow, restaurateurs speak hopefully about a full recovery. Formal old-school haunts like Galatoire’s and Commander’s Palace are back, as are beloved neighborhood joints like Franky & Johnny (for po’boys), Liuzza’s by the Track (for gumbo), Casamento’s (for oysters), and Blue Bird Café (for Southern breakfasts). Modern classics such as Restaurant August, Herbsaint, and Lilette are firing on all cylinders with creative cooking and assured service. Most encouragingly, a determined crop of new restaurants has appeared since the storm, among them Iris (whose Ian Schnoebelen was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs this year), Lüke (an Alsatian brasserie run by August’s John Besh), Cochon (down-home Louisiana cuisine from local hero Donald Link), and Café Minh (Asian-French fusion from the city’s best Vietnamese chef).
The music scene, however, is in rougher shape. Only two-thirds of the 5,000 musicians who worked in New Orleans before Katrina have returned, according to Aimee Bussells, director of Renew Our Music, a musicians’ relief fund. Others bide their time in far-flung cities, perhaps intending but unable to return. “We need to get them home to New Orleans to keep contributing to the culture, whether they play or arrange or teach or run music stores or mask at Mardi Gras,” Bussells says. “To lose that connection to the city—some of them can’t breathe without it. Musicians constantly ask me, ‘Where else can I do what I do?’”
A musician’s life was always precarious here. “But now tourism is down, so club attendance is down. Owners are looking at their bottom line and not always paying the same rates as before,” Bussells says. Moreover, a packed house doesn’t always translate into earnings for the band. “People might think ‘I paid a cover charge, the band’s being compensated,’ but sometimes the only money musicians see is tips directly from the audience.”
Some help has come from Musicians’ Village, an affordable-housing community in the Ninth Ward run by Habitat for Humanity. When finished next year, the eight-acre campus will include 77 large-scale houses and duplexes, a park, and a performance center with rehearsal space, classrooms, and a library.
But will formal programs persuade young players to come here, and struggling musicians to stay? Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers has had bitter words for his hometown, lambasting its vaunted music scene as a myth. Neville, who relocated to Austin after Katrina, told the Chicago Sun-Times that he had “worked more in two months in Austin than I worked in two years in New Orleans,” calling Austin “a city that actually cares about musicians.” Bussells concurs: New Orleans needs to take a more active role in nurturing and sustaining its musical culture. “For a long time, people here assumed it was their right to hear great jazz or blues,” Bussells says. “I think we’re realizing not only how important the music scene is, but how fragile.”
Thankfully, there are still places like the Spotted Cat, a bare-bones bar in the Marigny that could have been dropped in from 1933. There’s no PA, no amplification at all, and no spotlights per se—just a dim yellow bulb above the stage, a worn patch of floorboards beside the front door. The door stays open all night to the breeze, and passersby gather on the sidewalk to listen to the band. Mondays and Fridays belong to the Jazz Vipers, a ragtag seven-piece crew playing gleeful trad jazz in the style of Benny Carter and Dicky Wells. The acoustic format lets each element come through intimately: the squeak of fingertips on fiddle strings, the scrape of nails across the banjo drum. I adore Austin, but it’s got nothing on this place.
It was true long before the hurricane: New Orleans is shrinking. Between 1960 and 2000 the city lost 180,000 residents, and Katrina may have sent away as many more. Prior to the storm, New Orleans had a population of 444,000. Generous estimates put the current figure at 300,000—less than half what it was at its mid-century peak.
New Orleans may also shrink geographically, whether by nature or design. Citing the tremendous cost of adequate flood protection, some politicians, most notoriously ex–Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, have questioned the wisdom of rebuilding any part of New Orleans that sits below sea level—that’s about half the city. Others have argued for reducing the inhabited area in favor of a more compact plan, clustered on the higher ground near the river. Mayor Nagin briefly considered “shrinking the footprint” last year, and public reaction was vicious. Nagin beat a full retreat, then returned with a more populist strategy: the $1.1 billion “Unified New Orleans Plan” targets 17 zones throughout the city (including the flood-prone Lower Ninth Ward) for redevelopment. For now, city officials are committed to resettling virtually all of New Orleans.
Whether or not displaced residents will return is another question. Before Katrina, nearly a third of New Orleans’ population lived below the poverty line. The poor were the hardest hit by the storm, and it is largely they who have not returned. Some still await state or federal aid. Others found jobs elsewhere and have no financial incentive to return. Those who do come back find an environment far less forgiving to the working poor: rents have skyrocketed since Katrina, few of the low-income housing units destroyed in the flood have been or will be rebuilt, and federal grants overwhelmingly favor homeowners and home-buyers over renters. Since the majority of low-income residents here were African-American, there are troubling racial overtones as well. Consider that Katrina has effectively purged New Orleans not only of much of its baseline workforce but—in a city whose music, food, and street rituals bubbled up from the underclass—the wellspring of much of its culture.
Within a generation, New Orleans may no longer be the place we’ve all come to know during our long national fascination with the city. But some New Orleanians hope that the energy, resources, and ideas mobilized by the rebuilding effort can be brought to bear on the city’s pre-K problems. Instead of returning to the status quo of August 28, 2005, local leaders like Sean Cummings argue that the city should think “beyond recovery.”
Cummings’s enthusiasm for New Orleans is matched by his frustration over a city that is “far too insular and parochial for its own good,” as he describes it. “This used to be a vital, ever-changing place, thanks to a constant influx of outsiders—Italian, Spanish, Senegalese. But at some point we ceased to be a magnet for new blood and fresh ideas. People became suspicious of the outside world, and New Orleans stopped evolving. For eighty years we’ve been this self-referential echo chamber.”
It’s true that few American cities have become so fixed in the public mind. Visitors and residents alike tend to have very specific ideas of how New Orleans should look, taste, sound, and behave. “Beignets, paddle-wheel boats, heavy cream sauces, all that outmoded iconography—it’s like identifying Philadelphia solely with Rocky and cheesesteaks,” Cummings says. “I’m not suggesting New Orleans forfeit its quirky culture, its sense of place, that intangible warmth that defines it. I’m asking, How might we advance and build upon that?”
The 42-year-old developer has found a kindred community of young New Orleanians—restaurateurs, musicians, artists, designers—intent on “nudging the city into the 21st century.” People like chef Scott Boswell (owner of Cummings’s favorite restaurant, Stella!), “who isn’t afraid to look beyond New Orleans for influences.” Or 21-year-old jazz virtuoso Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty. “He stands on Wynton’s shoulders,” raves Cummings. “For a lot of New Orleanians under 25, jazz has become irrelevant—but Troy has the opportunity to reinvent it.” (He’s certainly the only horn player I’ve ever seen crowd-surf across a mosh pit.)
“The good news is, post-catastrophe, New Orleans is not as isolated or provincial as it was,” Cummings says. “There’s an enormous amount of energy and ideas and new faces coming here now—architects, urban planners, entrepreneurs, academics, this incredible influx of talent. That never happened before.”
While reaction to the RTC proposal has been largely positive, Cummings is exasperated by critics who call the plan overpriced, oversize, or, worse yet, unnecessary. “Architecture is a particularly fraught subject here, because we’re surrounded by tradition. People would rather have you build something that looks old than something expressive of this time,” he says. “I’m trying to tell them, It’s okay to look forward again. Of course it’s always uncomfortable for a city to evolve, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy. You instinctively cling to what you knew before. But the old ways weren’t working. We’re at a pivotal moment where this city not only can reinvent itself, it needs to. Extinction is not out of the question.”
According to some experts, extinction isn’t just out of the question, it’s guaranteed—unless New Orleans’ flood defenses are radically rethought. It’s clear now that the levee system was badly designed, shoddily built, and poorly maintained. Although the Army Corps of Engineers has worked 24/7 to repair it, they’re essentially shoring up a relic, says Robert Bea, professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley. “I compare the current system to a 150-year-old patchwork family quilt,” he says. “We’ve replaced sections, but if you challenge the quilt once more, the weak sections will tear all over again.” The Corps says New Orleans’ current flood defenses exceed pre-K levels—hardly a ringing endorsement—but are not yet enough to withstand a 100-year storm, one likely to happen once a century. (Though Katrina was only a Category 3 when it skirted New Orleans, the Corps says it was a 400-year storm.) Engineers expect a 100 year storm–proof system to be in place by 2011. Still, even then, another Katrina could overwhelm the city.
Money is obviously the stumbling block here. But given the funding, is it even possible to protect New Orleans from hurricanes? ”Absolutely,” says Bea, noting that Amsterdam’s flood defenses were designed to withstand a 10,000-year storm. “The Dutch look at us as you would at a primitive country. They can’t believe we’re stopping short,” he says. “The fact is, New Orleans can be made safe—but we have to restore the coastal wetlands, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes.” That crucial work hasn’t even begun yet. Given the city’s weakened defenses, the next decade will be critical for its survival. No wonder some are comparing New Orleans to Venice—another waterborne museum piece living on borrowed time.
Then there’s the terrible quotient of violence. New Orleans now has the highest murder rate in the country, and although nearly all killings have occurred outside the tourist enclaves, visitors are understandably wary. Fox’s new cop show “K-Ville” probably doesn’t help. Set in present-day New Orleans—guess what the “K” stands for—it depicts the city as a sort of Mogadishu-with-gumbo, where “criminals roam the streets with AK-47’s.”
The mayor doesn’t sound overly concerned. In a bizarre remark that speaks to the pervasive desperation here, Nagin recently called the soaring murder rate “a two-edged sword…. It’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs.”
All of which raises a question: Should you come? The answer is: Yes. Yes, by all means, come. Come to rebuild houses with the St. Bernard Project; come to eat grilled watermelon–and–heirloom tomato salad at August or to slurp down gumbo at Liuzza’s; come to take a carriage tour and laugh over how cheesy and delightful it can be; come to show your children what jazz is; come to ogle some of the most breathtaking mansions in America, and to bear witness to the most heartbreaking devastation. “Just being here, putting money back into the city, going to a Saints game, seeing live music, shopping at a local record store—that’s helping the relief effort,” says Aimee Bussells, of Renew Our Music.
Since the storm, an estimated 1.1 million people have come to New Orleans to help with recovery and rebuilding. There are still many opportunities for “voluntourism” (see the Guide, page 241), and such initiatives need help as much if not more so today. Twenty-six months after Katrina, except for the media’s obligatory anniversary reports, New Orleans has faded considerably from public view, and the flow of donations and volunteers has also dropped off. Yet the emergency of Katrina did not end when the hurricane passed, nor when the floodwaters receded, nor when the last welcome mat was finally wrung dry. In many ways, the storm isn’t over.
Yet so much of New Orleans is accessible, and its inclusive spirit can make newcomers feel they belong here. No matter where you come from—no matter how badly you mangle the street names, how confounded you are by the ordering system at Domilise’s, or how clumsily you dance—New Orleans welcomes you as one of its own, with a warmth that verges on the comical. Even the most jaded out-of-towner has to get a charge out of being greeted “Heeyyyyy, brutha!” by a Ritz-Carlton doorman. Or having Domilise’s gruff counter lady finally fix you in her sights, her frown suddenly changed to a smile, and ask, “What can we feed you, baby?”
“One of the great things about New Orleans is how democratic places are,” says Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune. “In all my time here I’ve never seen a velvet rope.” There’s not even a bouncer outside the Spotted Cat, which, on one recent Monday, was still packed at 2 a.m. with boho musicians, yuppies, grizzled old men, three goths, and a bachelorette party. The Jazz Vipers wrapped up their set with an original tune, “I Hope You’re Coming Back to New Orleans.” During the trumpet solo a firetruck roared by on Frenchman Street. Whooo-ooo, whooo-ooo, whooo-ooo, went the siren. Whooo-ooo, whooo-ooo, whooo-ooo, replied the trumpet, and sax player Joe Braun grinned as he sang in a Satchmo growl:
Stormy weather may come and go
Mother Nature may put on her show
Still in my mind there’s nowhere else to go
So baby won’t you please come home? •