The Heart of New Orleans

Franklin McMahon/Corbis
‘Bourbon Street Jazz Bars’; illustration by Franklin McMahon

Whenever I meet a stranger in New Orleans, one of the first questions I’m asked is where I’m from. It’s a loaded question, and I tend to answer it warily because I have a loaded answer: New York City. It tends to elicit raised eyebrows because there is a general perception in New Orleans today that the city is being swarmed, occupied, and rendered unrecognizable by New Yorkers (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Angelenos).

Anecdotal evidence would include a surge in fawning depictions of the city in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and New York magazine; a handful of popular restaurants opening recently by former New Yorkers; and, most significantly, the doubling and even tripling of property values in neighborhoods desirable to transplants, such as Bywater, Faubourg Treme, and St. Roch, forcing out longtime residents, particularly working-class African-Americans.

The city’s population is undergoing a rapid expansion. Since Hurricane Katrina it has more than doubled from its lowest point of 158,353, to 378,715. (The population remains lower than the pre-Katrina figure of 452,170, and significantly lower than its peak, reached in 1960, of 627,525.) Last year Forbes ranked New Orleans the fastest-growing city in the United States. But the new citizens are not, despite appearances, New Yorkers. A recent poll found that the highest proportion of the recent arrivals had moved from Mississippi, followed by Texas and Georgia. A study by the Kaiser Foundation found that only one in nine New Orleanians had not lived in the city prior to Katrina, meaning that about 80 percent of the increase comes from the return of former residents displaced by the storm.

The new New Orleanians have arrived in two phases. The first were city planners, environmentalists, educators, social workers, civil rights activists, and criminal justice reformers who came to help the city rebuild after Katrina. In a recent essay,1 widely circulated locally, the Tulane geographer Richard Campanella calculated that this group numbered in the low- to mid-four digits, and largely left the city after three or four years, when funding ran out.2

Campanella writes that in 2010, the year I moved to the city, a second wave of transplants began arriving,

enticed by the relatively robust regional economy compared to the rest of the nation. These newcomers were greater in number (I estimate 15,000–20,000 and continuing), more specially skilled, and serious about planting domestic and economic roots here. Some today are new-media entrepreneurs; others work with Teach for America or within the highly charter-ized public school system (infused recently with a billion federal dollars), or in the booming tax-incentivized Louisiana film industry and other cultural-economy niches.

The second-wavers tend to have been drawn by cultural and financial motivations, seeking opportunities that were unavailable in more expensive cities. Far from showing ignorance of local customs,…

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