New Orleans - a bruised but resilient ‘Grande Dame’

‘Hi gorgeous, how are you today?’ It’s Sunday 7AM and I’m on my way to grab my morning coffee in Mid-City New Orleans, where I just arrived. Still jet lagged, the woman’s voice startles me, and I smile hesitatingly. She turns out to be the first of many locals who greet passers-by – so many that it appears to be the local custom. And it’s contagious: during the 15-minute walk from the Airbnb apartment to my morning coffee I went on to greet more complete strangers than I’ve ever done in Rotterdam. The city hasn’t lost her Southern hospitality, even while she is still working on getting back on track after her close encounter with hurricane Katrina. Famous for its music and culture, Grande Dame New Orleans, also known as ‘NOLA’ or ‘The Big Easy’, has recently started her third or perhaps even fourth life. NOLA has had to re-invent herself many times over.

Leader of the South

New Orleans is probably one of the most magical cities in the United States. With its sultry, humid air, swinging brass bands, free-flowing cocktails, and the world-famous Mardi Gras, there is just something about this city. Or, as recorded by journalist Chris Rose: ‘If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.’ Duly noted.

In part, the city’s unique character can be traced back to the city’s French roots. La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded in the spring of 1718 as a French colony, strategically located on Mississippi river. Napoleon, in need of funds to finance his European wars, sold the state of Louisiana, including the city of New Orleans, to the United States in 1803. Thereafter, New Orleans grew rapidly with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles and Africans. By 1840, New Orleans was the nation’s wealthiest and the third-most populous city. From the mid-nineteenth century, the dramatic increase in railway transport and, later, highways decreased the river traffic that had made New Orleans rich and famous. From that time onward economic growth shifted to other areas and by the mid-twentieth century, it was clear that New Orleans was no longer the leading urban area in the South.

‘Killer storm’ Katrina

With much of the city at or below sea level, water has always been important to New Orleans’ history, for better or for worse. In 2005, New Orleans was catastrophically affected by what was called “the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl”, when the levee system failed during hurricane Katrina.

Ex-journalist Dionne, who I met on a tour to a former sugar cane plantation, worked for a New Orleans broadcasting company when Katrina hit the city, now 13 years ago. For the first time ever, local government declared a mandatory evacuation. Everyone had to leave the city. Still, 1.500 people were killed during the hurricane. These were the people who couldn’t get out in time: the elderly, the sick, people without transportation. ‘It wasn’t the storm itself, that hit New Orleans,’ Dionne explains. ‘It was the water. If it hadn’t been for that storm surge, a 30 feet wave, New Orleans would probably have been fine.’

But the city wasn’t fine. 80% of the city was flooded. Not a single family was unaffected by this ‘killer storm’. All of Dionne’s family members lost their homes. Their houses had become unfit to live in, and so had to be demolished. It took them years – six years in the case of Dionne herself – to recover and be able to move back into newly built houses. In some cases people are yet to return to their homes – 13 years after Katrina.

Reinventing the city

Katrina left her marks not only on the city’s housing supply, but certainly also on its infrastructure. Motorways and bridges were wiped out and had to be largely rebuilt. This presented some opportunities as well. For instance, the bridges predating Katrina didn’t have bike lanes and no safe sidewalks. When this infrastructure was redesigned, space for cyclists and pedestrians could literally be carved out. In this way, New Orleans made a very important step towards becoming a walkable and a bike-friendly city.

Aside from providing a more balanced infrastructure, the rebuilding scheme also valued communities and neighbourhoods. In the light of the area’s future quality of life the people of New Orleans were invited to share their thoughts on what their community should look like when it was rebuilt. Local initiatives flourished when people felt actively involved with the future of their own community. For instance the ‘Heritage Trails Partnership of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’, a group of citizens who advocate for a safe, coast-wide network of diverse bike trails that connect neighborhoods to schools and green spaces. In this way Katrina did not only change the physical landscape of the city, but also the way people treat each other and their city.

New people, new energy

Recovering from Katrina has been a challenge. While Dionne decided to stay in the city, a lot of her friends and family members left. After the hurricane, 50% of residents resettled permanently outside of New Orleans. The empty spaces they left behind are now increasingly filled by new people entering the city. People who haven’t had to live through Katrina. People full of new energy and dreams: entrepreneurs, students, and families settling in upcoming areas like the Warehouse District. They are the people who set up shop with initiatives that rejuvenate the neighbourhood, such as the new hipster coffee places and European-style restaurants.

‘Follow your NOLA’

In the wake of the city’s renaissance, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation started a new tourism campaign in 2013. “Follow Your NOLA” wants to appeal to a new generation of visitors, looking for a different kind of tourist experience. CEO Mark Romig explains: ’It makes the place feel more intimate, and personal. It sounds like a name.’ The website gives an overview of what the different neighbourhoods have to offer and uses storytelling to inspire the people planning to visit the city. With the use of the hashtag #followyournola anyone can share his favourite image of New Orleans. And that has been done over a 600.000 times.

After visiting this Grand Dame you’re left with the impression that even if the city is still bruised, she also stands strong. Despite her age, NOLA hasn’t lost her appeal. She is one of a kind. Or to quote Chris Rose once again: ‘The longer you live in New Orleans, the more unfit you become to live anywhere else.’