A resilience lab

10 years after Katrina

A ‘resilience lab’

An influx of capital and newcomers has triggered changes in New Orleans, a fragile city that’s used to moving at its own pace

Published on August 22, 2015


On the "sliver by the river," that stretch of precious high ground snug against the Mississippi, tech companies sprout in gleaming towers, swelling with 20-somethings from New England or the Plains who saw the floods only in pictures.

Above: The “sliver by the river” – seen across the Mississippi from Algiers, foreground – has become a hive of activity since Hurricane Katrina. Farther out, the picture is more mixed in the city’s lower-lying neighborhoods.

A new $1 billion medical center rises downtown, tourism has rebounded, the music and restaurant scenes are sizzling, and the economy has been buoyed by billions of federal dollars.

Above: The “sliver by the river” -- seen across the Mississippi from Algiers, foreground – has become a hive of activity since Katrina. Farther out, the picture is more mixed in the city’s lower-lying neighborhoods.


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The city is now swaddled in 133 miles of sturdier levees and floodwalls, and it boasts of the world’s biggest drainage pumping station. But on the porch stoops of this place so fascinated by and so comfortable with the cycles of death and decay, they still talk about living in some kind of Atlantis-in-waiting. As if the cradle of jazz might still slip beneath the sea.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slashed and snarled into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, newcomers take their juice with chia seeds and buy fixer-uppers, and longtime locals fret that the city is no longer theirs, that it’s too expensive and still might lose its soul. A city some feared might be left for dead when 80 percent of its footprint was eventually submerged in floodwaters is undergoing a social, economic and cultural evolution. Yet it is still a place deeply tied to its ancient traditions and rites, stubbornly and proudly unique, unparalleled in its embrace of the weird, the mysterious, the whimsical.

Most folks know someone who couldn’t get back to this city or has been pushed outside its bounds — these are the ghosts that don’t star in the moonlight tours, the ghosts of not-so-long-ago neighbors. And it doesn’t take much to get people weeping or boiling with rage about that other New Orleans, beyond the resurrected city center, where gunshots form the nighttime soundtrack.

The mayor gathers before-and-after photos of murder victims, images of too-short lives and bloodied ends, in a tumbling and ever-spreading row of red binders on the floor of a corner in his office.

The other New Orleans reveals itself once you descend from the dry heights by the river, down into the neighborhoods that were swamp when the French arrived 300 years ago and that seem fatally determined to return to that state-of-being whenever a storm blows up.

In the Lower Ninth Ward and out in eastern New Orleans, the shells of houses wrecked by Katrina still rot in the humidity, caved-in roofs and teetering walls sharing the same blocks with homes that got put back together, lifted onto concrete stilts and reinhabited.

Yet the city’s very survival as an inviting and vibrant space has made it into a symbol of resilience, an inspiration for other places savaged by nature’s whims and man’s mistakes. And the intractability of some its problems — in some cases problems that existed before the storm but have worsened or stagnated since — have made it a magnet for the world’s tinkerers, thinkers and doers.

“I say New Orleans is the nation’s most immediate lab for innovation and change,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu observes one afternoon in his City Hall office. “Some people call that an experiment, some a lab. We call it necessity.”

Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has funded a “chief resilience officer” position for New Orleans, calls the city a “resilience lab,” a model that the foundation has taken to dozens of other cities.

"Ten years isn’t long enough. They’re still on the journey," Rodin says.

The suggestion that New Orleans is a petri dish sits uncomfortably with some people in this city so adept at defying convention. The debate over the long-term impact of the conversion of its schools to an all-charter system and the decision to demolish large public housing developments in favor of new mixed-use housing will play out for years.

The rising cost of living has flipped some of the city’s neighborhoods from majority black to majority white. Rents have soared and, by one estimate, home sale prices have climbed more than 40 percent in 10 years.

A year after Katrina, parts of New Orleans were still such forbidding hellscapes, so soggy and mildewed and broken and despondent, and its plans for recovery were so tangled in red tape, that the city’s population had dropped from 494,000 before the storm to just 230,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A decade on, the city has bounced back to 78 percent of its previous population, the Census Bureau says.

Though the people who now populate the city aren’t necessarily the ones who fled it.

“The Chocolate City” that the bungling and corrupt Katrina-era mayor, Ray Nagin, so famously described at the nadir of the post-Katrina crisis is still majority black, but its African American population has shrunk by nearly 100,000 – to 59 percent from 67 percent. (Nagin is one of those who no longer lives here, having relocated first to Texas and then to a federal prison for a post-Katrina bribery conviction.)



And those African Americans who have returned have been less likely to share in the abundance — a National Urban League study said the gap between the median income of African Americans and whites grew by 18 percent after the storm, and the number of black children living in poverty jumped from 44 percent to more than 51 percent.

The public-policy laboratory has not yet solved that problem. “They’re peddling this notion of a complete recovery: opportunity for all, want for nobody,” say Jacques Morial, a community activist whose brother, Marc, and father, Ernest, have served as mayor. “That’s just not the case.”

In the cafes and side streets, New Orleans is sick of talking about Katrina, but can’t stop talking about Katrina.

“There’s Katrina and there’s Katrina-ism,” says Kenneth Ferdinand, a trumpeter who owns the Cafe Rose Nicaud in the Marigny neighborhood. “The –ism part ain’t ever going to be over. The –ism is the theory of disaster and struggle. It goes from generation to generation here. You understand?”

[section headline="" description="" caption="A second-line makes its way through Treme, a neighborhood that embodies the African American culture of New Orleans. Like other areas of the city, Treme feels the pressure of rising rents." credit="" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/08/katrina-paradeladies2-full.jpg" link="" align="full" ]

‘I am a gentrifier’

On Ursulines Avenue in the Treme neighborhood, there’s a pretty little side-hall shotgun house with olive trim and a porch painted red.

Buying that house in a neighborhood that embodies the African American culture of New Orleans, a place where they send off the dead from Charbonnet Funeral Home with trombones and trumpets, high-stepping and buck-jumping, came with a tangle of emotion for Jen Medbery, a child of Connecticut.

Medbery, one of the standouts in a post-Hurricane Katrina wave of successful tech entrepreneurs, and her husband are the only white residents of their block, and she’s acutely aware of what that means: “Technically speaking, I am a gentrifier,” Medbery, 31, says.

The presence of outsiders like her “is shifting the dynamic of what New Orleans is,” says Medbery, who fell hard for the city in her mid-20s while teaching at a charter school in the early years after Katrina and now runs an education software company. “It’s shifting the kinds of businesses that open, the kinds of restaurants. It’s important to be conscious of that and willing to discuss the implications.”

Five minutes down the road, on the opposite end of Treme, Dianne Honore rented half of a brick double across from Louis Armstrong Park a couple of years back. Honore, a licensed practical nurse, is one of the New Orleans Baby Dolls, a group of women who march during Carnival season as part of a tradition that dates back to the defiant side-street parades of segregation-era black prostitutes.

Honore’s landlord called a few weeks ago to tell her she had to go. The house would be sold. Honore, who lived in Texas after being flooded out, just “got gentrified” six years after coming home, she says one afternoon.

“Some days,” Honore, 50, says, “You feel like your culture is still drowning.”

Patrick Comer, 41, an Alabama native who founded a digital market-research company in New Orleans, says he has encountered a welcoming vibe more than any circled wagons.

‘Nieux’ money

On the Friday before Mardi Gras, Patrick Comer and 150 of his friends, entrepreneurs all, spilled out of Arnaud’s, a venerable French Quarter restaurant, and onto Bourbon Street The Friday luncheon is a Carnival season tradition. In another era, Comer — founder of Federated Sample, a digital market-research company — might have been angling to join one of the city’s old-line krewes at tables in other restaurants along that bawdy strip. It might have been his entree into the social and business upper crust.

But Comer, a 41-year-old Alabamian who learned the tech start-up game in New York and Los Angeles, hasn’t bothered.

He and other investors — many from out-of-state, but some upstart locals, too — launched their own Carnival society. They call it the Krewe du Nieux, which is pronounced “new” — precisely the identity and message they hope to transmit to the world.

Investors have taken notice of the influx, pumping money into New Orleans start-ups such as Dinner Lab, a membership dining club founded here that allows up-and-coming chefs to test new menu items in 30 cities, including Washington. The company, born in a French Quarter apartment patrolled by a blind Rottweiler, recently announced $7 million in venture-capital funding.

Comer, whose company recently re-branded under the name Lucid and announced plans for a London office, got some of his venture capital money from a New Orleans-based firm called, appropriately, Voodoo Ventures. Far from encountering insularity, Comer says the message he got was simple: “Come on in, the water’s warm.”

Forbes Magazine recently named New Orleans “America’s biggest brain magnet.” The city saw start-ups launched at a 64 percent higher rate than the national average from 2011 to 2013, according to the Data Center, an independent research group.

New Orleans as a magnet for “nieux” business would have sounded like fantasy a decade ago.

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“It was a very insular community that was scared of new people,” said Tim Williamson, a New Orleans native who runs a business incubator called Idea Village. “The day after Katrina, everybody became an entrepreneur. The closed, insular networks that didn’t want people to come here fractured.”

Volunteers poured into New Orleans “to save the world,” he said, and the city poured into them.

“New Orleans infected them,” says Williamson, whose organization hosts an annual entrepreneurs conference that drew more than 10,000 people this year.

Awhile back, Comer was walking through the French Quarter, talking tech business with a friend from New York. The restaurant where they were headed was closed, and Comer launched into an extended, chummy chat about where they should head with a man collecting garbage out front.

Comer’s friend pulled him aside: “Do you know that guy?” his friend asked, trying to wrap his brain around the intimacy of that chat with a complete stranger.

“This whole thing was bizarre to him,” Comer recalls.

Not long ago, he was talking with Ti Adelaide Martin, a scion of the Brennan restaurant empire.

“You people eat out so much!” Comer remembers Martin telling him. “Thank God!”

Markey's Bar is a popular watering hole in Bywater, a neighborhood along the Mississippi River whose population has shifted dramatically over the past decade.
Trombone player Corey Henry, flanked by saxophonist Andrew Calhoun and guitarist Danny Abell, play a late-night set.
Isabel Boehms receives a haircut from Ione Fairchild on a Bywater porch while Danny Szlauderbach plays guitar and Tyler Carmody listens. They all moved to New Orleans from Kansas.

‘We have hipsters now’

He smiled at first. It looked so charming, all those people driving slowly down Burgundy Street through the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, pointing cameras.

Then it dawned on Keith Weldon Medley: These folks weren’t tourists or architecture buffs. They were shoppers. And on their shopping list was almost everything that could be had in these neighborhoods, a collection of Creole cottages, shotgun doubles, warehouses and small manufacturers at a humpback bend of the Mississippi River.

From left, Eduardo Castillo, Jeremias Orozco and Nelson Zambrano, all of New Orleans, paint a double shotgun house on Gallier Street in Bywater.

In the evolution of post-Katrina New Orleans, few phenomena have been more striking than the dramatic demographic shift of places such as Bywater from majority black to majority white. One census block group in Bywater dropped from 51 percent African American before Katrina to just 17 percent afterward; the largest went from 63 percent to 32, according to a Washington Post analysis of U.S. census data.

“You saw all these white people. Obviously they were displacing black people who were here before,” said Medley, a historian who lives in the house where he grew up in the Marigny.

Post-Katrina New Orleans feels like a “conundrum” to Medley, who is African American, a city that is safer and more prosperous but emptied of many of the people he’d known for decades.

“We have hipsters now,” says Medley.

A few months ago, vandals in ski masks broke windows and spray-painted “Yuppy = bad” on the nearby St. Roch Market, a shiny symbol of the New Orleans recovery that had been closed for years after it flooded. The market, which opened in 1875, sold po’boys and shrimp-by-the-pound in an atmosphere of rotting charm before Katrina; it now houses pricey food stalls where the salad comes with Lacinato kale and Zante currants.

St. Roch Market, a historic commercial space that was renovated into an upscale food emporium, was vandalized a few months ago. The vandals broke windows and spray-painted “Yuppy = bad.”

And though the vandals were roundly condemned, they also sparked a conversation about the identity of the city post-Katrina, and particularly about the character of neighborhoods that New Orleanians who couldn’t afford to live in St. Charles Avenue mansions called their own.

It’s on the mind of almost everyone here, a preoccupation not only with affordability but with authenticity and internal migration, ever farther from the center. It’s the kind of conversation people who love a place so much it hurts are prone to having.

Start-ups have proliferated in New Orleans in the past decade. Lauren Rudzis, left, and Francisco Robert talk at the headquarters for Dinner Lab, which allows up-and-coming chefs to test new menu items in several cities.
A bicyclist rides past a skeletal, jazz funeral-themed mural in the Bywater neighborhood on July 28. In the past 10 years, Bywater has gone from being majority black to majority white.

On a recent early morning there was only one person on St. Ferdinand Avenue in the Marigny — that would be Miss Billie Jean Wilde, a transgender mime, who was known as Wild Bill while serving in the military during Vietnam.

Miss Billie used to live in the French Quarter, not far from the Golden Lantern where she performed, but the rent tripled after Katrina. Now she’s in the Marigny, which lies between the French Quarter and Bywater, at her uncle’s old place, sharing a cramped house with a hotel clerk and a cook.

“Everybody’s got somebody on their couch,” Miss Billie says while watering plants across the street from the converted church where Beyoncé’s sister got married not long ago.

Miss Billie, in a sense, is lucky — she’s still on high ground.

After Katrina, there was a rush to buy up properties on the sliver-by-the-river neighborhoods such as the French Quarter, the Marigny and Bywater, anything that didn’t flood.

“It was ‘opportunity-ville,’ ” says Jim Gabour, a film producer, Loyola University professor and longtime Marigny resident. (Gabour insists on making his Mardi Gras masks from the bones of animals he’s eaten during the year, though his wife is a vegetarian . . . don’t ask. This makes perfect sense here.)

Now, Robyn Halvorsen, a co-owner of the iconic Bywater bar Vaughan’s, can walk down almost any street and point to houses where someone is gone.

Halvorsen’s favorite neighbor was an old gentleman named Mr. Singleton; he was a stoop sitter, a constant in the Bywater neighborhood where she has lived for decades. He couldn’t keep up with the taxes, she says, and sold his place.

Some people from up north bought it. They fixed it. They made it pretty.

“They’re nice,” Halvorsen says. “But they’re not stoop sitters.”

[section headline="" description="" caption="The remains of a home in the Lower Ninth Ward." credit="" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/08/katrina-lower9th-full.jpg" link="" align="full" ]

Where zombies roam

Out on Benefit Street in the Upper Ninth Ward, just down the road from a place called Desire, there’s a china ball tree where Mr. Phil’s house once stood.

Mr. Phil’s, now just a patch of grass, is as good a spot as any to drink a beer on a Tuesday afternoon when the light barely trickles between the leaves. But at night you wouldn’t go near it. Night, says Earnest Lyons, an appliance repairman who lives nearby, is when “the zombies” come out, the crackheads of this troubled neighborhood bounded by canals and railroad tracks, northeast of the city center.

Lyons and his buddies talk about what they always talk about: contractors who ripped off their neighbors, Chinese drywall laced with toxic chemicals, snakes, raccoons, global warming. Zombies.

“Where you gonna run?” Lyons asks. “Only place you can go now is up in space.”

Up the road there’s a set of concrete stairs that leads to nowhere. Blocks of concrete spaced a few feet apart form the outline of what was once someone’s house. From a distance it looks like a graveyard. But someone lives across the street; there’s a tricycle in the driveway and the air conditioner hums.

It goes on like this for block after block after block. An empty foundation next to a spruced-up place with bright, clean siding next to a sagging wreck with a hole in the roof next to a house with a brand-new deck. They talk about blocks out here being jack-o’-lanterns — bright lights shining through missing teeth. The street names seem almost cruelly mocking: Pleasure, Abundance, Humanity.

“This is what we wake up to every day,” says Jesse Perkins, a 54-year-old sewer manager who grew up in the Desire public housing development but scraped together enough money to buy a small rancher a short drive away.

Perkins lives across the street from a large seniors apartment complex that was devastated during Katrina and now sits 10 years later with caved-in roofs and smashed out windows. He’s gotten used to the sound of junkies rustling around inside; he’ll never get used to the gunshots in the distance.

A city long plagued by violence hit a 43-year low in its murder rate in 2014, according to Mayor Landrieu’s office. But in 2015, there’s been a spike in violence, and the city registered its 100th murder nearly two months earlier than the year before.

“The city, on balance, is far better off than before Katrina,” says the writer Jason Berry, accustomed to a nightly symphony of sirens that has spread beyond the poorest sections. “But it’s still a break-your-heart kind of town.”

Dianne Honore and Jen Medbery in front of their homes in New Orleans. Gentrification and the rising cost of living have pushed Honore to leave the Treme neighborhood. Medbery is a self-proclaimed gentrifier who bought a home in Treme after Katrina.

Dancing to the right beat

In Dallas, for those four years immediately after Katrina, Dianne Honore wearied of hearing a particular phrase: “You couldn’t do that here.”

It was nice in Dallas, even “wonderful” at times. She had a good job nursing. There were no burst levees.

But in Dallas, she danced indoors.

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Chris Rose, the great poet journalist of New Orleans whose struggles with depression, addiction and even holding down a regular job are a living barometer of this city’s highs and lows post-Katrina, said it better than anyone, writing in a blog post: “The longer you live in New Orleans, the more unfit you become to live anywhere else.”

In 2009, Honore made it home from “anywhere else,” back to where she belongs.

“I felt that sense of wanting to put it back together,” she says.

She’s moved three times since coming back, most recently leaving behind Treme for a less expensive rental in a neighborhood along Esplanade Ridge, all she can afford on her stagnating nurse’s salary. She created an alter ego — “Gumbo Marie” — opened a little Creole arts and culture shop and got named queen of the Krewe of Red Beans.

She danced outdoors.

The same year, after teaching in flood-ravaged eastern New Orleans, Jen Medbery founded Kickboard, a software firm that aims to improve school performance through data analysis and teacher coaching.

The city “kind of seeps into your bones,” she says, and she noticed that the people who came to work with her wanted to “feel a connection to something bigger than themselves and their jobs.”

“You don’t feel that in San Francisco,” she said. “The scale of the city is right for people who want to leave their imprint and have a positive impact.”

Medbery raised more than $2.7 million in venture capital money, expanded her business into 30 states and 2,500 schools, and got named to the Forbes magazine “30 under 30” list of game-changing movers and shakers in education.

Frequently, she finds herself in “messy and necessary” conversations about race and class.

"There isn’t a day in this city that I am not fully conscious of my whiteness," Medbery says. “You can use the privilege you’re afforded to acknowledge the inequality in the city.”

People sometimes ask her why she lives in Treme.

“Do you feel safe there?” they say.

She tells them about the time she raced off to some important appointment, her mind awhirl.

A neighbor called to tell her two things: Your door is wide open, and we’ve got your dog for you.

Wilborn P. Nobles III and Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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