New Orleans at 10

Neutral Ground
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR
(Jan-Aug 2015)

From January through August, I wrote a series of weekly columns about New Orleans for The American Scholar’s website. I contributed a total of 38 columns at about 800 words per column, or about 30,000 words, or about half a book. Yet, I just scratched the surface — the writing was for me a way to explore things that intrigued me about New Orleans and seemed to invite more digging and consideration.

The column was designed to finish up a few days after the tenth anniversary of Katrina. But I didn’t want this to be a series of Katrina columns, although mentions were unavoidable. We didn’t live in the city before the storm — we lost nothing, we had nothing at risk. Yet Katrina shaped the timing of when we moved to New Orleans, and where we ended up settling. I’d been in the city the week before Katrina, when I’d started looking at neighborhoods we might live in. Then I returned six months after the flood waters had been pumped out, when traffic lights were still out, flood-ruined cars were piled up under the Claiborne Expressway, and I still still saw junked refrigerators everywhere. We closed on our house (unflooded, on high ground) about a year after Katrina has passed through, and even though I never lifted a hammer, I felt like we were contributing to the rebuilding. Every dollar we spent locally seemed to help bring back the city. Everywhere we turned, we found a sense of comity and unity.

The tenth anniversary celebrations, with a few exceptions, in quiet ways feels like it’s created the opposite — it divided the city. First off, events were relentless — articles about the city’s recovery (and failures) and then many panels and concerts and speeches of every stripe leading up to the day of the event. Those who were here before the storm seemed slightly resentful of those who came later, and the commemorations bifurcated somewhat. Small debates erupted over who could speak for the city.

I sought to be up front and announced in my first column I would speak as a newcomer. But it still felt odd, writing about New Orleans from the inside, although I’m still an outsider in most ways. So I didn’t write The Big 10th Anniversary Katrina Story. The city had enough stories of that sort and didn’t need to peg another to an arbitrary calendar. 

Instead, I tried to keep my head down, keep writing, and keep in mind that stories that are intriguing today about the city’s ongoing evolution should be the same that fascinate a decade or two hence.

If you’ve just got time for a couple, try: Why The World's Best Cocktail is from New Orleans, or this one about Mardi Gras, A Day of Disbelief