New Orleans was once a city of American innovation: first opera house (1796), first Jewish U.S. senator (1852), first theater dedicated exclusively to showing motion pictures (1896), and, of course, first jazz.
Then came stagnation, but almost everyone I met during a visit there last month—see WORLD’s August 15 cover story—says that a spirit of constructive change is taking root.
New Orleans pastor Ray Cannata sent me his personal list of New Orleans improvements since Katrina. Among them:
New levees and pumps better than old ones, thousands of homes raised, new homes replacing terrible public housing, a reformed property tax system, more police per capita, a Guardian Angels chapter, an increase in the number of neighborhood associations from a handful to 140, new festivals like Bayou Boogaloo and the Po'Boy Fest.
More locally owned restaurants and food stores rather than national chains, more and better students at Tulane, more charter schools per capita than any other city in America, improved school playgrounds and renovated theaters, a new fleet of cleaner and quieter biodiesel public buses, more films (plus the HBO series Treme) being made in New Orleans.
Lots of good young people moving in, top dress designer Suzanne Perron moving to New Orleans and setting up shop, an inspector general who fights waste and corruption, a much better city council, district attorney, representative in Congress, and governor.
It does all come down to committed people who don't let little things like hurricanes kill their dreams. For example, artist Aaron Collier since Katrina has painted an extraordinary series of paintings based on the Psalms of Ascent, and he maintains a toughness perhaps inherited from his West Virginia coal mining family. He bought a newly renovated New Orleans home, closed on it one day before Katrina, and soon found four feet of water in his new purchase. The re-renovation took time, but "enduring all that deepened our relationships."
Another New Orleans evangelical, Ben McLeish, works in community development in one of the two most dangerous neighborhoods of a city that is the most violent in the country. With the help of numerous short-term volunteers from around the United States—100 were helping in early July—he is renovating houses in an area where several murders have recently occurred. "I felt the call to serve among the poor," he says. "Sometimes it's tough, but people are generous and God's grace is still here."