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."
More prosperous uptown neighborhoods also have their challenges. Hilton general manager Joe Rabhan took early retirement after 25 years with the hotel chain and, on Aug. 31, 2001, had his loan application approved to buy a 17-room bed-and-breakfast on St. Charles Avenue, one of America's most beautiful boulevards. Eleven days later, terrorists killed 3,000 and, incidentally, tourism for a time. By 2005 Rabhan was finally prospering: Then came Katrina and more economic pain. Is he glad that he became a New Orleans entrepreneur? "Absolutely. There's nothing like being your own boss. . . . We've had 200 small weddings here. And we don't have people carrying on late at night, or husbands and wives screaming at each other, stuff I saw in the big hotel business all the time."
Probably the key human determinant of New Orleans' future, though, will be those striding through an educational system into which new resources are being poured. Arielle Joseph, one of six African-American middle-school girls on an early July field trip to a bank, is finishing her third summer in an all-day program funded by Breakthrough, a nonprofit that hopes to increase educational opportunity for students like her. Throughout the summer Arielle and others come to school at 8:15 for breakfast, then have morning classes (class size: 5-9 students) in English, math, science, and social studies.
In the afternoon teachers offer elective classes on subjects like film history, rocket science, fashion design, and mural painting. As Katrina was about to hit, Arielle's mom and grandma took her to Baton Rouge, and she went on to Houston before being able to come back. Conditions were "nasty," and Arielle is now determined to make things better for herself and others: Her goal is to do well in high school, go to Harvard and then law school—and to come back to New Orleans to practice family law.