New Orleans' Rebound Brings Surprising Riches Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans isn't the city it used to be. The Census Bureau estimates there are 100,000 fewer people living there than before the storm. But many in New Orleans say things may actually be better -- from its sense of community to a greater appreciation of the city's food and music.
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New Orleans' Rebound Brings Surprising Riches

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New Orleans' Rebound Brings Surprising Riches

New Orleans' Rebound Brings Surprising Riches

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is not the city it used to be. Some people say the city is actually better now, but there are some obvious problems. For example, the Census Bureau estimates there are still a hundred thousand fewer people living there than there were before the storm.

NPR's Greg Allen has this overview of some of what's wrong and what's right about New Orleans in 2010.

GREG ALLEN: If you visit New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the city's comeback still seems years away. This was the epicenter of destruction when floodwalls along the industrial canal gave way, sending a surge of water that moved houses off their foundations, wiping out an entire neighborhood.

But there are a few signs of hope. Along the river, in the Holy Cross neighborhood, many residents are back. That's where Mac McClendon decided to create the Lower Ninth Ward Village. It's a community center and gathering place for returning residents.

Mr. MAC McCLENDON (Founder and CEO, Lower Ninth Ward Village): Seventy-five percent of this community is still displaced. The media and everything is saying that they don't want to come home. I know that not to be the truth.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McCLENDON: So what we're going to do tonight is a little different. Normally, we have it lined out, but tonight, we're going to just let it flow.

ALLEN: It's open-mic at the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a sort of informal poetry slam. There are more than a dozen residents here to share their poetry, including teenager George Hill.

Mr. GEORGE HILL: Across the canal, before Saint Bernard, right here in the Lower Ninth Ward, we're born prominent, prestigious men and women.

ALLEN: Here and elsewhere in New Orleans, in the aftermath of the storm, there's a strong sense of community. People know their neighbors and are actively involved in making things better.

Down the street from the Lower Ninth Ward Village, many residents have returned. This area is on higher ground. Milton Carr came back early. He recalls passing National Guard checkpoints and sleeping in his truck at first. A big reason others haven't returned, he says, is a lack of basic amenities most neighborhoods take for granted.

Mr. MILTON CARR: And we don't have some of the facilities we need like grocery stores and a bank and stuff like that, so that consequently made some of the people that lived here in the Lower Ninth Ward move to Saint Bernard Parish.

ALLEN: There used to be several schools in the Lower Ninth Ward. Now, there's just one. The recreation and senior citizens' centers, even the fire station are gone. But that may soon change.

Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU (New Orleans, Louisiana): Who knows what day it is?

Unidentified Woman: Not Friday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor LANDRIEU: (Unintelligible) thank you (unintelligible).

ALLEN: New Orleans' new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has been in office now for a little more than a hundred days. But he's already brought a new optimism to many who felt the city's recovery proceeded too slowly under Mayor Ray Nagin.

Landrieu is at the same time upbeat and realistic.

Mayor LANDRIEU: There is no other place that has had their lives and their culture challenged the way the city of New Orleans has. And there's been no other group of people that have responded in as magnificent way as the people of the city did.

ALLEN: At a recent news conference, Landrieu unveiled 100 new infrastructure projects that will be built within the next year. The list includes a playground, a recreation center and a fire station for the Lower Ninth Ward. There are similar projects planned for other still-struggling neighborhoods like Gentilly and New Orleans East.

Landrieu says these projects will serve as anchors that will hasten the neighborhood comebacks.

Mayor LANDRIEU: You're going to start seeing a lot of other activity from private-sector folks who are saying, okay, well, I feel really certain now that that particular area of the city is coming back. You'll see that all over the place as well.

(Soundbite of house demolition)

ALLEN: Across the city, in every neighborhood, construction continues. In New Orleans' Lakeview section, a backhoe is demolishing a house, clearing the way for new construction. Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center says five years later, residents are still returning.

Ms. ALLISON PLYER (Deputy Director, Greater New Orleans Community Data Center): We see it in the numbers, and I hear it every day.

ALLEN: Plyer says the rate at which residents have been returning has stayed remarkably consistent since 2008 and shows no signs of abating.

And there are some positive economic developments. Wage levels are up, in part because of the growth in what Plyer calls knowledge industries: jobs in teaching, legal services, insurance and the like.

One problem, Plyer says, is the critical shortage of affordable housing.

Ms. PLYER: Our average rents have gone up by some 40 percent. Incomes have not gone up that high. They've only gone up about 21 percent. So it's much harder for people in the lower tiers of our income ranges to afford the housing here.

ALLEN: All the rebuilding and influx of government money have been good for the region's economy. Unemployment in New Orleans runs a couple of points below the national average. And since Katrina, the number one industry - tourism - has largely rebounded.

At the Red Fish Grill on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, it's happy hour. Behind the bar, Roddy Montgomery shucks oysters and serves them up with a practiced touch.

Owner Ralph Brennan says this restaurant, and the industry as a whole, is doing just about three-quarters of the business it did before Katrina.

Mr. RALPH BRENNAN (Owner, Red Fish Grill): It's been a steady recovery since Katrina with, you know, the hiccups of the recession, and then we're coming out of that and now the oil spill. We're not sure how long we're going to feel the oil spill. Maybe as it moves off page one and it's not as important visitors will reconsider New Orleans as a destination.

ALLEN: Even with fewer visitors, there are many more restaurants and more innovative cooking in New Orleans now than before Katrina. Culinary tourism is one of the city's appeals. The other, of course, is music.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: New Orleans' premier musical event, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, went on as scheduled after Katrina and has been steadily rebuilding attendance since then, drawing on nationally known local talent like the Neville Brothers.

The director of Jazz and Heritage Fest, Don Marshall, says New Orleans' music scene is now more vibrant than ever. There are more clubs. There's a demand for New Orleans music around the world and a new commitment to carrying on the city's rich musical traditions.

Mr. DON MARSHALL (Director, Jazz and Heritage Festival): By almost losing it totally - and for some maybe it was lost, many are not back -but it sort of reinvigorated the sense that we need to appreciate and celebrate what we have.

ALLEN: That's true in the clubs and also in the streets. When New Orleans neighborhoods emptied during Katrina, no part of the city's cultural life hung more in the balance than its tradition of parades and second lines.

In the year after the storm, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes says his parade and second line club - the Black Men of Labor - was busy.

Mr. BRUCE "SUNPIE" BARNES (Musician): We did a ton of funerals right after the storm. The year following up, probably 14 or 15 funerals, easily, and even a lot more was going on, but that's the whole concept and idea. This city's, you know, always known about hard times.

ALLEN: Some social clubs disbanded, but Barnes says there are still more than 40 across the city - holding parades most Sundays somewhere in New Orleans.

He also helps direct a group of teen and preteen musicians - the New Orleans traditional brass band.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: Barnes says there are lots of young brass bands in New Orleans, but most play a more modern style.

Mr. BARNES: And it's fine, but our focus is to play the traditional music, the music that invented jazz, the music that Louis Armstrong played, that Sidney Bechet played, that Jelly Roll Morton played, that Mahalia Jackson used in her gospel music. The beat goes on, man.

ALLEN: Throughout New Orleans, in the neighborhoods, the music, food, politics, even the economy, that's what you hear, that the city's rebound is still just getting started.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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