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A Serious Question

A reader named Shana sent me the following query:

i’ve been reading your blog for awhile. i adore new orleans and about two weeks before katrina my husband and i decided to move down. katrina (and my grandma) put a damper on those plans. (we have however come down to volunteer a few times and plan on coming again.) but some like-minded friends are going through with their plans. he got a great job teaching and she’s got a few things lined up. they’re there now looking for a place to live, opening a bank account, getting cell phones, and she’s having SERIOUS second thoughts. i just got off the phone with her and tried to chill her out, reminding her of all the amazing and wonderful things that she fell in love with in the first place. that the crime of the past weekend was not normal. that indeed new orleans is still a city with all the problems of a city, exacerbated by katrina but its still a wonderful place. am i wrong? is she wrong? i realize this is odd but…

Here’s my answer:

Shana, I wish I could lay to rest your fears, and those of your friends. I wish I could say, “Come on down!”

But I can’t.

Yes, New Orleans is still a wonderful place. It is also a strange and sometimes frightening place to be. Living here is a difficult proposition, no question.

Crime is on the upswing, and that is a very serious concern for all of us, but personally Xy and I haven’t felt threatened. Two years ago a teenage boy was shot in broad daylight a block from our home. We did not feel particularly frightened then — sad and alarmed, yes, but not frightened. If you play it smart and don’t go looking for trouble, your chances of getting shot or knifed are less than, say, getting in a car accident or any of the other risks we all take for granted.

But crime is only one of many worries. There are so many other challenges to living here now. Trash piles up on the street. Mail delivery is spotty. There are abandoned buildings rotting everywhere. We have a real rodent problem. Medical services are few and far between. On top of all that, it’s hurricane season, and our flood control systems are not really ready.

On the other hand, we need good people to rebuild this city. One of the greatest things about New Orleans right now is that, for the most part, it’s a city of people who really want to be here. How many cities can say the same?

So, sure, come to New Orleans if you really want to. We will help you in any way we can. But I’m afraid I can’t encourage the ambivalent. You must be passionate about New Orleans to move here. Otherwise, the aggravations will drive you crazy.

Published inNew Orleans


  1. AMEN!
    I know about all the great stuff here and have experienced much of it. The past week has left me wanting to leave. I probably won’t but if someone who loves NO as much as I do isn’t so crazy about it now, I can’t imagine how someone with second thoughts would do.

    But, then again…seeing the great things about NO for the first time is pretty intoxicating!

  2. Adrastos Adrastos

    Well said, B-man. I’ve had some moments this week of wanting to chuck it all. This whole planning thing is a nightmare for those of us in the dry areas. Nobody can tell us what to plan for.

  3. Ian Ian

    I love your conundrum of encouraging the ambivalent. Never works, does it? Ambivalence ain’t never been welcome in New Orleans… we ain’t nothin’ but passion down here.

    I’ve been back since March, after my climb up the professional ladder took me through Omaha for a couple of years. I love being back, and my sentiments on crime are pretty much the same as yours… I walk to bars in my neighborhood late at night and I do feel relatively safe, as relatively safe as I felt living uptown and in mid-city through college.

    There are certain serious struggles to living here. My Marigny neighborhood lost power for at least five hours last night. Blackouts, both brief and extended are common these days, and my water pressure leaves much to be desired, when it isn’t shut off alltogether for repairs, like a couple of Saturdays ago when we didn’t have water all day. And my trash didn’t get picked up today…

    Still, I have the passion you speak of, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

  4. B, very good reply, but I have a different one.

    If you wish to come to N.O. to live, be prepared for the fight of your life. Also know that you will be on the cutting edge, helping to rebuild one of the greatest cities on the planet.

    Life is not easy here at the current time, but the experience is worth it. You will be around folks who don’t cut-and-run when the crap hits the fan… instead they stand their ground, rebuild their homes, and fight like the dickens for their sense of place.

    The ride could be terrifying, but the reward is a sense of pride and a belief in something more than oneself. In the very action of coming here, one becomes something beyond anything else. This is a freakin’ mission.

    The Isle d’Orleans lives… Please come and join us.

  5. thank you for your honest reply.

    i just had another long conversation with her. and i reminded her how heartbroken we all were watching our beloved city, day after day, week after week on the news last september. how we were so outraged that we organized a benefit, and then spent our vacations volunteering, gutting houses… that we did those things for many reasons but first and foremost was our love for the city and its people. and that we would not feel right, when we did move down, if we didn’t do something to help.

    i also reminded her that all of the other pitfalls of living in new orleans these days were things we knew about already – the erratic mail, the lack of traffic signals, the inordinate amount of trash and rats, etc. and that even before katrina, we knew new orleans could be a crazy-making place. but it is the place we love, the place we all want to call home someday.

    so, for now, she is feeling better about her decision. she just got a call from a landlord about a shotgun for rent & is waiting to hear if they’ll take her and her little dog too. she had a job interview today & it went well. i also think that hearing residents who were as freaked out as she was helped. i think she once again realizes that the anxiety and the hard work that come along with living in new orleans will be worth it in the end.

    i know i do. and my husband and i still plan on moving from chicago once my grandma has herself moved on, so to speak. there’s no where in the world i’d rather be. my heart aches for it as i type this.

    so, thanks again. i do so appreciate it.

    be well,

  6. Yeah, man that’s a tough question. It really depends on where you’ll be living and working, and what state of mind you’re in. If you are not working on your house, then life will not have the same stresses. The same is true if you don’t have an abandoned home next door.

    New Orleans is relatively small, so getting to a grocery, going to a movie, museum, event, or going out to eat is not a huge journey. It’s sad to see all of the debris and broken homes, but it really is getting better. I see “Sold” signs, people planting gardens, and positive construction going on. From what I understand abandoned cars are getting taken care of soon. Mostly, I just miss my friends and family. However, I think that the problems of New Orleans will translate into stronger community organizing and participation. Once you get a person’s feet moving rebuilding their home or business, it’s hard to stop the momentum.

    A couple weeks back I stayed up all night and listened to the pounding sounds coming from the levees. The work stopped at 2:30a.m. and started again at 5:30a.m. The levees do scare me, but the problem is getting more attention than it’s ever gotten in the past and additionally Blanco is addressing our wetlands and is objecting to the oil and gas rape that eroded the land to begin with. I think there could be a more environmental consciousness in New Orleans’ future.

  7. David David

    I wonder if a new arrival to the city, someone who doesn’t own a house, but rents in uptown–I wonder if such a person is couldn’t have a relatively stress-free experience of the city. I think it’s possible.

  8. Where will they shop, eat out and buy anything? Everywhere! Grocery stores are open (2 major ones Uptown), restaurants are open all over and more opening each day, the malls are open and thriving. Sure life here is difficult, but it’s hardly Armageddon, especially for a new arrival who doesn’t have to worry about FEMA, contractors or roofers. As for crime, as a non-crack dealer or user I feel pretty safe.

  9. I don’t think my son experiences the same stresses that “permanent” residents and especially property and business owners, experience. This is not to say that he will ever “move home” again, because I don’t think he will. He chose New Orleans intentionally and I believe he will stay. He applied to only three colleges: Loyola, Tulane (which we could never have afforded) and the University of Georgia (at my insistance, in case Loyno didn’t offer sufficient financial aid). He signed a one-year lease in May of his freshman year and has just renewed it. Living just north of St. Charles Avenue, his home didn’t get wet (although the water came very close), so he lost nothing beyond a big chunk of his sophomore year in college (and a bigger chunk of the city in which he’d chosen to live).

    He walks or rides his bike to school, to the store(s), to visit friends and to his favorite, er, recreational spots, without seeing much that has changed since the flood. I don’t think he feels any less safe doing this now than he did doing it his freshman year, living on campus before Katrina. Keep in mind that he is from Atlanta. We have plenty of crime of our own, but they were warned both at freshman orientation and at freshman move-in, to be careful “out there”. He has friends who wandered alone out of bars near campus, to be quickly relieved of their wallets and cell phones, and, while no one he knows was physically harmed in the process, they just as easily could have been.

    When he first returned to the city in January, before he got the job he has now (and loves), he worked in “those houses” tearing out sheetrock and, from time to time, he and one or another of his house mates will take a long ride in the car, just to keep things in perspective. He’s an intellectual, a musician and a writer, and there is no place in this world he would rather be. What’s happening in New Orleans is historic to a level this country hasn’t experienced since the West was settled, and will be defined by those adventurous and dedicated souls who choose to stay and the others who choose to join them. JMHO.

  10. Elliott Elliott

    As someone who’s typically pretty optimistic, I’m going to go ahead and encourage the ambivalent. A friend of mine sent me a quote from Harry Shearer that I can’t remember exactly, but it was something like, “New Orleans broken is better than any other city whole.” I’m not sure he even said it, but if he did, I agree with him.

    I think if you’re already ambivalent, then you’re aware of the drawbacks of living here, pre- or post-Katrina. I’ve told a number of people that although many places are fine, with things to like and things not to like, New Orleans is much more polar (or passionate): There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate. I hate the crime, the unreliability of services, etc, but I love so much more about it. The city isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, no other place will quite do. It gets under your skin, and it’s hard to purge it.

    I don’t mean to downplay the intense struggles that so many people hit harder than I have been through. And we all have years of struggles ahead, best-case scenario. But the city could end up even better; already the festive spirit is back, and in my experience the concerns over a major shift in character of the city are overblown, partly because, as B says, the people here really want to be here.

    So living here is somewhat high risk, but it’s also high reward. I’m hoping to witness the maintenance of the things we love about it and the improvement on things we don’t. If you’re willing to give it a shake, turn on WWOZ on your computer and get ready for a new experience. You’ll be most welcome.

  11. Tony Tony

    New Orleans is like eating crabs. It takes some effort to get to the meaty part. Cracking the crab claws and extracting the meat, opening the carapace, separating the gills and whatnot from the central meaty portion which is encased in a thinner, chitinous layer, rewards you with the delicately succulent taste of crustacean flesh. Metaphorically, for the ambivalent new resident, pre- or post-Katrina, one has to get past the searing summertime heat, the violent crime, the trash piles, the bad politicians, the blighted neighborhoods, the undulating uptown road beds, the adolescent adulation of “Girls Gone Wild” floozies on French Quarter balconies …. and so on to appreciate New Orleans. It’s an American city that is proud to be an atypical American city.

  12. David David

    I just want to point out to ashley that I made my last comment as a home owner in uptown New Orleans.

    I just think a lot of the difficulties New Orleanians experience has to do with two overwhelming factors: 1. Being a New Orleanian during Katrina, living through that trauma. 2. Being a home owner in the city, especially if your house and/or neighborhood was devestated, and trying to deal with a tremenduous amount of uncertainty regarding the most significant investment one can make.

    The issues ashley brought up are easily addressed for new arrivals (assuming they’re moving to a part of the city that’s up and running), but I think her comments are interesting. It reveals an outsider’s view of the city, one that is probably rather common.

  13. Heh. David, you might be intrigued to know that Ashley is both a male and a New Orleanian.

    I appreciate all these comments. Taken in sum they provide a better picture than I presented in my initial advice (or non-advice) to Shana’s friend. Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts.

  14. David, my comments were made in light the aspect of your question “relatively stress-free”. As New Orleanians, I don’t think we’re really fit to judge what an acceptable level of stress is anymore.

    Compared to a non-abandoned city, we don’t have 24 hour groceries, we have few places to go to buy children’s clothing or furniture, and my power still goes off once a week. Every day I drive down what used to be Carrollton, with non-existent McD’s, freshly opened Popeyes (that closes too damned early), totally ransacked shopping centers and grocery stores, and piles of debris.

    I still can’t go to Calhoun Superette to get meat, Kokopelli’s for burritos, and Elio’s closes at 6:00. As much as I hate it, I have to do about a third of my shopping in Jeff Parish.

    Would all of this cause stress to a new resident? I say yes.

  15. David David

    Ashley, clearly, you and I have had different experiences.

    I do almost all of my shopping within a few miles of my house. I don’t eat a lot of fast food. I realize that if you’re accustomed to certain businesses’ being open at certain hours, a change can be an adjustment. I realize that because I, like most New Orleanians, have had to make such adjustments.

    That said, I would go back to my supposition that newcomers would find the city relatively stress-free–that is, relative to the experiences of pre-Katrina New Orleanians. That’s because newcomers would not have many of the disappointments of long-term New Orleanians, disappointments derived from their frustrated expectations.

    Ultimately, I’m sure outcomes will vary.

  16. Cade Roux Cade Roux

    I think it could be relatively stress-free experience – but it depends on what you mean by relative, stress-free and experience ;-).

    Relative to the daily difficulties of commuter life in Houston or Ft. Lauderdale, yes – possibly less stressful, depending on lifestyle.

    Relative to a small town in Missouri, no – almost certainly more stressful.

  17. Tony Tony

    And why the snobbish attitude toward Jefferson Parish? Be glad you don’t have to go all the way to Slidell or Laplace. Many people who lost their homes have either set up temporary residence here or have moved here altogether. I would tend to think that in this post-Katrina environment one would have dispensed with this elitist attitude.

  18. Tony, it’s not snobbery at all. It’s trying to help ourselves. Jeff’s population has skyrocketed, and they are more than doubling their pre-K sales tax revenue. Orleans’ tax base has shrunk and the sales tax revenues are a fraction of pre-K. I’m simply trying to help the parish in which I live get some income.

  19. Also Tony, my remark about having to go to Jeff Parish was directly related to David’s point of view that one can subsist uptown stress-free. If I need something for one of my 3 children, 60% of the time, I have to go to Jeff to get it because there is no place in Orleans for me to get the exact same item.

    Not exactly stress free.

  20. to CADE ROUX—

    While i’ve nothing against your sense of N.O. pride, here’s another quote for you–“Cleveland rocks!”.
    And so do Shaker Heights, Chagrin Falls, etc.
    And one would imagine that both Ohio and New Orleans may have changed somewhat since 1870.

  21. Never before, in the history of our nation, has a major city, been completely, manditorily (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word, but it ought to be), evacuated. Never. This is new ground.

  22. […] Considering what it can be like living here it’s hard not to get really, really angry about stuff like this. Do you know how weird it is to be happy that the National Guard is back in town? It’s a little less weird then driving past Vera Smith’s makeshift memorial in the little park at the corner of Jackson and Magazine on the way to work every morning. The traffic lights on that corner are still not operating. It all just wears you down. […]

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