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N.O. Love Left

I remember a strange feeling as I lay down to sleep on the first few nights of this new year. I had a nice break over the holidays. My parents visited. We caught up with friends. I survived the worst hangover ever. And a strange feeling came over me. I’m not sure what that feeling was, but I think it was — happiness. I thought about how screwed up things were here, how slow the recovery was going, but in spite of that I felt a sense of personal contentment. Things were taking longer than we hoped, but at least they were headed in the right direction. I was involved in the community, helping to rebuild, with the love of my life by my side. Who could ask for anything more?

That feeling seems very far away now.

I wasn’t born here in New Orleans. I wasn’t raised anywhere near here. I’ve got no family here. I didn’t fall in love with the city and decide to move here. I came for a job.

Prior to moving here, New Orleans was something of a cultural blind spot for me. I had little in the way of preconceived notions. I simply had no idea what New Orleans was all about.

As soon as I arrived here, I felt at home. I wouldn’t say I “fell in love” with the city. That’s sappy. I’ve tried never to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities of life in New Orleans. But I did feel at home here, like I belonged in some way, almost like I’d always been here. I felt a sense of wonder at what a strange and unique place this is.

I don’t feel that anymore. Now the only thing I’m wondering about is:

Why am I here?

I keep trying to remember the things I loved, or thought I loved, about this city.

Great Creole cuisine? But I’ve lost my appetite.

Carnival? But I don’t feel like celebrating.

Beautiful architecture? I just don’t care anymore.

The subtropical climate? Yes, I’m one of those crazy people who likes hot weather. But what with the hurricanes and all… no… can’t say I’m a fan.

The people. Wasn’t it the people of New Orleans I loved the most? Yes, there are great people here. But there are also killers.

Why am I here? Coming back after the flood was a leap of faith. I thought New Orleans had a fighting chance. I thought maybe it could even improve. I wanted to be a part of that.

Now the recovery seems not just slow but flat-out stalled. Did you see the article in the New York Times Sunday?

Some economists and demographers are beginning to wonder whether New Orleans will top out at about half its prestorm population of about 444,000, already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960 Census. At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are likely to be small.

“It will be a trickle based on what we know now,” said Elliott Stonecipher, a consultant and demographer based in Shreveport, La. “Low tens of thousands, over three or four or five years, something in that range. I would say we could start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn’t get high visibility.”

Jesus, that’s depressing. The whole article makes me feel foolish for ever thinking we could bounce back. We were a “basket case” before the disaster, and as a rule disasters don’t heal. They destroy. That’s why they’re disasters.

Why am I here?

An object at rest tends to stay at rest. I still have my job. We still own a house. Starting over is hard. Leaving would entail all kinds of hassles, not least of which is admitting I was wrong. So… there’s a certain inertia that keeps us here.

Inertia has guided much of my life, which might be one reason I felt at home in New Orleans. But inertia is not enough now.

We’re not packing up yet. Not by a long shot.

I am searching for good reasons to stay.

Published inNew Orleans


  1. mark mark

    i stay for fear that living anywhere else in america will be like entering a chicago bears blog comments section, or game.

  2. Katie Katie

    leaving new orleans was the hardest decision i have had to make. i’m from there. i gave it a year after katrina. for the safety of my babies, we moved. starting over is hard. but it can be done. any new orleanians that want to make their home in Hattiesburg, MS — we welcome you with open arms!

  3. bart,
    a lot of us feel the same way. i could have written this myself. i can’t believe all of the hoo haw that’s going on.



  4. I, too, felt at home the day I arrived in NOLA, and have not once questioned my being here until recently. Lately it seems almost ridiculous to stay, with everything that is and, perhaps more importantly, is NOT going on. But I guess, for now at least, what’s keeping me here–other than a job I truly love–is a sort of moral commitment, the recognition that the problem with modern “urban” areas is that everyone leaves when things get bad. I’m not judging anyone who’s left; its a personal decision and I we all have to follow our own compass. I just feel like giving up now, on New Orleans, is in some significant way like giving up on everything. I’m not ready to do that yet.

  5. Initially, ten years ago, I came for a job, too.

    When my husband and I moved away four years ago, it was for a job, too. We moved back due to a job – in Baton Rouge. If it weren’t for the house we have here, the one we kept and rented out all the time we had moved away, we’d probably be in Baton Rouge.

    Some days I unfortunately feel the same as you – what the hell am I doing here? I don’t have any family here, and neither does my husband. We’d be saving ourselves a lot of gas money and hurricane-season worries (not to mention the general crime worries) if we just bit the bullet and high-tailed it west on I-10. This place is getting harder to take. But hey, I’m scratching for reasons, myself…

  6. Carmen Carmen

    Okay. Those are feelings of depression. So let’s get realistic: Adam Nossiter wrote the article. Look around your fellow blogmates’ writings: he was the one who spun the March differently, too. Pessimistic and toeing the party line. Stonecipher has been saying all this stuff from the beginning. This is hitting you now that you’re weakened, but it’s the same tag line as back in the Bring New Orleans Back Commission days, brought to you by the people who don’t want New Orleans to be brought back.

    You’re still in mourning, for a lot of things, but especially for Helen. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a smaller city or not. As long as things work right, and the people who love to be here, or need to be here, are here, it’s not essential “how many” stay. That oppressiveness of thought is money-based: it matters for jobs, industry, small business, etc. And while there is some importance in the thought, it’s not what the spirit of New Orleans is about.

    Was it Webb who said CEOs now make 400% more than an employee, per differential? There is class warfare in this country to a level which has perverted the “American dream” beyond all recognition. The New Orleans middle class has been devastated by the levee breaches and the failures of government to provide even a cup of water for the little ones right after Katrina. This beast of bureaucracy lumbers along with our game ball, and we all have to be Deuce McAllisters carrying that pack on our backs to make the five yards for the touchdown.

    But we can do it. In this field, in this city, where the injustices have been so undeniable, we too are one game away from the Superbowl. Even if we have to wait until next year. Without New Orleans, we would not have a different Congress this year. Without a different Congress, the do-what-we-wills would not have notice that their delusions are no longer transmitting effectively to the rest of the nation.

    I can’t tell you why you’re here. I can tell you you need to heal. I can tell you what is going on is inescapable elsewhere, momentary illusions aside, so perhaps you just want to meet the battle head-on where people understand it’s happening… bunker mentality and all.

  7. kicakass, Carmen.

    Bart, I have my own ideas about why you guys will / want to stay; they are no different from my ideas about why Americans went to live on the frontier one hundred and fifty years ago. You claim intertia as a guiding force, when, acrosss your adult life, it has been the frisson of the new, the forbidden, and the unknowable that has led you to such accomplishmet sin your life as you take pride in, such as ROX and your exceedingly youthful yet exceedingly correct commitment to XY. The two of you have very serious decisons to make regarding NOLA and the two of you, and what might come between you. Part of your heritage together is the right to embrace risk and the romantic gesture; part of your responsibilty together is to determine a responsible course of action that embraces possibility. What you may be engaged in learning is how to construct a hybrid of each responsibility, something that XY may take the lead in, I think, given her career choice.

    You two are so much in my thoughts daily. You will make the right choise, whatever it may be. PLEASE take the care to shoot the decison process for ROX or other projects – in deciding how and whether you will contribute to the future of NOLA you also have the chance to decide how and whther you might contribute to an emergent art form. You inspire me, Bart and XY, and I am frightened for you: what further constituent elements can matter at the moment of creation for an artist? Discipline and skill matter in hindsight, of course, but are artifacts of hard work, which you both evidently bring to your current situation.

    I don’t have a perspective on the right course of action for you. The course you have chosen in the past has been the right one. So will your course in the future.

  8. Tony Tony

    Aye! I second that Cade Roux. Just like the scifi writer, John Varley once wrote in the intro to his short story, “Beatnik Bayou”:

    “New Orleans is a foreign city hanging on to the bottom of the United States, and one of my favorite places.”

    … ’nuff said.

  9. rickngentilly rickngentilly

    this place is schitzo. it will eat you alive and make you hate it. and for some reason you will never be content when you leave.

    i have made an honest try of it three different times and was totally unhappy in new york city , the ozarks , and the west coast.

    i never had kids but i have a wife who i love and adore. i am seriously thinking about packing it in and buying some land and calling it a day.

    i honestly think i can no longer take the leadership of this parish , region , and state.

    as far as im concerned you are the canary in the coalmine.

  10. I lived in LA, Seattle, Hattiesburg, South Florida, and Idaho. But why do I commute to Chicago while living here in NOLA? To quote Earl King: “cause there ain’t no city like New Orleans”.

    That being said, I know where I can get a professor gig at a beach town in Brasil. Tonight, I was looking at Real Estate prices there…

    I second Rick. You are the canary.

    And if you stay, I want to draft you to run for mayor. Seriously.

  11. I’m with Ashley. Of course, you two have to do what’s best for you. I know that New Orleans will not better off if you leave, though. The city is very fortunate to have you two here and we appreciate what you do.

  12. Around the time of the first anniversary of the levee breaches G Bitch and I were set to move. Portland, Oregon was our target. The idea of living in a radically different yet still green climate, a progressive regional planning authority whose mission it is to stall sprawl, and a funky/liberal population all seemed to combine into the perfect antidote to our problems here. It made perfect sense but we couldn’t do it. And while the city has only gotten worse since then, I no longer have a strong desire to leave (plus, did you see that Portland had a flood! How could people live there?!). I guess I’ve come to accept how fluid things are here. If one of us loses a job, we’re gone. It’s simple like that. But we’re hoping to stay.

    I’m one of those people who sappily fell in love with the city. G Bitch is from here, of course, but coming here for Jazz Fest or just to escape the dullness of Hattiesburg (apologies to Katie above, but if we leave New Orleans we’re leaving the South altogether) was all it took for me to bite. Give me a brass band secondline and my heart still races. I love the look of the place, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the people that make it, even with all their ridiculous contradictions. For all everyone likes to point to the racial mistrust, this is the one city our bi-racial family has lived that I feel totally at ease, and we’ve lived in Mississippi, Florida, and Illinois. Sometimes people even think I might be black, which is just so damn charming. So my love for the place is personal and obscure and maybe inscrutable.

    I hold nothing against anyone for leaving. We almost did and still might. That said, we’re giving it our best shot and no punk like Nossiter of the NYT (good call, Carmen) is going to factor into the equation.

  13. Everytime something bad happens or something cool closes, etc, I fret it all. Then I notice that we still have a lot more of that good stuff than other places do. Not what we’d like, but still better than the other places, as far as the things I value are concerned.

    NO has never been easy, and it’s even harder now. I tell people from elsewhere that NO has a lot to love and a lot to hate, whereas other places I’ve lived haven’t had much to love or to hate. The wild swings take a lot more energy, and I can understand people getting burned out.

    But, FWIW, a friend of ours who moved away about 8 months ago who wasn’t even all that “into” the cool things here said plainly: Don’t ever leave; you’ll regret it.

    You’ve had a much tougher ride than we have, but I think that a lot of people (not everyone, of course, but a lot) find that once you love New Orleans, nothing else works. Hard to explain, but I think the soul of the city is real, even as it’s hurting. Many cities don’t really have one to begin with.

  14. You don’t want to leave. You want some Peace of Mind. We all want some Peace of Mind.

    I am afraid if you de-camp you won’t find it.Then what?

    You may forget the last year and a half. You may forget the beautiful intensity of being alive, right here at this time. You may be lulled into conversations about “stuff” But your heart will remain here, I am fairly certain.

    We are the unfinished chapters in a book that you helped to write.

    We talk about leaving all the time, in fact my husband just left for a month to his studio in Mexico. But we won’t leave. We can’t leave. We can’t

  15. I don’t know…. I’m a fellow Midwesterner, and I became very aware, after living away from the Midwest for a number of years, of wanting to return there. That’s what I’m hardwired for.

    And guess what. I got some of the peace I was looking for.

    There’s something to staying in the general vicinity of your origins. I’m living 8 hours away from where I grew up, but culturally, it feels like home.

    And I keep sayin’ … the livin’ is good in Milwaukee. I’m not kidding.

    Yeah, we have some inner-city issues, too. Some bad ones. Not as bad as in N.O., but there is still social-betterment work to be done, if you’re looking for it.

    Kids and cities here (and other places) can use love and efforts just as much as in New Orleans. Only here, everyone starts off with a little more of a fighting chance.

    Plenty of non-profit boards to get involved with too. I’m on one now – one that provides fundraising and other support for my daughter’s future school – a special foreign language immersion school. And would you believe there are SEVERAL of those in our city – and that they are chartered on the PUBLIC schools – and free!?

    30% of kids at the school I’m involved with qualify for subsidized lunches. But they speak two languages fluently – one of them not being a native language to their homes or neighborhoods.

    That kicks ass.

  16. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with NOLA as long as I’ve lived here. There are times when Dr A and I feel like chucking it too. I completely understand. BUT as several others have said this place gets into your blood: sometimes it’s an infection but other times it’s the sweetest high ever.

    The things that are bothering us have been here for many years: idiotic pols, violent crime, trash, potholes, bad public schools and on and on and on. You didn’t live in the mid-90’s, Bart, when, if anything the city was even more violent than it is now. But it was easier to ignore or deal with the problems then because the structure (psychological, social, physical and political) of the city hadn’t collapsed as it did post-K. In short, it’s the same as it ever was only more so.

    Y’all need to do what you think is best but if there are any decisions to be made, do it when you’re not as low. You certainly have reason to be low right now. If you ever need to talk, I’m around to listen. For selfish reasons, I hope you can stick it out. The city also needs people like Xy and you. We’ve lost a boatload of good people in the last year and a half.

  17. bullet bullet

    “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” – Lafcadio Hearn, 1879

    It was from the TP last Mardi Gras, but I got it at wetbank.

  18. Garvey Garvey

    You’ll do good wherever you are, whatever you decide. You’ll fight the good fight, no matter where you end up.

    Do what’s best for your family.

    When does idealism become hubris?

  19. It comes in waves. There is a filter that seems to go over a person’s eyes where everything they see, hear and read is awful. I go through it myself, then I come out of it. Then I see my friends going through it and try to help. Then they come out of it and someone else goes into it.

    I think everyone lives on the verge of leaving. It takes guts to live here.

    There of course comes a point when someone wants, or even needs, normalcy. But, normalcy is just that. Normal.

    I know one of the things that keeps me going from day to day is this need to be part of something. Perhaps its arrogance but I don’t want to live some obscure life in Topeka or Dover. I like being right here, right now in New Orleans because there is a movement afoot. And if something is going down I want to be right in the middle of it. We can be notorious or anonymous. I’ve never wanted an unexamined life. I like to matter. And I think we are all in a very special place right now to tip the scales – and matter. So that usually dominates my desire to leave. Usually.

    Sure, we could all be in Orlando and keeping up with the Joneses, but like Glenn David Andrews said on 1/11, “I don’t like Houston, I love New Orleans. I don’t like Atlanta, I love New Orleans. I don’t want Tennessee, I love New Orleans.” Spencer was going to buy him a house in the UK but he decided to stay in the 6th Ward so who are we to argue with that? 🙂

  20. months ago i asked you a question. my friends were getting ready to move to nola and she was scared to death over a crime spike. you were honest. nola is a difficult place to live. crime has always been a problem. you didn’t know what the right answer was.

    since then i have been down 3 more times to volunteer and to visit them. we’ll be down again in a couple weeks. they still question their decision but new orleans has fully gotten under their skin. so, they are sticking it out. and they continue to volunteer – gutting houses for common ground whenever they can. and they are both teachers. they both really want the city to heal. and they want to help in that process. they also know that chicago will never be the same for them again.

    and i know that no matter how bad it gets that new orleans needs people like them. like you and Xy.

    but you were right, there is no easy answer. but the decision should not be made in the midst of all the grief you must be feeling.

    i do know that if you’re still there when my husband & i finally move down, we should all have a drink.

  21. gothgate gothgate

    my reason is family. my mom won’t leave. her huge family is here in the area (mostly on the west bank & out in houma.) and i was raised here. my family’s tomb is here. our tribal lands are here. i’ve got swamp water in my veins and i hate it. i’ve tried living in other places but i always come home to new orleans.

    but i look around, and i honestly can’t figure out why anyone who doesn’t have family here would stay. jobs can be found anywhere. culture too. most cities have a unique culture if you look for it. to me, nola is a cultural wasteland. no good art museums or any other museums. no good symphony or opera. no good libraries. i lived in *chicago* for many years but even though i liked it there, i missed new orleans so much that i couldn’t stay away. (btw, i hate rabid sports fans & esp. bears fans are the worst.) but in chicago, there was culture everywhere! i could spend DAYS at the art institute and still find something new on my next visit. season tickets to the lyric & the cso were a must even if i could only afford the nosebleed section. and we got all the big rock concerts as well as little out of the way venues. musically, there’s little left in new orleans, and it was that way pre-K. there’s jazz fest and ????. even many of the musicians realized that & didn’t come back. not just because they lost their homes, but because they found out that the opportunities were better elsewhere.

    so i can’t give anyone a -reason- to stay. the only reason is that you love new orleans. you can’t imagine living anywhere else. you need to look out your window and see row on row of shotgun doubles and side streets lined with old-growth trees. you need for every jan 6 to start the greatest holiday in the universe. you can’t wait to get out there with your kids and instill in them the legends and the folk tales of the area, to take them walking in the bayou, to take them to one of the touristy jazz places in the quarter and let them listen outside the door and watch their eyes as they catch the new orleans virus too.

    some days i want to get out so bad. we’re being evicted for a technicality, but mostly it’s because instead of $875, our landlord can get $1200-$1400 for our place. we’re moving in with mom across the river. all our stuff has to go into storage, our animals have to go to temporary homes. all until we can find a new place. that is IF we can find a new place. part of me would love to take this as an omen to get out. pack up and go. boston, vancouver, chicago, l.a., somewhere other than here. but i can’t. my mom won’t go and it doesn’t matter if she did. i’d miss nola too much. i’d be back within a year.

    i hope you stay. you do a lot of good for new orleans. please stay. we’re going through a bad patch here. give it a few years… it’ll get better. not the politicians, not the school board, not the government, but the rest of the city… the people, the culture, the life. then, wherever you’ve moved to, you’ll be missing nola and wishing you hadn’t left.

  22. Katie Katie

    I don’t know. I go over it and over it in my head all day…like a running commentary. Why did we leave? Oh yeah – list the reasons. But what do I miss? list those reasons. Are they worth moving back? another list. and at the end of all the lists all I can think is:

    Helen Hill knew what it meant to love New Orleans. She did everything she could to move back. She was violently killed IN HER HOME in front of her husband.

    I feel safe now. Sure, living anywhere else can be dull. Hell, this new city seems lifeless at times…..

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be whole again.

    all of us that never went back, that couldn’t go back, that chose to move on — our hearts break every single day. we could drown in the longing for our lives there before the storm. we feel tremendous guilt every single day for leaving New Orleans behind in her time of need…..

    But what is the price for staying?

  23. I wonder if its easier to leave New Orleans if you’re not from here? I was born and raised here, and I contemplate leaving, then I wake up the next day forge on, with all idea of separating myself from this city gone

    I hope you find peace with whatever you decide to do

  24. Tony Tony

    Maybe I spoke too soon. I’ve been wanting to leave New Orleans ever since the late eighties. Back then I just didn’t have the means to do so.
    In the intervening years, however, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the city.

    Getting stoned for the first time in ’92, I found an appreciation for jazz, blues, and funk. I went to my first Jazzfest in ’93 and decided that New Orleans wasn’t so bad after all. ’94 in stark contrast, if memory serves right, was not a proud year. The year ended with the Times-Picayune headline of 200-plus murders in New Orleans. Among them was a friend’s older brother who was murdered in the Ninth Ward.

    In the years after I went back and forth between New York and New Orleans. My mom was living in Manhattan at the time. I found NYC to be thrilling yet more impersonal and too busy. I was missing the Big Easy. I came back for two solid years. I enjoyed my time back in NOLA until I found myself in Central Lockup on the eve of Easter. I was embroiled in legal troubles for the rest of ’98. I was hating New Orleans at this point. One notable fact during my ordeal was that I was witness to the underhandness prevalent in New Orleans Traffic Court. Nevertheless I had a good lawyer and was rather glad that i did. The monkey was off my back by Christmastime, and I went back to New York the next year.

    ’99 to 2001 weren’t exactly good times however. I found myself in Stony Brook, New York trying to finish up my graduate engineering degree. My mom retired and went back to New Orleans. So I didn’t spend as much time in the Big Apple. Long Island in comparison was rather drab and dull. I couldn’t wait to graduate. Had a few good times with the college crowd I befriended up there but overall I was homesick and depressed. I remember seeing a local band at the graduate student lounge playing New Orleans funk. That just about brought it home to me. I was exceedingly happy to hear this yet homesick and at the same time proud that these New Yorkers pretty much had a sincere appreciation for New Orleans culture.

    Well to make a long story shorter, here I am back in New Orleans since 2001 and working at the Michoud plant out in the East. Am I happy to be here? Well depends what mood I’m in actually. Ever since the year began however I am finding that a rather challenging question. Maybe I really should consider that job offer in Seattle. After all I hear there’s more single women in their thirties up there. I probably need a break from New Orleans for a while. But then……

  25. You all will make your own decisions.

    I’m just here to witness that life with kids is immensely easier when you live near some family members (aka the world’s best babysitters) if there is a little one on the scene…

  26. Ray Ray

    >Helen Hill knew what it meant to love New Orleans. She did everything she >could to move back. She was violently killed IN HER HOME in front of her >husband.
    >I feel safe now.

    The husband of one of my old co-workers at a newspaper in Kosciusko MS, a town not all that far from you (and much smaller–you’d probably consider it impossibly safe, to go through it, and it’s refreshingly clean, well-regarded, integrated public schools, etc.)–was killed at his workplace a few miles outside of town a few years ago. I’d interned under the wife as a college student and worked with her later while recovering from an accident. I didn’t know the husband, but I still consider her one of the best people in the world, and completely undeserving of having to live without her spouse in what would have been their retirement years. She’s still working–keeps her sane.

    Fact: Violent crime doesn’t only happen in New Orleans or large cities generally. And this man was, like Hill, middle class. He was middle aged. The murder rate is inexcusably high here right now. It is not so among the middle class, as far as I have been able to tell. But don’t kid yourself about your ultimate safety from violence (at least) anywhere, and especially not anywhere in the trigger-happy United States. (And weren’t kids shooting at motorists off a bridge near Bloomington last year?)

  27. You’ve probably read my longer response at WBG, but part of what you need is something everyone I know has found invaluable: time away from here. A vacation in your head is not a perfect substitute for a week or two staring at a mountain or an ocean in relative tranquility while you sort things out.

    You’ve probably given more than anyone I know, and are certainly more in need of an opportunity to step back, recharge and think about it after all that you’ve been through, and all that you’ve given to the city.

    I’ve only known you since and through the Mid-City group, but I can fairly say: even if you chose to go tomorrow, you have made a tremendous positive impact here that those of us who’ve known you would not soon forget. The city will not stand or topple by your decision, but it has a better chance for what you’ve already done to far. Find some time and figure out what you need to do for yourselves.

  28. […] Despite what I wrote a few days ago, and particularly in light of the heartfelt feedback I received, I wanted to make one thing clear: […]

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