NEW ORLEANS-One of America's finest writers, New Orleans native Michael Lewis, stated in 2005 that his birthplace had long ago crossed the "fine line between stability and stagnation. . . . No one of importance ever seemed to move in, just as no one of importance ever moved away."
Four years later-four years since the worst natural disaster ever to hit a U.S. city-lots of people with a pioneering spirit are moving in and coming alongside long-term residents. Together, new and old are trying to speed up the pace of enterprise without losing the conviviality that has long turned 365 acres of swampland into the place-second only to New York-that Americans love to visit.
The experience of Guy Williams, president and CEO of Gulf Coast Bank, and a leader in New Orleans' First Baptist Church, embodies both timelessness and forward thrust. He was 16 when Hurricane Betsy flattened the city in 1965: "My dad and I got in our boat. We went out and rescued people. Ever since then I was mentally expecting to do that someday."
Williams had 40 years to prepare-and when Katrina hit at the end of August, 2005, he went out with his son, then 22, in a pirogue, a light, flat-bottomed Cajun canoe. For four days from dawn to dusk they found people who needed rescuing and gave their locations to volunteers with bigger boats who then picked up the stranded. But when he encountered an elderly "Mrs. Liberty, jaundiced as she could be, with pancreatic cancer, and really afraid-she told us, 'I'm dying, but I don't want to die alone in this flood'"-he had to find a way to take her immediately.
The pirogue was small and unstable, but Mrs. Liberty told Williams that she had a canoe behind the house. "I looked at it. It's full of water, hundreds of pounds. Couldn't budge it. . . . I stood on an air compressor unit and prayed, 'Lord, you've got to help me.' Somehow, I was able to lift it-and I'm not that strong. . . . Divine intervention? Miracle? You tell me." So they transported Mrs. Liberty in her canoe to safety. She clutched a silver urn filled with . . . not her husband's ashes, but frozen strawberries.
Happy story? Not necessarily. The next day federal officials bizarrely asserted their control by ordering all the volunteer rescuers to leave. Williams does not know what happened to one young man who pleaded for help while he was saving Mrs. Liberty, who died soon afterwards: "It haunts me. I specifically turned him down to take her. I don't know how many I should have saved and didn't save."
Melancholy as he said that, Williams brightened as we drove around the city and saw some of his bank's 14 branches. Four of the nine branches existing in 2005 were flooded then, but Williams quickly reopened them in some form, with tellers in trailers without electricity issuing handwritten transaction receipts and relying on cell phones to call customers. Gulf Coast was quick to make rebuilding loans.
Some big enterprises have not bounced back. The downtown Hyatt is still closed, and we drove past a deserted Six Flags with a forlorn roller coaster: The water rose to 12 feet there. But small businesses are sprouting, and last year Gulf Coast received official recognition as the top Small Business Administration lender in Louisiana, which now has one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the country.
We passed a bar that never closed during Katrina (water going up to mid-calf of people sitting on bar stools) and, with a standing offer of 25-cent beers for National Guard members, received a supply of Guard-obtained fresh ice every morning. An extension of such entrepreneurial problem-solving led the magazine Fast Company to name formerly stagnant New Orleans one of the "12 fast cities of 2009"-and the city's population, which had declined from about 455,000 in July, 2005, to about 223,000 a year later, is now above 300,000 once again.
Last month I interviewed a cross-section of the thousands of people who have moved to New Orleans since Katrina with the goal of making it a community of constructive change. For example, J.B. Watkins, 29, lived all over America as the son of a soldier, but he moved to New Orleans two years ago with the goal of preaching Christ as the alternative to lives of misery and crime. Watkins, now pastor of St. Roch Community Church in the impoverished 8th ward, recalls that "most people were very discouraged. Lots of promises had been made at the federal, state, and local levels."
He showed me around the brightly painted yellow and green building that serves as sanctuary and also the site for an after-school and summer camp program: "People were looking for hope. They had learned not to put their faith in federal agencies. . . . They're realizing that they should hope in the gospel. Some are also starting to think not so much 'I need help' but 'I can help.'"
The summer camp 8- and 9-year-olds were yelling out times table answers; "Three times four is 12. . . . Three times six is 18." Watkins explained that the building, a corner grocery store, had 4-5 feet of water in it after Katrina hit: The church was able to purchase it at a low price, clean and repair it with largely volunteer labor, and hold its first morning service last November. The church now has a community garden, a potluck dinner every Sunday, and a financial advisory service that filled out tax forms for close to 200 people earlier this year and helped them open bank accounts.
The big park right across the street from St. Roch's was a FEMA trailer park and home to hundreds of people a little over a year ago. Now the park is clear, and it remains both blessing and curse. The church uses it for a monthly block party and looks for opportunities to celebrate: "When a child gets a good grade, we have a party." One celebration came at the end of summer camp on July 24, with kids able to put on their bathing suits and cool off. But the park also is the home for drug deals and occasional shootings. Watkins says, "People are forced to pray here: 'Lord, keep me safe.' I'm forced to internalize my message."
We drove around the flooded-out 8th and 9th wards, past numerous boarded-up houses-but then comes a neat house with cerulean blue paint, mint green trim, and brown shutters. We passed lots of overgrown lots, but then a house with lime green paint, yellow trim, and two pink crepe myrtles in front. "A lot of darkness here," Watkins sighed, "but also a great deal of good. Lots of spiritualism and voodoo, but also family-oriented people who look after each other."
One St. Roch churchgoer, Willie Trotter, is becoming officially family-oriented. He has lived with a lady for 13 years, and together they have an 8-year-old daughter: Now they plan to marry in October. "I love her, don't want to commit sin," Trotter explained. "J.B. [Watkins] talked to me, talked to her, now we see what's right. Everyone in the congregation supports this: We're all family."
Another of Watkins' disciples, Troy Glover, 19, taught in St. Roch's summer camp during June and July. He took a timeout from teaching the 8- and 9-year-olds to explain that when he was a year old his dad was killed; his mom has been hurt by drugs. Trapped in a house when Katrina hit, he floated out on a door and survived days at the Superdome-"crowded, bathrooms a mess, but not that bad."
Bused to Texas, he went to five different schools in Houston before heading home to New Orleans, where he started "doing things in the street that weren't right." But a change began through contact with St. Roch members: "People here in the church, they didn't force me. We'd play ball and talk about Jesus. We'd have parties in the park and talk about Jesus. Church became my outside family. Every court date, anytime, someone from the church helped me. Bonded me out of jail, came to my house, prayed for us."
Glover graduated from high school in June and will head to college next month. But he still hopes to influence his New Orleans friends through the same gradual method that worked with him: "I say to them, 'Come to church, come to Bible study,' not forcing them, just asking them, 'How long you gonna keep doing what you're doing?'"
Watkins was an inner-city pastor in Memphis before taking on St. Roch, so he had intimate knowledge of urban problems-but another pastor who moved to New Orleans after Katrina, Ray Cannata, 40, came straight from 14 years at a suburban New Jersey church that he served as intern, associate pastor, and then senior pastor for the last seven years.
He was "tired of church potlucks, terrible food, everyone wanting to get away to drive 45 minutes to get home and work on the lawn." He agreed to make the move during the months following Katrina, which he says made the prospect of transition "more attractive, not less," because both the challenge and the need seemed greater: "There were no other evangelical churches uptown, and I figured that if I didn't come nobody else would."
We drove past neighborhoods like Broadmoor with still visible waterlines on houses. The whitewashed walls of above-ground cemeteries often did not hold back the torrents, and it's obvious where the water settled on streets like the aptly named Flood and Rampart. "People said we needed an Oprah-style church," Cannata recalled: "They said these hurting people need a hug. That's wrong: They need a mission, a sense of purpose to get them out of morbid introspection."
Many newly painted houses have extraordinary colors: sky blue with tangerine pillars, emerald green with intense gold pillars and brown shutters. Cannata loves the "beauty, celebration, creativity, grace" he sees around him, and he thinks that New Orleans has gotten a lascivious reputation largely through the antics of French Quarter tourists and those who cater to them: "Bourbon St. at 2 a.m. or these reports of Mardi Gras nudity . . . I've gone to 30 or 35 of the 40 parades and have never seen nudity. . . . Sure, you can find debauchery, substance abuse, laziness. . . . You also find great hospitality, generosity, and interest. At parties here I can say I'm a pastor and it doesn't cut off conversation."
Cannata says his children-a 10-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl-are enjoying New Orleans, but crime occurrences concern him: "My son in his playground, uptown, witnessed a machine gun battle." As we drove in a minute from the fashionable Garden District to desolate and dangerous streets, and saw churches close to strip clubs, Cannata said, "New Orleans is the best picture of heaven I know of in America, and also the best picture of hell, but overall it's given us a purpose. . . . People here know they're not safe. . . . God is near to the broken-hearted, and there's lots of heartbreak here."
Others have also moved into uptown New Orleans to be close to heartbreak. For example, the city's Hispanic population is growing rapidly due to an abundance of construction work, and Stewart Hill, a pediatric resident at Children's Hospital, hopes to serve these new-comers. Over po'boys at Parasol's-bread soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside-he told how he took a year off from medical school to live in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, where he farmed, taught, and helped in a clinic. The Spanish he learned equips him to serve Hispanic kids who come in with asthma that is readily treatable if caught early: Without treatment it often becomes severe and leads to trips to hospital emergency rooms.
Michael Lewis ended his post-Katrina article this way: "The levees were breached, but something else cracked, too, inside the people behind them. The old facade; the pretense that New Orleans was either the Big Easy or it was nothing; that no great change was ever possible. . . . For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities. . . . Whatever else New Orleans is right now, it isn't stagnant."
Some non-stagnant traditions remain alive. New Orleans is known for its music, and at midnight one summer evening Glen David Andrews, a 27-year-old who merges old and new with powerful vocals and soulful trombone playing, was playing at d.b.a., a hot bar in the Marigny district. People hoisted Abitas and Dixies as the band riffed to the fugitive slave song with 2005 overtones, "Wade in the water./ Wade in the water children./ Wade in the water,/ God's gonna trouble the water."
New Orleans is also known for food. Pastor Cannata often meets members and seekers in restaurants: In 3 1/2 years he has eaten at 288 of New Orleans' 1,008 (his count) restaurants and hopes to hit them all. Doug Harmon, a professor and the director of graduate admissions for the school of architecture at Tulane University, says New Orleans residents are "always thinking about the next meal-at lunch you'll talk about what you're having for dinner."
I met Harmon, 39, and his wife Toy, 33, at Lüke, a restaurant owned by John Besh, who one year after Katrina received the James Beard Foundation Award as the "Best Chef in the Southeast." Even though he was teaching at Tulane before Katrina, Texas A&M graduate Harmon recalls that he didn't partake much of New Orleans: "I was continually surrounded by an upper-middle-class, largely white population. There were whole sections of the city I didn't know existed. Katrina pulled the lid off for a lot of people, not only nationally but locally."
Lüke has an open kitchen eminently watchable from the tables, and it was fun to see the open flames as chefs in their white habits prepared Besh signature dishes. (Among those listed: "Sugar and Spice Duckling with Foie Gras and Quince" and "Hand-made Potato Gnocchi tossed with Blue Crab and Black Truffle.") Toy Harmon, 33, grew up in tiny Mentone, Ala., and recalls the reaction of some folks to the news that she was marrying Doug two years ago and moving to New Orleans: "They thought I was coming to Sodom and Gomorrah."
Doug Harmon said that Katrina changed Tulane: "There wasn't a lot of civic engagement, but now the people drawn to Tulane are drawn to service. Students wanted to get involved, plugged in locally. People are moving here who would never have moved here before. They see the value of the city. They want to be involved in something meaningful."
Doug Harmon presented a big picture: "New Orleans used to attract people who had nowhere else to go. Now, it attracts people who want to do something historically significant." Toy Harmon, pregnant with an Oct. 9 due date, said, "I love the thought of our kids growing up in a town with a distinct culture.
She paused and said with a hint of surprise, "Our kids are going to be from New Orleans."