NEW ORLEANS -- Carmen Mills had enough. Her husband was carjacked. Then there was a murder on her block in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, long a rough part of a city that was falling to pieces.
This wasn’t long after Hurricane Katrina. The levees had failed and the city was in tatters. Mills and her husband decided to head out for New York City, like so many others leaving behind their beloved but wrecked City that Care Forgot.
Six months ago they moved back and found a city transformed. As with Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew, money had poured in when the storm receded. New Orleans neighborhoods that were bleak and crime-ridden even before the 2005 flood now had coffee shops, art galleries, bookstores and restaurants with local, seasonal ingredients.
Many residents say New Orleans is a better place to live now than even before the devastating flood. There is a surge in entrepreneurship, with newcomers and native New Orleanians launching tech startups and other new businesses, saying there’s a spirit of creativity and possibility the hidebound city lacked before the storm. The traditional, clubby networks that ran the city were broken up by the disaster, said Tim Williamson, who runs a group that helps entrepreneurs attract investors. Everyone had to start over, he said, and that demanded ingenuity and risk taking.
“New Orleans became a startup city,” Williamson said.
The Brookings Institution reports entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans at 40 percent above the national average, with an average of 450 out of 100,000 adults starting businesses each year. That is nearly double the rate it was before the hurricane.
The city has become a magnet, in defiance of those who forecast its downfall. New Orleans grew faster than any major U.S. city in the 15 months following the 2010 census, the latest figures available.
Mills is back in the Bywater neighborhood she left. Now her worry is the potential of too much development in what has become one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, changing its funky and unique character of music, cafes and artist studios, pushing gentrification too far over the edge.
“I don’t want my neighborhood to change,” she said.
New Orleans has become a little more accessible, less an outpost. But it remains a place like nowhere else, with its own culture of music and food, where streets have names like Desire, Royal and Elysian Fields, a city that celebrates misfits and living.
Some things about New Orleans haven’t changed. It’s still a place that manages to be sublime and heartbreaking at the same time.
Not all New Orleanians benefit from the city’s renaissance. It is a different city for the very poor. Much of the Lower 9th Ward, a low-income African-American neighborhood hit the hardest by the storm, remains blighted. In some parts, where there used to be a house every 60 feet or so, homes where families had built their lives for multiple generations, it is now overgrown with thick Louisiana vegetation that harbors garbage, snakes, possums, raccoons, rats and worse. The charred body of a murder victim was found last August inside a white Dodge Charger that was abandoned and torched.
“Everything is about race here, everything is about class here, and everything is about not wanting certain parts of the city to come back,” said Vanessa Gueringer, who lives in the 9th Ward and is pushing for schools and a grocery store there.