After Hurricane Katrina, Neighborhoods Get Hit With a Rush of Wealth and Gentrification
NEW ORLEANS—Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the federal levee system, this city is driven by equal measures of defiance, resilience, and caution.
The city survived when many had written it off. That alone is cause for celebration. But the city that has risen from the proverbial ashes—lots of wet ashes, in this case—is a decidedly new New Orleans. It’s still funky. Still crazy. Still libertine, decadent, and up all night. But not everyone here is celebrating what the national media is hailing as the new Portland, the new Brooklyn, and the cringeworthy “Hipster City, USA.”
It is, to be sure, a different place. Some might call it sanitized, what with new smoking bans, newly enforced noise ordinances, crackdowns on “clothing-optional” venues, outright bans on live music in some places, and restrictions on the city’s revered alcohol-filled go-cups—plastic containers bars give to customers as they hit the streets. As frivolous as it may seem, these measures have touched off a culture war.
Perhaps no area of the city embodies the growing pains of the post-Katrina recovery more than the trio of neighborhoods bordering the residential end of the famed French Quarter—Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater, and St. Roch. These three neighborhoods are away from the T-shirt shops, karaoke dance halls, strip clubs, and frozen daiquiri joints of Bourbon Street, across a massive boulevard called Elysian Fields.
The Marigny and the Bywater, two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, lie hard by the Mississippi River levee (which did not fail during Katrina), built on high ground. They suffered mostly wind damage during the storm; thus saved was the neighborhoods’ treasured housing stock, an eye-popping mixture of late-19th-century French, Spanish, Creole, and Caribbean styles touched off with decorative dormers and filigree and painted primarily from the Skittles color wheel.
St. Roch was not so fortunate. Just 10 blocks in from the river, St. Roch was far enough into the bowl in which the city sits—New Orleans is the only American city built below sea level—to take on anywhere from two to 10 feet of water. Its modest, early-19th-century cottages and traditional shotgun houses have, 10 years later, been largely gutted and refurbished.
Even before the storm, the Marigny and the Bywater were the primary havens of the city’s bohemian culture—musicians, artists, the LGBT community, and service workers living amicably alongside longtime working-class families. Neighboring St. Roch was almost entirely black and considerably poorer.
All that has changed or is changing. The three neighborhoods are bleeding into one another. Or more to the point: The bohemian culture, boosted by an influx of mostly white millennials, is bleeding into the old residential enclaves. You don’t need a government study to tell you that much of this demographic shift has occurred in the post-Katrina decade.
This is economic, cultural, and social upheaval. The popular term is “gentrification.” The streets of the Bywater are filled with new bars, restaurants, galleries, theaters, coffee shops, boutiques, and perhaps the most pointed indicator of new wealth: yoga studios.
The contemporary neighborhood vernacular is as telling as anything. Instead of hearing terms like “the corner stop-and-go,” “po’boys,” and “go-cups,” folks now talk about collectives, co-ops, and pop-ups. Even the new name for the area comprising the three neighborhoods raises eyebrows. It’s called the St. Claude Avenue Arts District, named after the main boulevard that bisects all three neighborhoods, not only geographically but largely racially as well. Ten years ago, the only thing the St. Claude Avenue Arts District would have been was an oxymoron.
The first physical manifestation of major change to the area was the opening of the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, the dividing line between the Bywater and St. Roch. Its provenance is as much evidence as you need to realize that in New Orleans, where folks generally don’t do anything the way they do in other cities, even gentrification comes with a funky beat.
The Healing Center was conceived and built by Pres Kabacoff, one of the city’s wealthiest commercial developers, and his wife, Sallie Glassman, a voodoo priestess—the real kind, initiated in Haiti by griots and elders, not some French Quarter charlatan shopkeeper.
Located in a former bargain furniture warehouse, now majestically refurbished into what is essentially a tiny avant-garde urban mall, the Healing Center is home to a grocery co-op, a yoga studio, a coffee shop, a performance hall, a restaurant, community meeting spaces, and Island of Salvation Botanica—Glassman’s voodoo shop. Opened to much fanfare in the fall of 2011, the Healing Center announced its presence with lots of literature involving terms like “synergistic,” "holistic,” and “sustainability.” It may be a mall, but it’s a mall with a mission.
“At one time there was one side of St. Claude Avenue—poor black working-class folk,” recalls Chuck Perkins, one of the Healing Center’s first tenants. “And there was this side of St. Claude Avenue—more well-off middle-class white people,” he says, pointing to the Mississippi River. “This building was meant to be a bridge between those two communities. And that’s what it has become.”
Perkins, a 50-year-old native New Orleanian, was a pharmaceutical sales rep before Katrina, but that job vanished with the storm. Like many residents who returned after extended evacuations, Perkins was forced to adapt to the new city. Before Katrina, he’d been a well-respected veteran of the poetry and performance arts community. After the storm, he and a partner opened Café Istanbul, a cozy, well-appointed jazz club and performance art venue, inside the Healing Center. “I had to look for a new way to make a living,” he said one recent Sunday afternoon after setting out rows of seats for a matinee performance of a locally written play. “So I came looking here in the Bywater.”
He was greeted with anything but good karma once word got out in the neighborhood that the Healing Center would allow what’s essentially a nightclub. Neighbors bristled. There were tense public hearings. Eventually Café Istanbul won a partial victory: It could open without an alcohol permit. Amazingly, the club survived for a year, no easy feat in a city that places a premium on the availability of alcohol at art gallery openings, Little League baseball games, and funerals.
The plight experienced by Perkins, who is black, shows the complicated nature of the battle for the soul of the Bywater and surrounding neighborhoods. It’s not just about tipping the scales of the racial makeup. It’s about the fabric of life—what it was, what it is, and what it is going to be.
As a crowd of well-dressed older folks—mostly from the neighborhood and all black—found their way to their seats for the matinee, Perkins waited in the wings; his workday was not done. Immediately after the play he had to clear the floor for a hip-hop. “They fought us opening this place, but it’s my club now,” Perkins says. “I don’t have to convince anyone of anything now.”
Perkins has been far from alone in facing complaints and protests about alcohol and live music in the Bywater. For the first time in the city’s history, there is tight enforcement of noise levels and musical curfews. Mimi’s in the Bywater, an epic after-hours dance club, canceled its live music shows after being fined for noise violations.
Even more shocking to some local sensibilities was the announcement that the St. Roch Tavern—which had temporarily shut down for noise violations—would be allowed to reopen only if it banned alcoholic go-cups. Longtime residents, of course, blame newcomers.
Of this, Peter Orr is convinced. Orr, a 52-year-old musician and artist who moved to the Bywater from New York City in 1993, has seen this movie before. “It’s just like what happened on the Lower East Side—this mad rush of developers,” says Orr, who left there because the neighborhood’s gritty vibe was being lost to gentrification. Now, he says, the phenomenon is occurring in a different place. “I get these things in my mailbox from Realtors at least once a week,” he says. “And they’re not telling me what’s for sale but are telling me, ‘Here are the four properties I just sold in the past four weeks, and not one of them was for less than $400,000.’ ”
Pausing between sips of a boutique-brand fruit soda outside the organic grocery co-op in the Healing Center, he protests: “What are they telling me that for?”
Irony, a prized birthright in New Orleans, is absolutely epidemic in the Bywater.
“Complicating all of this is the generational thing,” Orr continues. “There’s a lot of frustration around here with the millennials.”
Otherwise known as hipsters, young new arrivals to the city are making their mark. Business and tech journals and websites are touting New Orleans as the new entrepreneurial frontier, and you only need to see the cluster of young, mostly white men with their ambitiously coifed beards, corduroy blazers, and artisanal beers along St. Claude Avenue to see that it’s true—or at least looks true.
Orr laments that the displacement of older, poorer, and blacker residents, both from the storm and from the steadily increasing property values and rents, has removed a subtle but vital sociological imperative on newcomers to abide by the ways of the street and respect the existing culture.
Orr says he’s mystified at how the newcomers are trying to adapt. They’re forming their own Mardi Gras parades. “They’re trying to start their own culture,” Orr says. He pauses and considers his tone. He hears that eternal paternal voice. He realizes he sounds like an old fart. “That’s the thing,” he says. “You can’t say to them, ‘Oh, we don’t do that!’ I don’t see the point in blaming them for trying to have fun. It’s not like we weren’t wearing funny hats and had dopey haircuts and listened to bad music when we were their age. I came here because I liked it here. I felt comfortable here. So I don’t feel like it’s fair for me or anyone else to say you can’t move here.”
Jack Murphy is one of the newcomers. And white. And a millennial. He has endured the wrath of locals who like things just the way they are—or were.
New Orleans is historically averse to change. In 2013, residents went apoplectic when The Times-Picayune cut its print edition to three days a week, announcing it was focusing its resources online. This is a city where many people do not have Internet access. Within months, the paper was back to seven days in print. People here still physically go to banks and post offices to conduct their business. They still have debutante balls. In perhaps the most extreme case of provincialism, customers of the old-line Creole restaurant Galatoire’s threatened to boycott when it dropped hand-chipped ice for the machine-made variety—a controversy that landed it in USA Today.
Into this historical environment—with the added fervor of the clash of cultures, ages, and races along the St. Claude Avenue Arts District—Murphy arrived to make his mark three years ago.
Murphy had a thriving restaurant in San Francisco, Pizzetta 211, a decidedly West Coast take on an Italian classic. Murphy and his girlfriend visited some friends in New Orleans and never left. “Like a lot of people,” he says, “we fell in love with the vibe.”
The vibe he fell for was life in Faubourg Marigny, on the border of the Bywater, a location of extreme and mostly unregulated commercial growth and residential change. Murphy left Pizzetta 211 in the hands of trusted business partners and moved to New Orleans to open another restaurant.
He conceived Paladar 511, a vibrant and funky open-air restaurant in the lobby of a warehouse recently converted to artist studios, although the $1,000-plus-a-month rents suggest that a more stable income is required of residents. Regardless of the upscale environs, Murphy, like everyone trying to open a business in these parts, received strong pushback. No one wanted a West Coast pizza restaurant. Someone posted on Nola.com, the website of The Times-Picayune: “I hope those California Yuppies get swallowed up in the next hurricane.” Murphy ignored it all. “We wanted to open a neighborhood restaurant, to be a part of this neighborhood,” he says. “We like the porch mentality here and want to be a part of that.”
About a year ago, Murphy was robbed and pistol-whipped; three bones around his left eye were fractured. But he stayed with his plan, and the beating may have given him a measure of local bona fides.
Call it a baptism of fire, New Orleans style. After three years of struggle, Paladar 511 opened in March to steady business. “After putting in $50,000, $70,000, $100,000—it’s hard to walk away,” Murphy said one recent Sunday afternoon while a stream of customers came through the restaurant’s door. It was not yet 6 p.m. “And it turns out, most of the complaints we were getting were about parking. They’d rather have blighted buildings and less skilled jobs in the neighborhood than to have to fight for parking spaces.”
Paladar 511 has become not just a neighborhood favorite but one of a huge new wave of dining choices in the city. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Bywater, Faubourg Marigny, and St. Roch neigborhoods.
This spring the St. Roch Market reopened for the first time since the storm. Before Katrina, the market was a downbeat, un-air-conditioned purveyor of fresh seafood and meats. It is directly across St. Claude Avenue from the Healing Center. Backed by an enormous infusion of federal grant money, what was expected to open as an affordable butcher, bakery, and fishmonger for residents is instead the second coming of Williamsburg. Now it’s a brightly lit, open-air, upscale food court offering all manner of millennial fare—kale, confit, craft cocktails—and bustling with clientele decked out in seersucker and corduroy. Not everyone is happy. Days after the market’s reopening, vandals broke more than two dozen windows. They spray-painted a powerful two-pronged message: “Fuck Yuppies” and “Yuppy = Bad.”
For the first time in decades, much of New Orleans is booming: Foundations have called the city one of America’s most vibrant small-business environments. Forbes described the post-Katrina economic growth as “the greatest turnaround in our lifetime.” Much of that highfalutin praise would likely apply to the city’s downtown, where start-up incubators seem to be everywhere. But for boutiques, bars, and restaurants, the holy Trinity of the Bywater, St. Roch, and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods is leading the way. The changes will be similar to what we’ve seen elsewhere: In Manhattan, think the Village. In Brooklyn, think Williamsburg. In Washington, think Adams-Morgan. In San Francisco, think the Haight. Or all of Austin.
Is gentrification exploitation? Or is it just some organic reimagining of an economic dead zone? Or are those simply two definitions of the same thing? It’s probably safe to say that no other area of New Orleans looks, feels, and smells more dramatically different than it did before the storm than Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater, and St. Roch. Along has come a new generation, looking just like an old generation, with long greasy hair and funny clothes and singing the-times-they-are-a-changin’. That’s the only thing that’s not going to change around here. “The way I see it,” says Orr, the musician, “Katrina gave me six or seven years to say good-bye to the New Orleans that I loved.”