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New Orleans Coming Back Better Than Before? 5 New Reasons to Visit the Big Easy

Think NOLA is a lost cause? Think again.
 
 
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Funky and fascinating New Orleans has seen its share of hard times. After Katrina’s destruction in 2005, may wondered how – or if – the city could ever recover. Whole neighborhoods were wiped out and much of the city was submerged. The cost in human life (1,800 killed by the storm) and suffering have been staggering. But NOLA has not given up. More than seven years later, the city has rebuilt many areas and billions of dollars have been pumped into public works and the levee system.

It’s true that some things will never be the same; many long-time residents have left, and though some yearn to return, there’s often a question of what they have to come back to. Poverty remains stubbornly high, and there’s an urgent need to reckon with a broken criminal justice system where incarceration is often driven by profit.

But there’s lots of buzz about how NOLA is making positive changes. Fresh perspectives have flourished since the storm shook up the status quo. The New Deal-style public works approach to rebuilding (the opposite of austerity!) helped the city weather the recession. Investors and young people are increasingly seeing possibilities.

On a recent visit, I talked to residents across the spectrum who shared a new sense of pride in a city that is no longer a symbol of what can go wrong, but of many things that can go right. NOLA is still one of the best places in America to hear music (Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor are still temples of jazz), but here are a few new reasons to visit a city that may well be in the midst of a renaissance.

1. The Brain Gain

Before Katrina, launching a business or trying to attract interest in a new idea would run you up against exclusive networks that used to wield power in the city. These have been broken up by the storm, and NOLA has seen an entrepreneurial burst hot enough for Forbes Magazine to name NOLA “the biggest brain magnet in the country." Entrepreneurial activity is now 40 times the national average.

There has been an influx of college-educated people motivated both by the desire to see their ideas come to life and a yearning to be part of the city’s recovery. The film industry is thriving, with production increasing 175 percent since pre-Katrina days. (If you haven't yet seen Beasts of the Southern Wild by NOLA filmmaker Benh Zeitlinsee, don't wait any longer). NOLA’s Technology Corridor, a 12-mile stretch of interstate featuring the NASA Michoud facility, is expanding, and digital media and bioscience industries are on the rise. What some are calling the “brain gain movement” has brought Teach for America corps members to the city, and a slew of startups related to education have popped up recently (a movement towards privatized education, however, is likely to be counterproductive). According to Reuters, NOLA is committed to turning itself into “Silicon Valley on the Bayou” and giving cities like Austin, Texas a run for their money as a technology hub.

2. The WWII Museum

The WWII Museum is the #1 attraction for NOLA on TripAdvisor, and with good reason. Brimming with artifacts, oral histories and other accounts (audio, written, video), the museum has attracted over 3 million visitors since launching in 2000.

I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: the Boeing Center on Jan. 12, 2013. Veterans from all over the country were invited and duly applauded for their service, including a spry 86-year-old named Clarence Stirewalt who signed up for the war effort at 16 (he lied about his age) and worked on an attack transport ship in Pearl Harbor. The ceremony included remarks by museum supporter Tom Brokow and Roscoe Brown, a WWII veteran and Tuskegee airman who spoke of how the war served to push racial integration forward. Brokow mentioned that upon returning from the war, black officers were not allowed to enter officer’s clubs in many states – despite the fact that German officers taken as prisoners of war were allowed to do so! Highlighting the contributions of black veterans was a hopeful step forward for both the country and the city of New Orleans, which has seen more than its share of racial tensions. One bone to pick: there was, to my recollection, only a single mention of the contributions of women during the ceremony, a brief nod by Senator Mary Landrieu.