“New Orleans is the opposite of America, and we must hold on to places that are the opposite of us. New Orleans is not fast or energetic or efficient, not a go-get-’em Calvinist, well-ordered city. It’s slow, lazy, sleepy, sweaty, hot, wet, lazy, and exotic.” Mark Childress
I have used the quote above in my syllabus for several years now. It expresses prevailing, widely accepted wisdom. It is the reason much of the Nation looked askance as New Orleans literally drowned. They we lazy, exotic, and enjoyed life far too much. To many, they didn’t deserve to be saved.
However, recent evidence suggests that like a Fox News narrative, it is based more oral myth than evidence. I started seeing some rumblings to overturn this narrative a while back. I reported on it a little over a year ago in a posting entitled: “Dying City,” or “Brain Magnet.” In that post, I reflected on the contradiction of using raw population data, reflecting New Orleans’ population loss after Katrina (well, duh!), with the fact that New Orleans ranks number one in the U.S. in attracting college-educated youth. And, as a recent op-ed column in the Times-Picayune suggests, it is not all due to an influx of volunteers for Teach for America. Not there is anything wrong with that.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, journalist and native-son Walter Isaacson wrote a wonderful op-ed on this phenomenon. And for a multiply-challenged city that is approaching its tricentennial, he illuminated the error of looking only at short-term trends. Nor, as he pointed out, should innovation be measured only by a balance sheet.
And this challenges my assumptions about my favorite city, but new perspectives, even if they ultimately prove you wrong are good. Right?
Isaacson convincingly argues that throughout its history, New Orleans has exemplified an entrepreneurial spirit. I mean, if you go back to the fact that due to its location, it is a city that should never have happened. But that is the crux of his argument. It emerged from an uneven colonial history, at best, to become the most vibrant immigrant community in the South. It has, in succession, welcomed Haitian, British, Irish, German, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim, and most recently, Latin American immigrants, And the addition has made it a stronger and more vibrant community.
And then came Katrina, a man-made catastrophe that many feared would be the death knell for a city, nearly half of which (49%) lies below sea level. Ivisited a few months afterwards and it was difficult to imagine that it would come back. And as I write this from Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, which like outlying areas of New Orleans, is not close to coming back to pre-Katrina norms.
But. As Isaacson points out, New Orleans had fallen into complacency before Katrina. It had watched it economy recede, and was willing to become the party city of beads, breasts and booze. So, who would have bet on a comeback for such a lethargic and tradition-bound contestant.
Instead, this week, New Orleans is hosting New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. And to Isaacson, every native who stood up and said “we are going to stay and rebuild” was a nascent entrepreneur. It was an inspiration and it has attracted an unprecedented level of innovation and new ventures, many spawned by college-educated migrants to the Crescent City.
Look to the award-winning, albeit slow development of the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans is now a model for for our Nation’s reinventing itself economically and sustainably.
So it is not just the stubborn residents, but young MBAs from elsewhere who are driving an economic resurgence in New Orleans. So no longer is New Orleans, the semi-Caribbean step-child of America, it is the personification and bell-weather of American innovation. Its example may indeed lead us forward.
And I’ll be among the first to admit it: I was wrong. The emerging facts prove that I was wrong. And I believe in facts.