I hail from the most doggedly corrupt state in the union—and no, not Louisiana, folks— New Jersey.
And though I’m proud of my home state’s many attributes, from its shrewd denizens to its status as undisputed diner capital of the world—I’d much rather be branded a budding New Orleanian than a Type-A, “tawk like dis," Jersey girl.
I’ve been living in New Orleans for only a year, and I’ve already found myself serving as a fierce defendant of its wide-ranging beauty and enduring culture. Go figure. Especially considering that prior to moving here I’d never visited before, had no desire to, and the extent of my familiarity with the city was steeped in scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire and CNN’s coverage of Katrina.
A few weeks before my husband and I moved here for an unexpected job opportunity, like many transplants before us, we had to wrestle with many preconceptions about the city. He was rather open-minded and quickly embraced the idea of living in the Deep South; I latched to my Jerseyan sensibilities. And though I was ready for a drastic life shift and a return to my urban roots (we were living in Central Virginia at the time), I couldn’t wrap my head around living in the immovable path of hurricanes, in a city dangerously below sea level, and, I confess, in the Deep South.
It didn’t help that most of my family and friends had firm warnings of life in the Big Easy, too. They said staying safe wasn’t “so easy” and the waist-widening food and “trees with bling” wouldn’t be enough to make us stay. Fast forward one year. We’re still here. We’re 10lbs heavier but happy, nonetheless.
I’ve seen many aspects of the city—rowdy festivals; late nights in the French Quarter; bike rides through the Garden District; lavish, aristocratic parties; intimate crawfish boils; segregation; forgotten neighborhoods; forgotten people, and much more. There’s so much to love about the city, and so much to critique. Perhaps adapting to life here has much to do with one’s sensibilities and cultural tolerance. If you come here for booze and boobs and that’s all you expect, you’ll be disappointed. If you come here with low expectations, but can appreciate the city’s enchanting energy and palpable history, you can’t help but love it, even in spite of its obvious problems.
I’m not so sure though that all northerners take an immediate liking to New Orleans. I met a couple that moved here from New Jersey around the same time we did, and they hated it. They complained about the road conditions, flying roaches, “locals’ annoyingly slow pace of action,” the scarcity of big-chain restaurants, and the inconvenience of hurricane season. Another acquaintance of mine, who also happens to be from New Jersey, has had serious problems adapting to the professional culture here. She’s been reprimanded at work for her “yankee” attitude and curt approach.
Needless to say, she hates it here, too.
There are a few local organizations designed to help newcomers integrate into the city’s insular professional and social spheres, but I’m not so sure they do a good enough job of effectively reaching out.
In my case I’ve sought out opportunities to volunteer in the community and joined business associations through my job. There’s a huge kickball league that sometimes plays in front of Audubon Zoo, but I’m not sure what group it is or how to join. From what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure the league could use a “token” or two.
Earlier I mentioned that I’ve become somewhat of an outspoken, albeit self-appointed, defendant of New Orleans. It’s true. I’m constantly telling my friends who live in other parts of the country about how life here is much better than how it’s portrayed by doomsayer media.
Yes, there’s an inordinate level of crime; the levees may break again; the public school system’s in shambles; and the mayor’s a reputed fool, so I’ve heard. But New Orleans isn’t the only city with issues. And it’s certainly not the most corrupt, thanks to Hoboken, New Jersey.
Despite what most outsiders think they know about New Orleans, they’re wrong. I know this firsthand. Most folks think the city’s rife with too many geopolitical problems, and its only meaningful contribution to American culture is Mardi Gras—an event best known around the country as Cajun-style “Girls Gone Wild.” But from my own experiences of living here as a bona fide outsider, I offer a different take: It’s a place for those in search of renewal, rebirth, and cultural renaissance, and it’s a city that defies expectations. New Orleans isn’t a city for most, but it’s certainly the right city for me.