The Saints are in the Super Bowl. Everyone outside of Indy is on the NOLA bandwagon. And the national perception of the city has changed quite dramatically … almost overnight.
It’s hard to believe that a little more than four years ago, a pack of politicos, economists and cultural anarchists called for the end of New Orleans’ existence. Remember? It was a sentiment thrown around after Katrina by naysayers with no vested interest in the city, by outsiders who valued momentary pragmatism over passion and lacked the courage to believe. They spewed talking points, some quite memorable. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert blabbered all over the hill. And Slate’s Jack Shafer reported: “The city’s romance is not the reality for most who live there. It’s a poor place, with about 27 percent of the population of 484,000 living under the poverty line, and it’s a black place, where 67 percent are African-American.”
And even if some of what they suggested was pure conjecture at the time, many observers pondered the very question in Katrina’s aftermath, including me.
I mean, why would someone purposely live in an unstable area? It’s one thing to live in an impoverished, crime-ridden area because of one’s circumstances. But nobody would willingly live in such an area, right? If given the opportunity, they would bail to the ‘burbs and settle for an alternate, safer lifestyle. So why wouldn’t residents bail from an area like New Orleans, a sinking city that won’t exist by 2100, according to some scientists?
Comparatively, though, some of the most desirable areas to live in America are susceptible to natural disasters. The New Madrid fault line in Missouri makes seven Midwestern states vulnerable to earthquakes; California faces the specter of mudslides, forest fires and earthquakes every day; Seattle stands within striking distance of the dormant Mount Rainier; and according to studies done at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the Indian Point nuclear plants, located 24 miles outside of New York City, straddle a high-risk seismic zone that can trigger a devastating earthquake at any time.
Unfortunately, plenty of people still believe that if citizens willfully choose to live in a “corridor of catastrophe,” they ought to prepare for disaster and for an “I told you so” from the rest of the country.
But history proves that even after harrowing tragedies –– Chicago’s Great Fire; San Francisco’s 1908 earthquake; the 2007 tornado that leveled the entire town of Greenburg, Kan.; and even Katrina –– taxpayers might complain and politicians might spin, but everyone ultimately agrees that rebuilding and renewal must happen. And in the end, these devastated places are even better than before and more equipped to deal with subsequent challenges, be it political or environmental.
As it’s been said before, it takes only one day here for outsiders to grasp the magnitude of what is New Orleans. At first glance, they may scoff at the blight or turn up their noses at the stench and stickiness of summers here. But most are hard-pressed to deny the city’s ethereal, un-American beauty and still believe it’s not worth saving.
It’s amazing what can happen in four short years. The political landscape is shifting, thanks to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and our future mayor; the city now hosts the world’s largest biennial of contemporary art; transplants continue to move here and stay, in spite of hurricanes; and the city’s beloved Saints are Super Bowl-bound.
So where are the naysayers now? Do we care? Of course not! But I wonder what they’ll think as the country watches the big game this Sunday. I wonder if they’ll take the time to visit one day –– for a festival, a tour or simply a good meal.
Let’s hope so. Let’s hope that the naysayers will finally give the city its due by paying a visit –– and not to see a city in peril but feel the perpetual swoon of what is New Orleans.