Waxing Crescent: New Orleans 2013-2023

The scars of Hurricane Katrina were still obvious eight years afterward when I moved to New Orleans in 2013. Where I lived in Mid-City, it seemed like every block had an abandoned house or an empty lot, and the poorer neighborhoods had more than one per block. Even many larger buildings were left abandoned, including high-rises.

Since then, recovery has continued at a steady pace. The rebuilding was especially noticeable when I spent a few days there recently for the first time since moving away in 2017. The airport has been redone, with shining new connected terminals and new shops. The abandoned high-rise at the prime location where Canal St meets the Mississippi has been renovated into a Four Seasons. Tulane Ave is now home to a nearly mile-long medical complex, stretching from the old Tulane hospital to the new VA and University Medical Center complex. There are several new mid-sized health care facilities, but most striking is that Tulane claims to finally be renovating the huge abandoned Charity Hospital:

Old Charity Hospital, January 2023

The new VA hospital opened in 2016 as mostly new construction, but they’ve now managed to fully incorporate the remnants of the abandoned Dixie Beer brewery:

VA Hospital incorporating old Dixie Beer tower, January 2023

Dixie beer itself opened a new beer garden in New Orleans East, and just renamed itself Faubourg Brewery. Some streets named for Confederates have also been renamed, though you can still see plenty of signs of the past, like the “Jeff Davis Properties” building on the street renamed from Jefferson Davis Parkway to Norman C Francis Parkway.

Other big additions I noticed are the new Childrens’ Museum and the greatly expanded sculpture garden in City Park:

Of course, even with all the improvements, many problems remain, both in terms of things that still haven’t recovered from the hurricane, and the kind of problems that were there even before Katrina. The one remaining abandoned high-rise, Plaza Tower, was actually abandoned even before Katrina.

My overall impression is that large institutions (university medical centers, the VA, the airport, museums, major hotels) have been driving this phase of the recovery. The neighborhoods are also recovering, but more slowly, particularly small business. Population is still well below 2005 levels. I generally think inequality has been overrated in national discussions of the last 15 years relative to concerns about poverty and overall prosperity, but even to me New Orleans is a strikingly unequal city; there’s so much wealth alongside so many people seeming to get very little benefit from it.

The most persistent problems are the ones that remain from before Katrina: the roads, the schools, and the crime; taken together, the dysfunctional public sector. Everywhere I’ve lived people complain about the roads, but I’ve lived a lot of places and New Orleans roads were objectively the worst, even in the nice parts of town, and it isn’t close. The New Orleans Police Department is still subject to a federal consent decree, as it has been since 2012. The murder rate in 2022 was the highest in the nation. Building an effective public sector seems to be much harder than rebuilding from a hurricane.

As much as things have changed since 2013, my overall assessment of the city remains the same: its unlike anywhere else in America. It is unparalleled in both its strengths and its weaknesses. If you care about food, drink, music, and having a good time, its the place to be. If you’re more focused more on career, health, or safety, it isn’t. People who fled Katrina and stayed in other cities like Houston or Atlanta wound up richer and healthier. But not necessarily happier.

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