Opinion
 

A former New Orleanian glances back across the pond from London

Long devotees of trad jazz, Londoners are beginning to savor New Orleans real estate as well. Photo by Matt Davis

Outside the bubble, the perception of New Orleans continues to improve.

Returning to South London in April after 18 months as a criminal justice reporter at The Lens, I was reluctant to pass snap judgment on New Orleans.

Apart from the good friends I made, I loved Mardi Gras as much as any sane human being would, and thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Fox8 News reporter Sabrina Wilson, who made a parting gift of it, I still have a treasured Zulu coconut on my mantelpiece in Croydon. It’s a memento of the rich character of New Orleans even more than Instagrams from “Uncle” Lionel Batiste’s funeral that friends posted on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the London Olympics provided the press over here with plenty of opportunity to philosophize about London’s place in the world and, indeed, that of the United Kingdom. And I think it’s been very healthy for us, as a country—especially after the 2011 riots, which tore up my hometown—to remember that while Londoners tend to be pessimistic when pushed to describe their city, the rest of the world is more appreciative than ever of what we have to offer as the world capital of a faded empire.

So as a gift back to New Orleans I wanted to offer Lens readers a recent clipping from the Financial Times—a­ story from the newspaper’s House & Home section, which for me, at least, provided a pleasant antidote to some of the more negative coverage that New Orleans attracts, what with its sky-high murder rate, parade of corrupt politicians, etc., etc.—topics on which I focused as a reporter with The Lens.

“Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, an influx of newcomers and returning New Orleanians is reviving the city,” reads the subhead above Anjli Raval’s story about Crescent City real estate.

The FT piece is positively boosterish in recommending New Orleans as a place to enjoy a high quality of life on the cheap.

“In addition to federal reconstruction dollars and a healthy tourism sector, the state has in recent years tried to attract talent through the development of new industries,” Raval writes. “The construction of high-tech infrastructure and tax incentives for industries such as technology, film and renewable energy, among other initiatives, have subsequently made New Orleans the fastest-growing U.S. city, according to the latest census bureau statistics.”

Never mind that the place is growing so fast because it shrank pretty quickly, following Hurricane Katrina. Raval interviews a 26-year-old former banker who left New York to set up a fraternity- and sorority-based social networking website in New Orleans. For a grand a month, he rents a “1,200-square-foot apartment with a friend in a gated complex with two pools and a gym.”

If I had to go out on a limb I’d guess that the former banker might have been attracted back to New Orleans, where it turns out he went to college, by the city’s party atmosphere. Still, there is no denying he makes his life in the city sound a lot more attractive than working on Wall Street. And while fraternities and sororities are anathema to everything I stand for, I do wish the young man luck with his website.

Of course, as a writer for a British newspaper, Raval must be forgiven the occasional howler: In a misreading of both the supply and demand sides of the market, she suggests people might even like to buy “a renovated three-bedroom home in the Ninth Ward.” The price: a mere $100,000 — or £63,000, which in London would buy you less than a third of a one-bedroom flat in Chelsea.

Imagine yourself the realtor, taking an FT reader down Flood Street for a first glimpse of bargain-hunter heaven.

“Ta-da! Here it is,” you say as your Lexus rolls up in front of a gutted shotgun knocked slightly askew from its foundation sills. The pallid Brits pressing their faces to the car’s rear window are worldly enough to ask about security. “Not to worry,” you reassure them. “Just don’t go out after dark. The risk of being shot is greatly reduced by day. But if s*** happens? Don’t call the police—not that there are many down this way in the best of times. You’re as likely to be arrested as the perpetrator—and our lock-up is not one you’d care to spend time in.”

In other words, even at a fraction of the price in London, a house is not an easy sell in New Orleans, and the article glosses over lots of other Big Easy “issues,” as you Yanks are in the habit of calling them. The Make It Right Foundation may be about to “sell houses and duplexes for up to $200,000,” but they’re not available to folks who didn’t live in the Lower Ninth Ward before Hurricane Katrina—at least, not yet, anyway—and the inclusion of a photograph of a Frank Gehry-designed Make It Right property feels a bit like leading readers down the garden path. The homicide rate also goes unmentioned until paragraph 17 in the FT’s 23-paragraph story.

But still, the overall gloss on New Orleans in the esteemed Financial Times is glowing. Point being, and perhaps this is why Mayor Mitch Landrieu is always going on CNN: It’s easy, when you’re in New Orleans, to focus on the problems and let them overwhelm the many, many joys and enticements the city has to offer. Yes, it’s crucially important that those inside the bubble continue to attack the city’s perils and shortcomings. But it’s at least partly as a result of ongoing struggle that, from an outsider’s perspective, the city is becoming more and more attractive as a place to live and work. True, not every business associate is going to share your enthusiasm for a city as troubled as it is beautiful. But there’s always telecommuting. After all, isn’t that why Al Gore, ahem, invented the Internet—so he could work from home in Tennessee?

I know I haven’t ruled out returning at some point. In the meantime I wish New Orleans well, albeit in the fingers-crossed way one might greet a relative who’s just come out of rehab for the third time.

Matt Davis’s website is at matthewcharlesdavis.com.

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  • Bayou Bill

    An easier to read version of the referenced Financial Times article is online at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/dcc43212-dcaf-11e1-bbdc-00144feab49a.html#axzz24ILjzCH6

  • Eli

    I miss reading your reporting here at the Lens. Good luck back home!

  • linda U

    Matt,
    Happy to see your recent take on NOLA – I wondered how it would fare in your eyes once you left. My experience as a native is that some people get the ragged beauty and cultural depth of the city and some can’t forgive the inequities and problems that still assail it. I am always glad when visitors tackle both.