Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer 2012

Five years.  I moved down to New Orleans five years ago.  And now it looks like this chapter is about to end, as I have been accepted into a phd program at the University of Utah and will begin classes in the Fall.  It's a new situation for me. Not inasmuch that I am moving on to something new, because I have moved a ton in my life, but more in the sense that I am leaving a place where I have been so long, a place where I really had built a life.  It seems ages ago that Lauren and I came cruising down here in her Volvo, never having seen the city, and excited to be a part of post-Katrina New Orleans.   It is a crude and perhaps insensitive analogy, but at the time I saw the experience as akin to a gold rush.  There was just so much happening: construction was booming, schools were being re-invented, public and private enterprise both stepped into the eery desolation of the city to create new opportunities.  All this in an atmosphere shaped by quirky yet determined locals and enthusiastic newcomers.

The city underwent many changes in my five years.
Nagin acting like a fool with guns
Changes that, for the most part, I think are in the right direction.  The new mayor is light years better than the clown who was in charge when we moved here in 2007, Ray Nagin.  But don't my word for it, just as U.S attorney Jim Letten who is charging Nagin with corruption as we speak.  During his time in office Nagin became infamous for many things.  My personal favorites are his pathetic performance after the storm when, during an interview, he screamed incoherently for leadership from the federal government when, as the mayor of the city, he was providing none; and his description of New Orleans as a "chocolate city."  His racial pandering was ironic since he was first elected as a "business" candidate supported largely by the commercial interests and only later decided he would attempt to pit the white and black communities against each other.  Current mayor Mitch Landrieu has not done much for the fire department (read: nothing), but overall he is doing a good job getting the city in order.

Neighborhoods have improved dramatically.  Places like the Bywater  and Freret were ghettoes when I moved here; now they are destinations for nights out and the hot spots for both residential and commercial investment.  The drug addicts and scumbags in Bywater have been replaced by young couples, hipsters, and gay men--an upgrade no matter which way you slice it.  And, while liberals in the Northwest might complain about gentrification, it's not their cars being stolen or their homes broken into, so I say if gentrification is another word for a neighborhood improving than sign me up.  Now, I don't want to paint too rosy a picture; the murder rate in New Orleans is the highest in the country, so there is still clearly a long way to go.  But the statistics don't necessarily indicate a general culture of violence, as the overwhelming majority of homicides take place in the ghetto and are revenge or drug fueled.  Overall, the fact that  violence is largely confined to poor areas is not a cause for celebration, however, it is laudatory that honest, hard-working New Orleanians have reclaimed some of the ghettoes.    

New walking path at City Park
Other developments are equally impressive.  Since I've been here New Orleans has been a national leader in school reform.  Dozens of schools have adopted the charter model, hoping that increased independence and accountability will lead to better education for the children.  These changes are controversial, yet it cannot be denied that test scores and GPAs have improved since Katrina.  The jury is still out whether these improvements are due to the merits of the charter school system or the increase in federal spending, but for a city that once dragged along the bottom of national achievement, it is quite an accomplishment to become a leader in experimental pedagogy while simultaneously improving public education.  Although not a "neighborhood" technically, City Park has also transformed.  After Katrina it was left fallow due to neglect and the overgrown golf courses resembled a post-apocolypitc setting of undone civilization.  Because I am an oddball who likes the outdoors I didn't mind this retreat from the urban setting, but even I can't complain about the new lake recreation area, tennis courts, and dog park--a small sample of the impressive growth at the park.  

Importantly, the city's development hasn't come at the expense of the city's unique cultural identity.  New Orleans is still an amazing, authentic place that marches to the beat of a different drummer.  Our lives here blend seamlessly with the myriad celebrations such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and in addition to these two major festivals, various smaller events provide the timeline for the passing years.  Instead of referencing months, as is common in most cities, it is common in New Orleans to hear, "I began working here around White Linen Night" or "We got divorced last year during the Crawfish Festival."  A major part of these traditional events in modern New Orleans are Sundays watching the Saints.  For almost the entire history of the franchise before the storm the Saints were terrible.  It is common knowledge here that some fans would wear paper bags on their heads when they went to games because they were so embarrassed by the team.  With Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton calling the shots the Saints have skyrocketed to become an elite team, and even won the Superbowl in 2009.  The city partied hard that night and continued to do so for basically the whole next year.  I actually worked the night of the game, though, because my buddy from here basically asked me with tears his eyes to work that shift for him because, "Dude, sniff, sniff, I might have to quit the job. I've been a Saints fan my entire life and can't miss this."  

Bourbon Street after the Superbowl

The Saints are a relatively new tradition in an atypically historical American city.  Founded before the United States became a country, the past is alive here like it is in Europe, and that, I think, is what causes people to say they feel like they're not in America when they visit.  Examples of this are found in the architecture, traditional cuisine, pre-automoblie urban layout, and the cultural events that have lasted been taking place for generations.  Because there is such a strong, historically grounded and authentic culture here, New Orleans has not been impacted by the national trends toward chain restaurants and strip malls.  In fact, that is one of the most impressive aspects of the city; the majority of businesses here are independently owned and operated.  It is pleasant to patronize these places, as the goods and services tend to be of a high quality and shaped by the efforts of a local entrepreneur.

Fire in Uptown
My own experience in New Orleans has taken place in the context of all this history and tradition, and I have enjoyed integrating the New Orleanian way of life with my own interests.  Probably the biggest change has been that I drink more.  A lot more.  The city's innumerable events are all lubricated with Abita beers and cocktails.  Some of my favorite activities have been crawfish boils  and grilling oysters.    These are traditional, local dishes that come seasonally.  Oh, and I can't forget snowballs.  Getting a snowball from Hansen's during the summer is a sublime experience.  When not eating or drinking I have enjoyed learning how to play tennis and chilling out on the levy by Audubon Park.  Fortunately, I will still be able to play tennis after I leave, but sunsets at the levy and the great food can't come with me, so that's a bummer.  But perhaps the biggest thing I am leaving behind is the job and my friends I have made there.  Working for the NOFD has been amazing.  The adventure of fighting fires and the good feeling of providing care on meaningful medical calls makes it the best job I could imagine.  I did put in for unpaid leave, so maybe they will let me return after my studies, but who knows?  Right now I can just hope that the remorse I feel at leaving behind a great career will be buried under the knee deep snow at Snowbird.

Amy & John's wedding
Ping-pong at home
Chicken Coop
Beginning of Mardi Gras

Grilled Oysters
Jazz Fest with Nikki 

Goofing off at fire house.

My Captain's tats.  Only in New Orleans.

Master's graduation

Crawfish at the fire house.