NEW ORLEANS – Pity the residents of New Orleans. Their city, which is hosting the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, had been in steady decline for decades when it was nearly dealt a death blow by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As if that weren’t enough, earlier year this year its important fishing industry was put at serious risk when an oil rig exploded off the coast, resulting in the greatest spill ever. By the time British Petroleum managed to seal its well, tens of millions of barrels of crude had been dispersed into the Gulf of Mexico. While the worst predictions of the leak’s effects have not materialized, the threat has still not passed.
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Nonetheless, nearly five years later, the woe that weighs heaviest on the city is Katrina.
“This city still hasn’t recovered,” says Lance Wade, 32, a law enforcer from the local sheriff’s office who has lived in the city all his life.
“It’s the people who make the community and many of them are gone,” he adds. “When people come in and they see businesses open, they think we’ve recovered, but they don’t realize just how much is missing.”
Despite their travails, however, the people of New Orleans still inhabit a beautiful city that is much more than just Bourbon Street, the bar-filled strip in the French Quarter that is the party destination for college students looking to go wild.
The “Big Easy” has many charming neighborhoods filled with mansions, art galleries and innumerable music venues where locals play jazz, one of the greatest gifts the city – or any city for that matter – has given the world.
“It’s very accepting. We have blacks and whites, rich and poor, gay and straight, Catholics and Jews,” says Michael Grumich, an analyst for an energy company who has lived in the city for 20 years, as he waits outside a deli in the Garden District, a leafy neighborhood whose streets are lined with mansions.
“In some ways it’s like New York. It’s definitely not like other cities in the Midwest,” he says.
History has endowed New Orleans with a unique and rich heritage. Founded by the French in 1718, Napoleon sold it to the young US as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1802. It had a French-speaking majority well into the 19th century, even as it absorbed waves of newcomers and their cultures.
It’s easy to forget that New Orleans’s good old days weren’t necessarily so good. Much of the city’s early prosperity was based on an economy dependent on slavery.
In Treme (rhymes with delay), the city’s historic black neighborhood, the echoes of that past can still be heard. At the African- American Museum located in the former plantation house once owned by Claude Treme, who gave his name to the barrio, artifacts from that time are on display: A letter written by a slave; an old painting depicting the slave rebellion in not-too-distant Haiti.
But even here, in the bastion of black culture in New Orleans, change is coming, for better or worse.
“Property here has become a little bit more diverse. Especially, since
the television show came out,” a tour guide at the Treme museum says,
referring to the eponymous HBO television series Treme, which depicted
the lives of locals in the neighborhood after Katrina.
“Many people who left sold their property and it’s been bought up by
people who come from outside. The place is changing, slowly but surely,”
the guide says.