New Orleans getting younger and smarter

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For a city whose very foundations were built on calculated risks, New Orleans never had much use for hard numbers. Precision — in the form of phrases like “10 feet below sea level” — never offered anyone a true understanding of the precarious positioning of the city.

Still, residents are finding reasons for encouragement in recent statistics showing signs of a strong recovery in New Orleans.

The Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Data Center reported this month that the city has recovered 72 percent of its pre-Katrina households, nearly 90 percent of sales tax revenues, 86 percent of jobs and 76 percent of all previous public and private school students.

One of the more heartening aspects of New Orleans’ recovery has been the “brain gain” of what city officials estimate to be more than 3,000 young, college-educated adults who flocked to the city in the wake of the storm.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the upwardly mobile crowd was not likely to put New Orleans — known for its cultural riches but lacking a wealth of professional opportunities — on its short list of desirable places to live. But now, three years after Katrina, the allure of being part of a large-scale recovery effort continues to attract young people looking to make their mark.

‘It's on people's radar’
“For the socially conscious crew in their formative work years, New Orleans definitely tops the list,” says 25-year-old Robert Fogarty, an AmeriCorps member who moved from New York to work as the city’s intern and volunteer coordinator. “I’m pretty sure that 10 years ago, the city didn’t have students from Yale interning here. But that’s one of the really great and fascinating things about New Orleans: It’s always been wonderful, but it’s on people's radar now.”

Before joining AmeriCorps, Fogarty worked for a year as a headhunter on Wall Street. “I was waking up from nightmares where I was in the same office, doing the same thing at 65,” he recalls.  He hoped that New Orleans, which was undergoing its own transformation, might help to facilitate his, and it did. “It was a love affair from the get-go,” he says.

As the coordinator for more than 50 out-of-state interns working in the city’s recovery office, Fogarty has had ample opportunity to examine what has motivated so many newcomers to join a torn community to which they had no prior connections. He writes about some of it on his Post-Katrina New Orleans blog. In one post, he cautioned his peers against treating the city as though it were just one stop on their urban migration.

"The upwardly mobile transplants must remember that New Orleans is different from NY, Seattle, SF or Chicago. … Many say the new New Orleanian is what this City needs to survive. I say, the City — its displaced and returned — have done more for us than we’ve done for them.”

“I think it's hugely important for us post-storm transplants to take time to reflect on how fortunate we are to be able to pack up and move from Eugene, Oregon, or New York or wherever and be down here two weeks later with enough money for a deposit and first month's rent,” Fogarty says. “I guess you have to have that make-a-difference mentality, but maybe it should be the kind of thing that burns within — not the way you introduce yourself to your new neighbors."

‘People would ask .... why are you here?'
For some locals, the new influx was perplexing, especially in a city that for decades had suffered a steadily dwindling population.

“People would ask me, ‘What's your connection to the city? Why are you here now?’ remembers 23-year-old Lindsay Robertson, a kindergarten teacher at Coghill Elementary in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. “It was almost as though they were saying, 'You don't belong here, this is just for show.’ And in some cases, I think that was right; there were people here like that. ... I just came down here to throw myself into the work."

Robertson had been teaching in suburban Illinois when her older sister, then a resident of New Orleans, told her of the city’s desperate need for teachers. “She encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone,” she says, adding that she had no inkling then just how far outside that zone her teaching position at a public school post-Katrina would take her.

“I don't want to say anything bad about our school, because the administration was one of the best,” Robertson says. “We had really strong support from the principal and the vice principal, but we were just overloaded. I had no way of knowing the extent of the inequities we would be facing.”

Robertson soon discovered that the city’s infamous lack of infrastructure permeated every single aspect of “normal” life. School supplies rumored to be in a warehouse somewhere sat unused through her first semester, simply because there wasn’t anyone to deliver or distribute them. “I didn’t get my teacher’s manual until January,” she says. The school didn’t get a photo copier until the spring semester — “and even then we had to buy our own paper,” she adds.

A challenging teaching environment
Adding to the challenges of teaching without basic provisions, Robertson was assigned to teach  a “full-inclusion” class of 20 students. In her case, that meant one of her students had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair, two were autistic and one was blind. And she had no special education assistants.

“Sprinkled into that, were just normal kindergarten boys, testing their boundaries and getting into trouble, ” she says.

For many new teachers, it was too much to handle. Several of Robertson’s colleagues left before the school year ended. But those who stayed adjusted their expectations, then readjusted them again, and again.

“That realization that things aren't always so rose-colored is really disheartening. … But in the end, it hasn't changed the way I do my job. So now it's just part of my motivation to do something about it.”

Through, Robertson was able to raise money to buy supplies for a listening center in her classroom, and is now eagerly preparing for her new students.

“I'm really invested in the school now," she says. "I feel like I'm part of a team now, and you don't want to let anyone on the team down.”

A professional cachet
For some, the city post-Katrina offers a professional cache they can’t get anywhere else.  Seth Rodewald Bates, a 26-year-old landscape architect, says his colleagues in other cities express envy when they hear about the work that’s being done. “People in Boston and New York, they feel like maybe they ought to be moving down here, too.”

Similarly, 25-year-old musician Varun Kataria came not just for the chance to contribute something to the city, but to be able to work with one of his longtime idols, Irvin Mayfield, a leading figure on the New Orleans jazz scene. “This is just such an adventurous place — it’s almost like a study-abroad experience, something that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else on the planet.”

Even those more typical of New Orleans “brain drain” prior to Katrina — kids who went to school at LSU or Tulane and left soon after — are finding reasons to return.

Rien Fertel, who grew up in nearby Lafayette, transferred to Tulane as a sophomore to be closer to his extended family. After graduating, he bought a small store that he managed near the Convention Center downtown and moved in upstairs. He knew it wasn’t something he’d want do forever, and when the storm hit, he took it as his cue to leave — a decision he still struggles with three years later.

“There was a lot of guilt,” he says. “My girlfriend says it was the right things to do. But I don’t know — it’s not like I could have saved my property. But just to see it for myself, live, not on TV, because maybe it wasn't as bad.”

Driven out, but bound to return
It was worse, as it turned out. Fertel’s property was destroyed and his car was stolen. Vandals had left behind nothing of his business except a mess for him to clean up. “I remember telling my parents at the time, ‘I hope my car gets some family far away from this horrible place. But now, months later, I miss that car.’”

Struggling to reconcile his sense of solidarity with the city while trying to accept his own losses, Fertel spent the next two years devouring books about New Orleans and the South. When Tulane offered him a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in Southern history, he jumped at the opportunity. “It was a good fit,” he says. “I had needed and wanted to come back to New Orleans.”

But in a city that offers few guarantees, even recently committed residents are reluctant to make predictions about how long they’re likely to stay.

“I often wonder about this tidal wave of outside talent that's come down,” Fogarty says. “Not just foot soldiers, but all this outside expertise — the superintendent, the recovery director — for whom five years is a long time. Because this thing is going to be way longer than five years. What happens when outside influx starts to wane? What's going to happen 15 years from now?”

He can only hope that his experience will be shared by many other newcomers. “Hopefully, enough people will have fallen in love and stayed,” he says. “People who aren't so much outsiders anymore.”