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Exploring the New New Orleans

Ben Jaffe (left) and Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, outside the French Quarter club.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

La Vie Bohème

“There’s a fine line between stability and stagnation, and by the time I was born, New Orleans had already crossed it,” Michael Lewis famously wrote in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. When I asked him about this recently, he said, “I have been most impressed over my lifetime with the resistance of New Orleans to change. It has a remarkable ability to stay what it is in spite of overwhelming incentives not to.”

By March of 2010, the city felt like it was on a roll. Winning the Super Bowl had certainly been a part of it. Tourism was up. A reform-minded mayor, Mitch Landrieu, had replaced the widely mocked Ray Nagin, and the city’s population had reached nearly 80 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Tulane University, long a famous party school, was attracting civic-minded students drawn to the project of rebuilding a city. Every week, it seemed, a friend of a friend sent an e-mail of introduction saying he or she was moving to New Orleans. That same month, the New York Observer ran a long article quoting various New Yorkers, media types, flocking to the city not to visit but to live. They were praising New Orleans as a kind of refuge from New York real estate, cattily carping that JetBlue’s direct flights don’t take much longer than the Hampton Jitney.

Dan Cameron, whose Prospect New Orleans 1, a giant biennial, attracted the international art scene and its audience in 2008, is now launching Prospect 1.5, a smaller exhibition focusing on local artists that opens this month. The Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, long the city’s bohemian frontiers, are teeming with new establishments and renovations. More and more art galleries appear on St. Claude Avenue. Restaurants such as Satsuma Café and Bacchanal Wine are proliferating, along with twentysomethings on bicycles toting laptops. Just as a generation of writers and artists once flocked to Paris for its beauty, inspiration, and cheap living, it was starting to look as if New Orleans might become such a place for a generation of American writers and artists. There is no other American city with more of the requisite ingredients of affordability, beauty, and personality. And yet....

So it was that one day last spring, not long after the Treme block party, I glanced at the local paper and saw a strange photo on the front page. A fire on the water. A black plume of smoke rising into the blue sky. Small boats sending cheerful arcs of water toward the flames. Something had gone very wrong on an oil rig way out in the Gulf.

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