Post-storm New Orleans: The good and the sad a decade later

Ten years after Katrina, a new New Orleans.

If you were last here in, say, July 2005, everything will seem to be mostly where you left it.

The French Quarter still hums with booze and brass bands. Carnival still owns the city's heart every February, culminating with the joyful, raucous Mardi Gras celebration on Fat Tuesday. Streetcars still clatter up stately St. Charles Avenue beneath the broad live oaks.

But squint, and New Orleans is a subtly though significantly different place since Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the city's levies Aug. 29, 2005, and left 80 percent of the streets underwater. From dozens of new restaurants and bars to booming startup and real estate industries to a new park along the long-underutilized Mississippi riverfront, the Crescent City — the nickname most locals prefer to the Big Easy — has seen an unlikely transformation rooted in both the opportunity, and the need, to rebuild. New Orleans always played the role of Southern siren with its endemic joys: jazz, revelry and rich food. But the city also was sort of stuck in that pose; few visited New Orleans for what was new.

While music still echoes down Frenchmen Street and beignets buried in powdered sugar remain a delight, the fabric of New Orleans in 2015 runs as broad and deep as ever. Instead of mostly looking back, new New Orleans also looks forward — particularly when it comes to food and drink. It's no accident that the city's most buzzed-about restaurants don't serve Sazeracs and Gulf fish drowned in cream sauce; they're more akin to Shaya, a contemporary Israeli restaurant in the Garden District that redefines the joys of pita with each steaming, pillowy circle pulled from its wood-fired oven. (Seriously — it's the best pita I've ever had and better still when mushed in the olive oil, thyme, sumac, oregano and sesame seed mixture that arrives alongside it.)

Shaya's owner and chef, Alon Shaya, already had opened two Italian spots popular with tourists and locals alike — Domenica (just outside of the French Quarter) and Pizza Domenica (Garden District) — before opening his namesake restaurant. He doubts that New Orleans would have embraced an Israeli restaurant serving matzo ball soup in duck broth 10 years ago, let alone that it would have become such a hit that the wait for a Thursday night table can stretch to two hours. He was skeptical it would even work in 2015.

"I was nervous is the truth," Shaya, 36, said of opening the restaurant in February. "But if we were going to take a risk, this seemed like the time. The city is becoming more cosmopolitan. People came after Katrina with big ideas to get the city back on its feet and exceed where it was."

Good news: Those people like duck broth matzo ball soup.

I sat at the bar one early Friday evening in Shaya's rustic-yet-sleek dining room and discovered a microcosm of the changed New Orleans: In addition to that unlikely Southern cuisine, the staff swirling around me with plates of neatly arranged chicken and lamb was almost completely from somewhere else — cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and Portsmouth, N.H. — and had mostly arrived since Katrina.

"I moved here in 2007 for school, and looking back it was eerily quiet at the time," said Peggy Keplinger, 26, of suburban Chicago, as she assembled drinks behind the Shaya bar. "Now you walk down the street, and there are three new businesses."

The trite question is to ask whether New Orleans is "back." As one local told me, "We'll never be 'back' — 1,000 of us died." But the population has risen steadily since Katrina and almost is back to pre-storm levels. The city says it has nearly 1,000 more hotel rooms than before "the storm" (as locals call it) and a handful more nonstop flights. Even the Superdome — the downtown stadium where scores of stranded residents holed up as the city degenerated into chaos — has been gussied up to the tune of $350 million and been rebranded the "Mercedes-Benz Superdome." So yes, by many markers, New Orleans is "back."

Whether it's better off depends on whom you ask. I met a handful of pre-Katrina locals who groused about the city's new complexion: too many expats, too trendy and real estate prices that have soared too high. Then there were natives like Ryan Evans, 31, who told me as we sipped an impressive array of beers at the NOLA Brewing taproom (a post-Katrina development) that the storm mostly changed the city for the better. He refuted the idea that there has been a continuous climb; the city's growth has come in two distinct phases, he said: 2005 to 2010, and 2010 to 2015.

"First it was, 'What the hell are we going to do, and how are we going to make this place work again?'" he said. "Second it was, 'Now how are we going to make it even cooler than it was?'"

The answer came in countless small forms — as small as the 100 miles of bike lanes that the city has added (though Evans said drivers and bikers are still learning to co-exist). It came in larger forms, too, like the improvements in long-sleepy neighborhoods, such as the Central Business District and Bywater.

An afternoon in Bywater was a particular revelation. The neighborhood's old New Orleans charm endures, such as the three guys gathered outside Frady's One Stop Food Store on a Saturday morning, where they took turns on a guitar, bongo and spoons and sang beside the chalkboard listing the day's menu: catfish, jambalaya, tamales and more.

But there's also a jolt of the new, such as Pizza Delicious, which has grown from a pop-up eatery into a restaurant serving one of the city's most sought-after pies; Euclid Records, which opened a branch in New Orleans after years in St. Louis (and was quickly minted by the BBC as one of the world's essential record stores); and Crescent Park, which became an instant urban gem upon opening in 2014.

Though squeezed between two major bodies of water — Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River — New Orleans, strangely, never encouraged much foot traffic along its waterfronts. Crescent Park changes that. Perched along the bank of the Mississippi River, the park is a landscape of flowers and trees that cuts a curving path along the edge of the swift, muddy river. The park was built as part of the Hurricane Katrina (and Hurricane Rita, which struck three weeks later) recovery effort.

For all the good happening in New Orleans, the neighborhood hit hardest by Katrina continues to be the Lower Ninth Ward, which sits about three miles east of the French Quarter. There are multiple tours through the Lower Ninth, and I took two of them: one by bus and one by bicycle. The bus tour was a well-spent three hours as New Orleans native Mary LaCoste offered a sobering play-by-play of the destruction.

"This whole area had 61/2 feet of water," she said matter-of-factly as we passed modest single-story homes in the Gentilly neighborhood.

More striking was the two-wheeled tour the next day that I took with Confederacy of Cruisers, a bike tour company that sprung up a few years after Katrina. The Lower Ninth tour is the company's second-most popular, and provided you can handle the oppressive heat and humidity (tip: stay hydrated!), it's among the best things you can do with $60 in New Orleans. Visiting the Lower Ninth by bike digs into the neighborhood in a way that no bus can. While the bus skirted the edges of the Lower Ninth, the bike tour, vetted by neighborhood residents, got us into the mix, all the way down to a small gray pit bull that briefly chased us (seemingly to have fun, but you never know).

Led by Derek Wood, a 10th generation Louisianian who studied history at Tulane, six of us riders (from Toronto, Boston and Raleigh, N.C.) started just outside the French Quarter and rode east. We soon began to pass a piece of Katrina's legacy I hadn't seen much of yet: the "X" markers that rescue teams emblazoned on houses to indicate that they had been checked. Each quadrant of the "X," Wood explained, included the date, the team that conducted the search, whether entry was made and what, if anything, was found inside. The markers appeared randomly, sometimes two beside each other, then none for several blocks. They existed in various states; some had been left alone for the last 10 years, some peeked through a thin coat of paint, and others had been turned into art; I saw one in Bywater that had been reconstructed in metal. I asked Wood if he minded seeing them.

"They don't bother me," he said. "It's not like you can forget."

We rode over a canal linking the river to the lake and dropped down into the Lower Ninth, where the landscape turned ruined and spare. We paused under the shade of a live oak at what had been Holy Cross, an elementary and high school that was flooded and suffered a collapsed roof during Katrina. The three-story brick building was still handsome but remained boarded up and silent. A blue tarp billowed on its roof.

As we headed toward lunch, I noticed a white house with orange shutters that looked as if it could have been flooded just a week ago. Debris was still piled outside — branches, aluminum cans, a mattress and a pink-and-purple plastic car for a child to ride, with eyes for headlights and a smile below. On the side of the house, in faded silver spray paint, someone had written "Rebuild NOLA." I looked at the street sign to see where we stood. It was Flood Street.

What was a neighborhood of houses tucked shoulder to shoulder is now, in parts, broad, overgrown fields interrupted by the occasional newly constructed house. Businesses and churches remain shuttered. In the blocks nearest to where the levee was breached, concrete slabs were common, with no sign of what once sat upon them.

"That looks like it might have been a corner store," Wood said at a barren patch of Galvez Street, near Andry Street. "The houses here didn't flood — they were washed away. Some people couldn't find their houses at all."

We stopped for lunch at Cajun Joe's, a fast-food seafood shop in the heart of the Lower Ninth that, as Wood said, had "no Cajuns and no Joes" — it was staffed by a female Vietnamese immigrant, as are many fast-seafood counters in New Orleans. We all ordered fried shrimp po'boys on thick, crusty rolls and hauled our sandwiches a couple of blocks to the home of Ronald Lewis, 64, who has lived his life in the Lower Ninth Ward with the exception of the year he spent commuting from Thibodaux, a small town an hour west, while rebuilding after the storm. His block had taken on 14 feet of water, he said.

Lewis greeted us dressed in a skullcap of red, yellow, green and black, red shorts and a red T-shirt that featured the name of the museum he runs in his backyard: the House of Dance & Feathers. It's a museum dedicated primarily to the Mardi Gras Indians, the African-American groups that dress in elaborate beaded costumes and headdresses for Mardi Gras. Lewis once was one.

Now he honors the tradition with the museum housed in the long, narrow building rebuilt after Katrina by volunteers from Kansas State University's College of Architecture. The space is crammed with Lewis' beadwork, books, framed photographs and memorabilia from the storm, including laminated New Orleans Times-Picayune front pages.

As we sat in his backyard and ate our sandwiches, Lewis said the investment apparent in other parts of the city had skipped the Lower Ninth. It was difficult to dispute; dozens (if not hundreds) of lots hadn't been cleared of 6-foot weeds, let alone built upon. As an example, he said, the neighborhood had two pharmacies before Katrina; today it has none. For that reason, Lewis said, he would be skipping the commemoration of Katrina's 10th anniversary. (Wood also said he will not run the Lower Ninth bike tours that week out of respect to the neighborhood.)

"Why should I be celebrating?" Lewis said. "Why should I be dancing in the streets?"

He said that the Lower Ninth has always been on its own. The slow pace of rebuilding, especially compared with the neighborhoods where you'd never know Katrina happened, is just more of the same. As we ate our lunches, Lewis asked my name and whom I wrote for. I told him, and he said, "When you go back and write your article, please let the world know we are civilized people down here. We care about what goes on."

jbnoel@tribune.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

Getting there and around: According to the city, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has 45 nonstop flights — up from 42 at the time of Hurricane Katrina — with plans to further expand. A car is useful in New Orleans to explore the city's many wonderful neighborhoods, from the Garden District to Bywater. But with a bus system, plenty of taxis and many attractions centrally located, it is not necessary.

Eat: New Orleans has always been a world-class dining city, but that's only truer after a wave of post-Katrina restaurant openings. Highlights include the modern Israeli cuisine at Shaya (4213 Magazine St., 504-891-4213, www.shayarestaurant.com), Peche Seafood Grill (800 Magazine St., 504-522-1744, www.pecherestaurant.com), Pizza Delicious (617 Piety St., 504-676-8482, www.pizzadelicious.com) and the neighboring meat-heavy restaurants, Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-588-2123, www.cochonrestaurant.com) and Cochon Butcher (504-588-7675, www.cochonbutcher.com).

Stay: New Orleans is loaded with hotels. Among the newer options are Old No. 77 (535 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-527-5271, www.old77hotel.com; rates start at $79 per night plus tax; be sure to ask for a room with a window) and Aloft (225 Baronne St., 504-581-9225, www.aloftneworleansdowntown.com; rates start at $99 per night plus tax). (Note that hotel rates in New Orleans vary wildly depending on the season and what's happening in town.)

To do: Wandering the French Quarter — which is essentially unchanged since Katrina — is a must, but there is much more in the city to appreciate. Highlights include neighborhoods such as the Garden District along Magazine Street and the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods just outside of the French Quarter. In Bywater, sits one of the city's great recent additions, Crescent Park (www.nola.gov/city/crescent-park). The effects of Hurricane Katrina remain stamped on the Lower Ninth Ward, which is about three miles east of the French Quarter. Several companies offer tours, but exploring the neighborhood by bicycle with Confederacy of Cruisers (634 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-400-5468, www.confederacyofcruisers.com) is the suggested method. It allows for a deep, though respectful, view of the neighborhood and the challenges it continues to face. The recently renovated National World War II Museum (945 Magazine St., 504-528-1944, www.nationalww2museum.org) is among the city's most popular tourist attractions.

If you go

If you go

More information: www.neworleansonline.com

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