Photo: © Bevil Knapp/epa/Corbis

New ideas. New people. New businesses.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is experiencing a fresh wave of entrepreneurs and out-of-the-box thinkers — several of them LSA graduates — who are helping re-envision just about every aspect of the city. But even smart, passionate people can and do disagree about the way forward, proving that six years after the storm, there are no easy answers in the Big Easy.

It gives Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, the perfect vantage point for bragging up investments in New Orleans. For example, work is under way on high-end housing and hotel sites nearby while the newly opened New Orleans BioInnovation Center — with 66,000 square feet of wet-lab, office, and conference space — aims to help commercialize life science products from Louisiana State University, Tulane, and Xavier.

In addition to pointing out individual projects, Weigle describes the Downtown Development District plan that hinges on tax credits for digital media businesses and a new medical complex to establish the city as a research hub. It aims to supplement the long-dominant industries in New Orleans — hospitality, shipping, oil and gas —with new kinds of jobs.

But as the sun sets and neon lights begin to glow, reminders of catastrophe hover. Six years have passed since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, followed by the catastrophic failure of the city’s levees, flooding much of the city and turning Katrina into the costliest natural disaster in American history. 

Charity Hospital has been shuttered since Katrina devastated the city, and battles still wage over plans for how to fill the city’s need for medical service. The historic Saenger Theater’s post-Katrina restoration stalled because of financing snags, but construction has resumed with plans to open in 2012.

New Orleans faced significant challenges before Katrina, from high murder rates to low-performing schools. In some ways, Katrina exacerbated existing problems, destroying homes and businesses, stretching remaining resources thin. Yet Forbes magazine this spring heralded “The Katrina Effect,” which describes the city’s recent inf lux of college-educated adults and growth in jobs, perhaps the silver lining to the storm.

Some LSA graduates like Weigle hope not just to restore what was lost to Katrina but to use the opportunity to rethink and reinvent New Orleans. That’s difficult not just because of the interconnectedness of complex issues — employment, education, crime, and poverty, for example — but because passionate, informed people often disagree on the right way forward.

Alumnus Kurt Weigle was part of an effort to transform New Orleans bus shelters into works of art through the Downtown Development District’s “Artification” project. Many of the shelters were repaired and improved prior to the artwork installation. Photo: © Chris Granger/Times Picayune

Brad Pitt, the Ninth Ward, and the Calm Before Another Storm

Steve Ragan (’89) is part of an effort to rebuild the city’s Lower Ninth Ward — the decimated, largely black neighborhood seen in many of Katrina’s most heartbreaking images.

Ragan is director of development and government relations for Make It Right, colloquially known as the Brad Pitt houses. Pitt fell in love with New Orleans while filming Interview with the Vampire in 1994, and combined that love with a lifelong interest in architecture to establish the Make It Right Foundation, which replaces homes lost to Katrina.

Rather than recreating the destroyed structures, Make It Right uses environmentally cutting-edge techniques, aiming to build affordable houses that also meet platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, and platinum is the highest LEED rating level.

Make It Right has finished 75 houses out of the 150 it committed to building in the shadow of the failed levee. Instead of marshaling an army of volunteers to put up loads of homes, like Habitat for Humanity might, Ragan says, "What we think we can do is bring a different model of home construction."

With tankless water heaters, dual-flush toilets, wireless light controls, solar power, and pervious concrete driveways, Ragan said the project is helping teach local builders environmentally friendly skills. Make It Right uses local labor as much as possible, and aims to use a variety of crews to spread the benefit.

Walking through the construction site, where many lots still sit empty and overgrown, Ragan talks about the challenges Make It Right had to overcome, such as the difficulty of getting a clear title for destroyed homes that had been handed down for generations with no paperwork.

Building anything in New Orleans takes a certain amount of bravery, perhaps especially in the Lower Ninth, where the levee break washed away the neighborhood with the highest percentage of home ownership in the city. When the Mississippi River flooded this spring, talk in New Orleans turned to concern about whether the repaired levees would hold, a possibility Make It Right folded into its design plans.

For example, Make It Right builds its homes a minimum of five feet off the ground, to allow for potential flooding. One house is actually designed to float.

Wil Jacobs (M.B.A. ’96) appreciates the passion behind the project but disagrees with Make It Right’s choice of location. As housing policy director for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, he saw that there weren’t enough resources to rebuild everything Katrina destroyed, and he advocated for new housing in areas where infrastructure — schools and roads, for example — would lure residents to return and private investment to follow.

"We can’t rebuild every neighborhood," Jacobs says. The Ninth Ward was struggling before the storm, with lower home values than other parts of the city, and the destruction amplified its problems.

But Jacobs understands Pitt’s frustration with the slow pace of official programs, as billions of dollars are still waiting to be invested and many homeowners are still not in their homes, and he calls Make It Right a beachhead that can encourage recovery in the Lower Ninth.

Having worked in the private sector until the storm, Jacobs is also humbled by the complexity of the issues involved in redevelopment.

"What I’ve learned is nobody has all the answers," he says, but if you look at a situation carefully and get as much input as possible, "nothing’s impossible."

A New Orleans native, Jacobs now works for the Louisiana Office of Community Development, which focuses on improving the quality of life of the state’s residents. While maintaining his focus on housing, Jacobs is most excited about plans for a $2 billion medical complex because of its potential for job creation, calling it "the biggest potential economic driver of a transformation."

Weigle agrees. He understands some people’s objections to tearing down blocks of existing housing to make way for a new University Medical Center and Veterans Affairs Hospital, but believes the benefits are worth the tradeoff.

The historic Saenger Theater suffered immense water damage after Katrina. Restoration plans have been mired in red tape for years, though the theater is now slated to reopen for the 2012–2013 Broadway season. Photo: © Michael DeMocker/Times Picayune

Same Issues, New Generation

Lolis Eric Elie, a former New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist who is now a story editor for HBO’s post-Katrina drama Treme, talked to experts for his column about what happens after disasters. They told him disasters like Katrina give people the chance to reimagine places, but, because people are fundamentally conservative, they tend to look backward instead of forward. Meanwhile, disasters give opportunists the chance to do what they’d wanted to do prior to the catastrophe.

Elie is dismayed by the eviction of poor New Orleanians from public housing and by widespread  demolition in a historic city neighborhood to make way for what he calls "this hospital foolishness." He feels both the evictions and demolitions are examples of the city’s increasing hostility toward the poor.

Elie describes New Orleans’ complex history with French, Spanish, and Haitian influences as adding up to food, music, architecture, and overall culture that feel very different from the rest of the United States, but "I think our political leadership wants New Orleans to be like every other city in America."

"The city has been and continues to be at war with itself," Elie adds.

"Housing has been one of the hot-button issues in modern America, especially low-income housing," says Angela Dillard, the new director of Michigan’s Residential College and an LSA historian whose work focuses on civil rights and urban environments.

"There’s nothing new about what we now call gentrification. These same issues come into play generation after generation."

Dillard, professor of Afroamerican and African studies, describes the two cities as "real laboratories" for thinking differently about urban planning. 

Dillard says struggling cities either can try to restore their greatness or radically reinvent themselves. She sees it as a dead end to return a manufacturing city like Detroit to what it once was, leaving reinvention as the only viable choice. A natural disaster like Katrina can focus attention, bring resources, and shake up apathy toward those challenges.

"It’s the devastated areas where we allow the most experimentation," Dillard says.

"It’s almost as if the slate was wiped clean for them," she says, "with an un-imaginable human cost, of course."

Kate Schneiderman (’05) thinks the post-Katrina influx of newcomers has brought new energy and approaches to the city’s challenges, while the shared trauma of surviving post-storm life reminded long-timers why they loved the place.

"It’s definitely been a mindset shift," Schneiderman says. Undeterred by entrenched problems like crime, racism, and corruption, she sees people recognizing that New Orleans isn’t alone in the systemic challenges of cities, and "instead of saying, 'we can’t change that,' now it’s 'how can we fix that?'"

As director of marketing with Idea Village, a business start-up accelerator, Schneiderman works with a mix of transplants and natives to help launch and grow their entrepreneurial ventures by providing business consulting, mentorship, networking connections, and access to capital.

The Idea Village spent the last decade connecting local entrepreneurs to local resources such as legal, accounting, finance, and marketing support, for example.

"It’s an extremely supportive place," Schneiderman said. "We’re too small at this point not to help each other out."

Inc. magazine profiled Idea Village’s assistance to entrepreneurs in an article this spring headlined, "Why New Orleans Is the Coolest Start-up City in America." The 1,100 businesses Idea Village has helped since its founding in 2000 range from organic fast food chain Naked Pizza, to entertainment and travel business Iseatz, to Drop the Chalk, which makes software to help teachers manage classroom information.

Dillard believes there are two frontiers of rethinking urban policy in America: New Orleans and Detroit. She notes that all urban areas have problems, but the complexity of New Orleans’ challenges were immense even before the storm.

This home is an example of the environmentally friendly, flood-resistant structures in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward constructed by the Make it Right Foundation.
Many New Orleans historic homes were razed post Katrina to make space for a new University Medical Center and Veterans Hospital. New Orleans residents like Lolis Eric Elie, story editor for HBO's Treme, feel the demolitions showcase the city's increasing hostility toward the poor.

Beyond Bourbon Street

In early 2011, a few dozen tech entrepreneurs road-tripped to the massive South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, to raise New Orleans’ profile — including hosting a party sponsored by Weigle’s Downtown Development District that featured New Orleans music.

But hosting a hot, sweaty dance party in Austin to bolster the city’s image highlights one more balancing act city leaders face.

For many people, New Orleans conjures images of drunken revelers on Bourbon Street.
"Our biggest challenge is moving beyond that characterization that dominates too many people’s minds," Weigle says.

If people imagine New Orleans as one big Girls Gone Wild video, they might be, reluctant to bring a convention or a business investment to the city.

Noting that New Orleans’ culture honors the fun of food, music, and parades, and the economy benefits from partying tourists, "I think the best way to describe it is we can do serious work without taking ourselves too seriously," Weigle says.

Playing host to multiple, perhaps even contradictory, ways of thinking is nothing new for New Orleans. As the birthplace of jazz, a musical form with roots in African, European, and Creole cultures, mixing various inspirations is New Orleans’ creative tradition.

"Part of New Orleans’ success has always been the cross pollination where all the influences here borrow from each other and it becomes impossible to trace the roots of where something started," Weigle says. "We’re all dependent on one another for our success."

"I think the future of New Orleans rests on finding a way to reconcile and to nurture this combination of rich history and the incredible legacy that attracts so many people to New Orleans," Weigle says, "with a recognition that in life, you’re either growing or you’re shrinking. Even before the storm, New Orleans was fading and didn’t realize it."

Now, Weigle says, with the infusion of newcomer energy and recommitment from natives, that’s changing. “I could not be more optimistic about the future of the city."

Colleen Newvine Tebeau (M.B.A. ’05) is a writer who lived in New Orleans for two months this spring. Her blog Newvine Growing is at