This is not a love letter to New Orleans. Through endless odes and rhapsodies, the city has heard it all before. I do, however, wish to address the question of what it means to be a transplant in New Orleans and, as a transplant, it is difficult to do so without acknowledging the ardor that lies at its core. Few cities inspire the same immediate loyalty, and there is precedent of this fierce and fast attachment throughout the centuries. Like religious converts, New Orleans transplants are often more fanatical than any native, and for good reason.
The first sight of New Orleans is a unique vantage point, made particularly striking by contrast. Upon arriving, Americans experience a shock. After spending a lifetime learning the rules of the game, one is suddenly in a place where none of those rules apply. This drives some people absolutely insane. I was on a plane once coming back to New Orleans from California with a childhood friend who was studying naval engineering at UNO. He spent the entire plane ride listing, loudly and lengthily, the ways in which the city suffers from a complete absence of logic. No matter what I said, he remained baffled as to why I would come here of my own volition. As he condemned government corruption and the crumbling infrastructure, I made no argument. I wanted to say that the flip side of the absurdity was freedom. Then again, maybe when we were growing up, he never felt constrained.
For those of us who always chafed against the established order elsewhere, it is a great relief to discover somewhere in the country that is perfectly capable of existing without it. Not everything runs smoothly and not everything is clean, but in return, you are free to live more or less as you please. It also must be said that New Orleans is beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks, and it is seductive. Imagine, then, discovering that once you’ve entered Technicolor, no one will force you to go back to Kansas. If you want to stay and find your place in the chaos, you are more than welcome to.
I came to New Orleans in the fall of 2011. When people ask why I decided to move here, I never know exactly what to say. Sometimes I tell them about my stepfather bringing me down for Jazzfest four years before. Sometimes I tell them I just had a feeling. The truth is I came here when I desperately needed somewhere to go. I was hoping what little I had seen while being shuttled between the Fairgrounds and Frenchmen was indicative of the city as a whole, but I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. When I got off the plane, I had no car, job, or house; knew almost no one here; and had only four or five days to find a place to live before my money ran out.
It took me very little time to be sure of New Orleans, where I found people to be generous and unfazed by my circumstances. As it turned out, nothing could be more commonplace than to come to the city without forethought or resources. I was only one in a long line of initiates who had done just that. Living in cities since I was young had taught me the unspoken agreement of mutual disregard between urbanites. But if you want to be invisible, then this is the wrong city for you. In my case, this meant that people noticed that I was scared, eager, and hungry. And to my surprise, I was reassured and fed accordingly. One night, I was taken home by a taxi driver who refused cab fare, telling me I could pay when I found a job. Another time, a checkout woman at Mardi Gras Zone gave me a juice when I came in looking wan. Moments like these stand out in my memory, not because they were particularly out of the ordinary, but because they came in swift succession, and always directly corresponded to my need.
Sometimes my sense of debt to New Orleans is translated to being starry-eyed and romantic, and for those natives who are more intimate with the city’s darker, unrelenting side, I’m sure the enthusiasm can get a little tiresome. However, it’s the perpetual gratitude that I see in myself and other transplants that keeps us mindful. Here, community and tradition are so strong that becoming a part of it takes work and self-awareness. As an outsider, it can be hard to know where to place your feet, an idea illustrated quite literally by second lines. If you ask a native New Orleanian how to second line dance, almost invariably they’ll tell you just to move your body. But if you have either been or seen a white person dancing at one, you know there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Likely, there is an age cut-off for learning the right way. Seeing children perched on shoulders and dancing on porches, you realize how many generations have grown up on Sundays just like that, and how the traditions are transmitted as easily as inhaling. It can be uncomfortable to arrive on the scene, and it’s hard to participate without feeling like an intruder. But if you see it as a gift to be humbled by something that extraordinary, your awe will make you gracious.
In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve noticed an influx of a new kind of transplant. Recently, New Orleans has acquired the dubious honor of being named as one of the country’s top destinations for entrepreneurs and young creatives. In the wake of the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, major media sources like The New York Times and CNN have embedded in the national consciousness that New Orleans is a city on the rise. As a result, many of the people moving here come with preconceived notions they likely wouldn’t have had without the media exposure. They might find the architecture charming and the culture appealing, but these are mere accessories to what is essentially a more affordable alternative to New York or San Francisco. It is easy to pick these transplants out of a crowd, and less because of the way they dress or talk than how they carry themselves. The quality is hard to define, but it manifests in the way they keep to themselves in a bar or while walking down the street, and how slow they are to smile. Most of all, it is evident in the look of boredom on their faces. Somehow they don’t seem to notice the beauty in the tableaus of peculiarity that characterize daily life here. They lack spontaneity, and if you put them in front of a kickass band, they’ll hardly even sway or move their feet.
All things being equal, this phenomenon would be irritating, perhaps, but it wouldn’t interfere with the larger culture. However, many of the city’s cultural standard bearers tend to occupy a lower income bracket, unlike the many flush new transplants, and this creates a problematic power dynamic. When these differing perspectives clash, the city government frequently sides with newcomers, demonstrating a post-Katrina agenda which is more concerned with economic growth than continuity. Take, for example, noise ordinances. It doesn’t take particularly in-depth knowledge of New Orleans culture to know that music and a boisterous nightlife is the beating heart of it, especially downtown. Sound is as much a part of the history as the architecture, and as Glen David Andrews likes to say when he performs in the Treme, “If the music’s too loud, then go to the Garden District.” From this point of view, it is inconceivable that someone would buy a house next door to a bar and then complain about being disrupted by the noise, but that is precisely what has happened throughout the downriver neighborhoods. Ask Mimi’s, whose employees can be seen on the street at all hours of the night tracking the noise levels of their customers to avoid prosecution, or Cafe Istanbul, where someone is always posted outside on event nights to plead with those coming and going from the Healing Center to keep their voices down. The same goes for St. Roch Tavern where, after an indignant neighbor complained, operations were temporarily suspended before the bar really had a chance to defend itself.
As a transplant who feels such a strong sense of responsibility to respect and contribute to the culture to which I owe so much, it’s hard to watch that kind of entitlement. It is so much more so when you consider that for post-Katrina transplants, it is especially important to behave conscientiously. It takes time for a new arrival to truly wrap their mind around the scale of devastation caused by the storm (and the criminally incompetent official response), and the almost inhuman effort it took the current residents to come back. But after you hear enough stories, you begin to glimpse the magnitude. In order to be sensitive to those who have gone through it, we have to participate in their process of rebuilding the city. If you can bring fresh energy and appreciation to their hard work, it seems to me that a transplant can be useful here. If instead you come to the city to implement your own agenda under the guise of bringing progress, then your presence does more harm than good. In the end, it just comes down to listening to those who have been here longer. And since no one knows how to tell a better story than a New Orleanian, you can trust me, the pleasure will be all yours.