Jed Horne: Yes, our city has become smaller – but it has also found a surplus of spirit


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New Orleans – with its penchant for masked revelry, secret societies and private lives lived behind veils of wrought iron and shuttered windows – has always been a city of mystery. And since Hurricane Katrina, a great deal of attention has been focused on an enigma of some consequence: How many people actually live here? And who are they?

The questions bristle with political and economic implications, which in a city like New Orleans inevitably provoke twinges of racial anxiety.

Had the city's élites, as accused, toyed with post-disaster recovery strategies in ways to keep the low-income, largely black "underclass" from returning in such large numbers?

Are people inhabiting the hulks of houses ruined in the flooding and assumed to be abandoned? Did the suddenly homeless pile in with kith and kin to share phones, electrical and postal services in ways that made these traditional population measures unreliable?

The 2010 census figures give at least a best-guess answer to these questions – not that the numbers will go entirely uncontested. From street-level here in New Orleans, the gloss on the numbers is this: the city's 29 per cent drop in population is severe, though less so in the context of the overall metropolitan region, now judged to be only 10 per cent smaller. Yes, the city is less black than it was, but at 60 per cent, African Americans maintain demographic dominance. The surge in Latino residents is impressive – an influx of 33,500.

The paradox at the heart of the data dump has to be that a city now confirmed to have undergone such a sharp population loss could be enjoying such a heady sense of redemption and vitality – and against the backdrop of a devastating national recession.

The opiate against economic pain to some degree is surely the government guilt money for rebuilding the city inundated when the federal levee system failed after the hurricane in 2005. To cite just a couple of examples, the city's entire public school system is about to be rebuilt courtesy of the federal government, at a cost of $2bn (£1.24bn). At a comparable price, a replacement medical complex is about to go up. These are huge sums for a relatively small city, and do not mention the billions already going into storm and flood defence.

But there is more to the heady zeitgeist of New Orleans than jobs and money. At least as important is a kind of survivors' joy. A sense of purpose and possibility has jolted New Orleans from the corrupting subtropical torpor to which it once felt doomed. Far more of the thieves who traditionally governed this place are being packed off to prison. New businesses are popping up without as many palms needing to be greased.

A cohort of talented, restless, and, largely, privileged young people have flocked to New Orleans, drawn by a sense of adventure and purpose. The flip side of the new economy is the persistence of murderous violence related to the street-level drug trade

Mysteries remain, of course. What happens when the last of the recovery money is gone? The central question posed by the census data is laced with a residual sadness: How many of those who left – the city's most vulnerable citizens among them – still struggle to return as the good times roll? Has Katrina's stamp on a shrunken city become permanent?

Jed Horne lives in New Orleans and is author of 'Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City'

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