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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NOLA's Ex-pats

In the months since Katrina stomped on New Orleans and the levees failed, something really strange has happened to some folks. We’re being called home.

Who are we? We’re the people who left – not in front of Katrina, but years ago - in search of other lives in new places. We didn’t just leave Orleans Parish; in many cases, we left the state altogether.

I can’t speak for all the others, but I know why I left. Poor education, crime, lack of job opportunities, racism – all of these were symptoms of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Really good reasons to find new horizons, yes? So why, now that the city has suffered such destruction and its very soul is at risk, would any of us heed the siren call of New Orleans?

Again, I can only answer for myself – but New Orleans is so much more than “just a place”. It’s a state of mind and a way of life that are utterly unique, and in the 17 years since I left SE Louisiana, I’ve never found anything to replace it.

That’s not for lack of trying, either. I’ve lived all over the country, from California to New York – and the closest I have come to replicating NOLA’s spirit of community was a remote village on the Canadian border. A very small town.

To outside observers, New Orleans would hardly qualify as a village. Orleans Parish alone had nearly half a million people – yet that’s exactly what it was. Each community was its own tightly-knit environment, where everyone knew “your people”, your history, your quirks… and accepted them. The roots of a place like that embed in the heart, and since Katrina, those damaged roots have been twisting inside of mine continually.

Sometimes – maybe even often - I’m guilty of looking back at Algiers, and New Orleans, through some highly tinted rose-colored glasses. My nostalgia for the past causes me to gloss the realities of murdered friends, racial confrontations, and dead-end job prospects.

What am I thinking, you must wonder, to want to go back? I’m thinking I can be part of the better tomorrow.

I’ve learned a lot in my wandering: that the fear and suspicion that drove race relations in the city are not how it has to be, that people can learn tolerance and embrace diversity. I've seen educational systems that work and criminal justice systems that are functional. I've seen well-funded, well-trained, and respected police departments that can keep its citizens safe. More to the point - I've been a part of many of these things, as have other NOLA ex-pats. While some concepts might be new to New Orleans, they are very familiar to those of us who have wandered.

Yes, New Orleans had some vicious flaws, but there are cures. By coming back, perhaps we can help the city achieve its promise while holding onto its soul and culture because we are a part of that very soul.

“rayinaustin” recently said it beautifully in a blog comment:

I have this dream of moving back and living in an integrated neighborhood and being friendly with the neighbors who look different from me. Of not avoiding driving down certain streets just because people tell me "it's pretty dark down that way". I want to go back and look at the city in a different way, now that I've lived in places that were more tolerant, and places that were less tolerant. I want to move back with some perspective.

Naïve? Maybe. Idealistic? Certainly. Hopeless? Absolutely not. Rather, I think it’s the very definition of hopeful. The soul of New Orleans lives in its people, and it is a beautiful soul.

I want to come home.