I remember a strange feeling as I lay down to sleep on the first few nights of this new year. I had a nice break over the holidays. My parents visited. We caught up with friends. I survived the worst hangover ever. And a strange feeling came over me. I’m not sure what that feeling was, but I think it was — happiness. I thought about how screwed up things were here, how slow the recovery was going, but in spite of that I felt a sense of personal contentment. Things were taking longer than we hoped, but at least they were headed in the right direction. I was involved in the community, helping to rebuild, with the love of my life by my side. Who could ask for anything more?
That feeling seems very far away now.
I wasn’t born here in New Orleans. I wasn’t raised anywhere near here. I’ve got no family here. I didn’t fall in love with the city and decide to move here. I came for a job.
Prior to moving here, New Orleans was something of a cultural blind spot for me. I had little in the way of preconceived notions. I simply had no idea what New Orleans was all about.
As soon as I arrived here, I felt at home. I wouldn’t say I “fell in love” with the city. That’s sappy. I’ve tried never to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities of life in New Orleans. But I did feel at home here, like I belonged in some way, almost like I’d always been here. I felt a sense of wonder at what a strange and unique place this is.
I don’t feel that anymore. Now the only thing I’m wondering about is:
Why am I here?
I keep trying to remember the things I loved, or thought I loved, about this city.
Great Creole cuisine? But I’ve lost my appetite.
Carnival? But I don’t feel like celebrating.
Beautiful architecture? I just don’t care anymore.
The subtropical climate? Yes, I’m one of those crazy people who likes hot weather. But what with the hurricanes and all… no… can’t say I’m a fan.
The people. Wasn’t it the people of New Orleans I loved the most? Yes, there are great people here. But there are also killers.
Why am I here? Coming back after the flood was a leap of faith. I thought New Orleans had a fighting chance. I thought maybe it could even improve. I wanted to be a part of that.
Now the recovery seems not just slow but flat-out stalled. Did you see the article in the New York Times Sunday?
Some economists and demographers are beginning to wonder whether New Orleans will top out at about half its prestorm population of about 444,000, already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960 Census. At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are likely to be small.
“It will be a trickle based on what we know now,” said Elliott Stonecipher, a consultant and demographer based in Shreveport, La. “Low tens of thousands, over three or four or five years, something in that range. I would say we could start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn’t get high visibility.”
Jesus, that’s depressing. The whole article makes me feel foolish for ever thinking we could bounce back. We were a “basket case” before the disaster, and as a rule disasters don’t heal. They destroy. That’s why they’re disasters.
Why am I here?
An object at rest tends to stay at rest. I still have my job. We still own a house. Starting over is hard. Leaving would entail all kinds of hassles, not least of which is admitting I was wrong. So… there’s a certain inertia that keeps us here.
Inertia has guided much of my life, which might be one reason I felt at home in New Orleans. But inertia is not enough now.
We’re not packing up yet. Not by a long shot.
I am searching for good reasons to stay.