It’s inevitable when visiting some other place to compare it to home, especially if that other place is your former home. I lived in Bloomington for thirteen years, and I’ve now lived in New Orleans for thirteen years, so I can’t resist a few elementary observations.
Xy and I never wanted to leave Bloomington, but we couldn’t find a way to stay there. We moved because I got a job, and as we left back in 1999 I remember thinking that after thirteen years I understood Bloomington. It’s a small enough city to be basically comprehensible. Erroneously or not, I felt I understood the basic processes by which decisions were made, the power structures and dynamics that governed the destiny of the city. Furthermore, I felt deep roots in Bloomington. It was a place I loved and a community where I belonged.
By contrast, New Orleans seemed huge and intimidating. The sheer size of the city meant that it had an correspondingly complex bureaucracy. But not only this. With its layers of history and unique culture, New Orleans seemed mysterious, opaque, inscrutable and incomprehensible. Despite feeling immediately “at home” here, I knew I would forever be an outsider. I was sure I would never, never understand New Orleans as I understood Bloomington.
And yet, how different things seem now. After thirteen years in the Crescent City, I feel pretty much as I did about Bloomington after thirteen years. There’s still plenty of mystery here, which I like, but I feel I basically get how things work here now. The political power structures and decision-making processes may be frustrating but they no longer seem occult. What’s more, I have that same sense of belonging here. Amazingly, I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like a New Orleanian, despite being born and raised in the Midwest.
I doubt it would have come to this but for the floods of 2005. We went to hell and back with this city. We saw every illusion stripped bare, the naked reality of how things function — or fail to function — exposed for all to see. And in the rebuilding, we rolled up our sleeves and got involved with our fellow citizens. We didn’t always agree but we met lots of people we’d have never known otherwise. I got woven into the social fabric that makes this place what it is.
Also, the scale difference between the two cities no longer seems so extreme. Bloomington has grown. New Orleans, which was shrinking when we moved here, was depopulated in 2005 and even the recent resurgence has not restored our previous numbers. According to the 2010 census, Bloomington is now 80,405 people and New Orleans 343,829. The differential is only a factor of 4¼. Granted, New Orleans has a substantial suburban population, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that most everyone agrees New Orleans feels like a pretty small town in some ways.
On this visit to Bloomington I was impressed by how picture-postcard perfect the city looked, especially downtown. It’s been a long time coming, and I’ve visited frequently enough over the years to see how it’s played out. The highrise residential buildings downtown were controversial in some quarters, but I can see how they’ve created the necessary density to sustain a vibrant (though small) urban core. When I lived there, downtown was a little rough around the edges, a little blight here and there, but now all properties seem to be in commerce and there’s a sense of vitality. By contrast New Orleans has 43,000 blighted properties, more than any other American city. I’ve had many interesting conversations with my friend and neighbor Anthony about this and ultimately I have to agree that while urban decay may be aesthetically compelling, it ain’t healthy.
I couldn’t help view things through the bike-ped lens. It’s only one of many ways to analyze a city, but when you’re riding around on a bicycle it feels pretty relevant. Of course there’s the B-Line, but there’s a lot more going on than that. I couldn’t turn around without bumping into a bike rack. New Orleans is making great progress on this front, but my default mode here is still that of the aggrieved, always complaining that we need to do more to make cycling safe and convenient. (This would be a good time for me to recommend you join Bike Easy.) And one need look no further than Bloomington’s numerous crosswalks to see that the city is making valiant efforts to give pedestrians the respect they deserve.
I’m not trying to paint an overly rosy picture. The crosswalks are apparently controversial. With the overall growth, I’m sure there are gentrification issues and growing pains. Sometimes the place seemed like a patchouli-scented, tofu-burger utopia. High praise in my book, but not everyone likes that. It can be a little Portlandia-esque. Groups like Bloomington Fading give eloquent testimony to the sense of loss some people feel in the face of the changes.
(Almost all the old manufacturing jobs are gone. So whence this seeming prosperity? Where does all the money come from, anyhow? I asked this of a dozen people and got a dozen different answers. My favorite: Bloomington is successful because it has cultivated a collective consciousness. Which sounds very flower-child but I think it’s probably as accurate as any of the other explanations I heard.)
Like I said, it’s been a long time coming. Somewhere in the ROX canon (#72?) you can hear me sing a Christmas carol parody that goes like this:
O little town of Bloomington
It’s sad to see just how
Thy once quite beat bohemian streets
Are upscale yuppie now
If that’s how we felt twenty years ago, imagine how much more residents feel that now. And yet, I remember hearing about how cool the south side of the square was before I arrived in the late 80s, before it was turned into an upscale shopping center.
A long time coming? Maybe it’s a continual process.
I could go on about the suburban sprawl and the uneasy relationship with the local deer population and other issues that were evident. On balance, though, Bloomington still strikes me as a lovely place to live. Especially in the summer, when all the students are gone and the temperatures are above freezing.
Part of me wants to move back. I’m sure Xy would be happier if we moved back; she lived in Bloomington for 30 years, all her life, before moving to New Orleans — where she’s worked as a teacher, not an easy career anywhere but surely harder here than there. Having my daughter in a decent school would be easier there. On the whole, I think life would be a lot easier in Bloomington than in the Big Easy. Bloomington has a rich culture of its own, and it’s just large enough I’d never feel bored.
But part of me also thinks: It’s almost too nice. I hate to admit it, but I’ve kind of gotten used to things being all kinds of messed up. As I rode through the streets of Bloomington, I found myself thinking: The biggest danger here is being lulled into complacency. That’s a nice problem to have, I suppose.
Here in New Orleans, especially since 2005, we’ve often had the sense that we are fighting for our survival. It’s not just the flood. It’s been one thing after another. The recent furor over the Sometimes-Picayune is merely the latest iteration. In our best moments we are struggling to make this a better city. In the worst times, it feels like we’re barely hanging on.
My question to the citizens of Bloomington — and I mean this in the highest and most constructive way possible — is this: What are you fighting for?