For New Orleans, Resiliency is Not Just a District

If ever there was a metaphor for New Orleans, it was 75-year old “Mac” Rebennack—Dr. John to most of you—drenched in rain, playing “Goodnight, Irene” Saturday afternoon for his soggy, slip-sliding fans stuck in the muck of the New Orleans Fair Grounds.

His set was cut short, but he returned Sunday to acknowledge his friend and cultural godfather of songwriting influence in America: Allen Toussaint.

If you’re a fan of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, or the Rolling Stones, you have New Orleans’ prodigal son and multi-genre music producer Allen Toussaint to thank. As New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell headliner Bonnie Raitt put it, “His musical genius has touched the far corners of the world.” Toussaint is just one example of how the city’s melting-pot culture flows through the veins of what makes America, so… well, American.

Despite monumental losses, disasters only bring the city closer, breathing more life and meaning into each day. In the spirit of celebrating—and often acquiescing to dance—it’s the rich heritage that has charged a rebirth of New Orleans as “Silicon Bayou” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The region is known for fearlessness when it comes to new sounds and also an unwavering loyalty to history. Writer Colleen Mondor once asked, “What kind of place encourages such risk takers and yet demands and receives a respect for the past?”

In Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, she wrote, “By its very nature, the music of New Orleans often inspires a gut response among its listeners. As it is based so heavily in the voices of those who lost everything, in the memories of the Acadians, the African Americans, in the poor of all races and the hopeless of every class, it commands a circumspect moment from those who seek it out.”

Bonnie, Neville brothers, Dr. John, Jon Batiste, and Toussaint’s family members gathered, mid-thunderstorm on the last day of Jazz Fest, to honor Toussaint. While us Jazz Fest attendees were slogging through the mud, the tribute kicked off with “There’s a Party Going On”.

Similarly, when Louisiana comes to mind, it’s difficult to appreciate the full-bodied historical context of the place.

Sure, you traverse French Quarter cobblestone streets, pass the oldest Cathedral in the U.S.—Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, which was founded just a few years after tea was first introduced to America and two years before the Alamo was erected—and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up amongst the raised tombs in the city’s centuries-old cemeteries: it’s hard to comprehend that this American city is coming up on its tricentennial.

In the land of Abita beer, hot sauce, seafood, and bountiful imports, Cajun country traditions and Creole cooking have permeated contemporary culture as a melange of Spanish, Native American, African, Italian, and German concepts. Can you get any more American than that?

Throw in the sixth largest port in the U.S. and the busiest port system on the world’s busiest waterway—Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River—the Port of New Orleans is the United States’ premier coffee handling port, with 14 warehouses, over 5.5 million square feet of storage, and six roasting facilities within a 20-mile radius. New Orleans is home to Silocaf of New Orleans Inc., the world’s largest automated coffee silo plant, as well as the U.S.’s first green coffee silo, Dupuy Storage.

Who could have imagined that three simple ingredients—red Tabasco mash, vinegar, and a pinch of salt—could be one of America’s most prolific exports? Tabasco debuted shortly after the Civil War. The first commercially-sold hot sauce has been made just a couple hours’ drive from New Orleans by the same family for five generations.

When the mixing of cultures become a tradition, the results are nothing less than spectacular. Just as the legacy of Louis Armstrong surfaces in Jazz Fest’s reigning headliner, Trombone Shorty—who too was raised in Satchmo’s Treme neighborhood—the delectable combination of history, heritage, and hard times results in arts, innovation, and tenacity that are uniquely New Orleans.

The peak of Louisiana’s oil production kicked off in 1902, peaking in 1970. With the implementation of levees and canals came the diversion of the Mississippi’s sediment flow, leading to a sinking sensation, best known as subsidence. This was all put in place to bolster the region’s flourishing oil industry, however New Orleans has lost 2,400 jobs since May 2016. Louisiana as a whole has lost 16,000 jobs as of April 2016, after a steep decline over the course of nine months.

As the oil and gas industries downsize, the Port of New Orleans is substantially growing stronger.

According to American Shipper, the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal transported 99,568 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) during March and April, which is more than it has ever transported during any two months in the port’s history. The Port of New Orleans contributes 160,500 total jobs, $8 billion in earning, $800 million in taxes statewide, and responsible for $37 billion in national economic impact.

Why the Future of the Crescent City Matters

In Realtor’s top destinations for millennials on the move, New Orleans is ranked sixth in the country. With median home prices at $219,000 and an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, it sounds rosy compared to the exorbitant cost of living in Los Angeles, New York, and the Bay Area.

Thousands of new residents are heading to the Crescent City. Coming out of Katrina, President and CEO of New Orleans Inc. Michael Hecht explained, “A totally new level of expectation of leadership in simply the management on the political side, on the business side, on the civic side is much better than it’s been in probably 40 years.

“We are number one in the country for population growth. Number two for GDP growth. Number one for growth in exports. Number one for fastest growth in digital. We are number one, probably most importantly, for in-migration of millennials: over 44,000 over the past five years and that number keeps growing.”

The vertical growth in the city’s young educated population is helping to spearhead a resilient movement when it comes to the culture of innovation in New Orleans. In the last couple years alone the city has been ground zero for cutting edge technology and a Tabasco-hot startup scene. Last year, the self-proclaimed fastest growing tech conference, Collision, landed in the city for the first time.

The eight-day New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) kicked off in 2009 and saw monumental growth in 2016, with over 13,000 attendees, $648,430 in allocated capital and in-kind resources, and 185 startup ventures showcased. The coinciding gentrification is not simply for the sake of money chasing: this generation is thriving in the “low cost, high culture” environment New Orleans offers.

Tim Williamson, the Co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village, used his deep love of his city to lead and envision an innovative festival dedicated to entrepreneurs through NOEW. “What we’re all creating is a new movement as a startup city, and NOEW has become part of our cultural calendar,” he said.

“Our goal is to create a platform that engages all sectors of the community,” added Williamson.

“I think that the millennials are some of the most mission-driven people I’ve ever met. It’s consistent, you see it over and over again. That the typical millennial today wants to do well by doing good, and they want that doing good to be substantive,” added Hecht.

Julia Good, Gulf Coast Editor for HARK—a multimedia website covering tech, startups, and innovation in the Southern U.S.—pointed out that the resilience of the people of New Orleans is the most dynamic factor that fosters innovation.

Good covers diversity and inclusion in the emerging startup and tech sectors in this region. While New Orleans’ most thoughtful entrepreneurial leaders admit they’re not where they want to be yet, Good shared, “There is a real commitment by influential people to keep as much talent here in New Orleans as possible.”

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, plenty of problems exist that didn’t get cleansed by the flood. A town of innovation has emerged from New Orleans’ resiliency. “Even now,” Good said, “It’s a very strange mix of the most grave and dark forces in life that coexist with all this lightness and celebration, almost an old world way of looking at life.”

Good added, “We’re about to come up on New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018. It’s going to be a whole year of celebrating and collaborating. There’s going to be a year-long, international spotlight on the New New Orleans. The really interesting stuff is going to be what happens after that.”

Similar to reality-tv star and unanimous queen of bounce music—who you may know from a cameo in Beyonce’s “Formation” music video—Big Freedia’s tendency to flip traditional hip-hop on its head, ambassadors of New Orleans’ entrepreneurial scene embrace unconventional methods to invite engagement. Her music beckons everyone to have fun, get motivated, and love what you’re doing.

What resounding lesson did I take away from my first Jazz Fest experience…besides investing in an industrial strength poncho and rain boots?

Take a note from the effervescent, melodica-brandishing co-host of CBS’ Late Show, Jon Batiste. Whatever you’re doing, make sure that you have plenty of room to “shimmy in your little area.”

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