New Orleans is an impossible place, a place up against the odds environmentally and long forgotten economically, a place where vanishing wetlands have left the city’s chin exposed and guard down like a tired prizefighter and with the next big storm playing the role of knockout blow. A bastion of crime and poverty, the city has been up against the odds since Bienville tried to carve out a home here. Then it was yellow fever, today the epidemic is violence. It takes a special sacrifice to live here, and is not for the faint of heart.
So why live here? Why live in a town where the job market perennially stinks – whether or not the national economy is tanking – the levees leak like sieves, the public education is comparable to Bolivia, the murder rate is akin to Mogadishu and the government is rotten like a festering Katrina-soaked house in the Lower 9?
I asked all of this and more to Nathan Rothstein, a young man who arrived in New Orleans from Boston when the floodwaters of Katrina ebbed.
In fact, Rothstein spends most of his days convincing young people to stay here and others to come. Is he on drugs? Not that I could tell. He seemed pretty level-headed, just another person, who, for better or for worse, fell under the spell of New Orleans.
A 24-year-old man, Rothstein heads NOLA YURP -- the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiatives -- a job network that connects young people with one another in New Orleans and whose mission is “to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans,” according to the website, which is quite the challenge pre-Katrina, but an even greater one post-Katrina, as people scattered all over the country, many to never return.
With a membership of over 2,800 people, the organization was started in spring of 2007, when he, Zach Kupperman and Ross Cantor started a website that featured young people and why they were here. They created a social network, where people could share job information and leads. He had been speaking to young students and many were looking for opportunities in the city but didn’t know where to look. The idea was born and planned to counteract the negative press New Orleans was getting from the Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill murders.
The Wild, Wild West
“It was empty, and there were not many people here. It kinda had that wild, wild west feel to it,” he said of his early reactions of being in the city. “I was also around a group of people – some came to help out and were struck by what happened, some came because there was really nothing else to do.”
Two weeks removed from UMass-Amherst, he arrived in June of 2006, ten months after the Big One, working for Americorps gutting homes, settling in the rough and tumble, heavily flooded Tulane-Gravier area of Mid-City, but quickly became interested in rebuilding plans, such as the UNOP meetings.
“I went to every neighborhood meeting possible,” he said. Rothstein had wanted to get involved in city planning and organizing in college and here was a city with its canvas wiped clean, a perfect opportunity for a young man ready to change the world straight out of college.
“The city was basically investing in people,” he said of the input that was being asked at planning meetings, and that stirred the juices for him to want to stay. “They were raising the expectations for what people can do.”
Looking back to find that moment that crystallized his desire to stay, he recalled the UNOP plans he was participating in and attending: “At those moments when it was like, ‘What do you think would be best?’ or ‘How can we work together to make things happen?’ that was when I had feeling that I want to be a part of this.”
He went home for a week to Boston, but said that it didn’t feel the same. He quickly returned.
Saying that it was exciting being at the table, fresh from college, as plans were being drawn up to rebuild in New Orleans, he, however, quickly learned changing the world or fixing New Orleans wouldn’t be so easy.
“At the first UNOP meeting you could already see it going wrong,” he said. “They invited the whole city and put it in a room for 200 people.” What he was finding out was there wouldn’t be a social utopia built from the ashes; rather it was the decades-long divisions – class, race, politics and neighborhoods – that stratify the city emerging once more. Just like Rothstein, others saw the Katrina as their moment too, a moment to settle old scores, or grab power in a vacuum, or return power to the elite who run the city. It was a lesson no classroom could teach, but he was not deterred, and he isn’t now, feeling there could be ways to overcome those boundaries.
In addition to being apart of New Orleans’ rebirth, the culture grabbed him as well, especially the party atmosphere that many seek out in the city. While he sought to help create order in the city, the chaotic nightlife was an early attraction. “There are even less boundaries -- there are no rules,” he said of the nightlife which rivaled and surpassed the party school culture of UMass. “You can go out every single night of the week until 4, 5, 6 in the morning, and, I remember, we did.”
After the initial buzz wore off from lax rules and late nights at Ms. Mae’s, Rothstein learned something important enjoying those nights on Frenchmen Street, seeing music and having a good time. “There is something about a city, even now, that everyone that is here, in someway or another is connected in the sense they’re all sacrificing to be here: the roads don’t work, the health care is inadequate, the schools are bad, the job market is lousy. You’re probably making less than what some of your peers are making in New York and Boston.”
But with all of these problems, Rothstein believes, there is a bond unlike those other places that keeps the important sacrifice alive and the city relevant, and it burns in the hearts of many outsiders and natives alike.
So why sacrifice? Why not move somewhere else where the grass is greener, aside from the unique culture?
"There is a certain opportunity in the city right now because there is no blueprint for how to rebuild a city,” he said. “History is happening right now, and we’re going to look back and talk about this forever. The case that I make to young people, whether they’re from here or not, is you have the chance to be doing this -- given the responsibility -- that people won’t give you for 5, 10 years.”
(WWL-TV.com is profiling the new New Orleanians, people who have moved to the city post-Katrina for a variety of reasons, from charity causes to capitalist ones. If you know someone who has moved to the city since the storm, contact us and tell why this person should be profiled at email@example.com)