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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
What are we celebrating when we light candles? Presents, donuts, candles, family…what? Are we enjoying our assimilation into American culture where they have Christmas and we have Chanukah so we can see our family and get unwanted clothes (well, in my case, the only clothes that make me look presentable)? Or are we remembering a crucial moment in Jewish Identity history, when the fate of our people could go in two directions. Do we succumb to the Seleucid Empire and accept their customs or do we stay the people of one god and keep our traditions?
Where our story picks up, the Jewish people were having a problem. There was no strategic plan and the vision was lost. The massiveness and wealth of the Hellenistic Empire was rubbing off, and some Jews felt that the Jewish Priesthood was out of touch with new ideas. But Judah and his Maccabeus felt passionate about the preservation of our traditions. He probably thought what Herzl had believed many years later after the Dreyfuss Trial: no matter how much we assimilate, we will always be Jews. If we do not know our traditions or our history, who are we? And this question can lead to a new role for Hanukkah. I think these are the things that we should celebrate. We should ask ourselves, and talk to our friends and family about what will it mean to be Jewish in the future. What problems do we see and what can we do to change our internal problems within the Jewish leadership and how do we have better relations with outside communities?
Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Boston, I always felt uncomfortable when Hanukkah time came around. I knew my rich Jewish friends would receive gifts every night and my rich non-Jewish friends would receive excessive gifts with the latest in technology, music and anything else you could possibly want. But in my house, Hanukkah was not considered to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. I could see the struggle my parents had. Do we assimilate into the Americanized version of Hanukkah and give our children gifts or do we help shape their identity and allow them to appreciate how they are different? As I got used to the fact that I was not going to get a lot of presents, I would quickly reply to my friends questions about what new gift I would not be playing with, “ well, Hanukkah is not that big of a deal in our house.” But now I understand the importance.
As young people who are shaping our identity and our relationship to Judaism, we have to find parts of the story that are relevant. This story has everything to do with not assimilating and is once again a lesson to be learned. Nobody Jewish should tell us how we should practice Judaism, while at the same time, we cannot practice our religion based on what everyone else is doing. The oil burning for eight days is a nice story, but let’s also talk about the story of a problem, discontent amongst our people, and ultimately, what makes us unique as a Jewish people?
A lot of groups have come together to try to create a diverse coalition of young people who can act as ambassadors to the city. The people most likely to move to the city are recent college graduates and the people who are most likely to convince them are their peers. We have compiled a great group of steering committee members and are now calling for applicants to complete the team. We did not just want to make decisions about who would be the next leaders of the city, and instead are allowing everyone to apply. Our first event will be an Economic Development Tour on January 30th, where the team will meet with leaders from the business community, NASA, and the Port.
This past week, I spoke at Harvard and NYU about New Orleans. More than three years after the failure of the levees, New Orleans and its issues are still relevant to the rest of the country.
At Harvard, students were eager for knowledge about a place they had heard that needed them, but had no network to connect them to the city. For many students, who are idealistic and want to work to equal the playing field, Teach For America has done an extraordinary job of appealing to them. Some of the workshop participants were planning to go to New Orleans as part of the TFA corps, another was a football player from New Orleans, and there were also several young women who wanted to go to New Orleans, but did not know where to start in their job search.
During the undergraduate experience, college students spend hours developing their intellectual capital. They are reading, discussing, writing, thinking critically about current issues, but if they want to pursue their passion in fighting for economic and social justice, it is not clear how they can continue to grow intellectually as they enter the job world. In many cases, even in the non-profit and public service sector, their intellectual potential is not cultivated. I understand the importance of experience and building capacity through time spent on the job, but College career centers need to do a better job of figuring out ways to connect students to jobs that allow them to pursue their passion.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers, he writes about how great success can be attributed to “extraordinary opportunity.” New Orleans provides this opportunity for thousands of young people from around the country. The failure of levees was a tragic event that damaged 80% of the city, leaving an American city to have to rebuild itself from the ground up. With no precedent or guidebook, creative solutions were applied to solve the city’s most serious problems. The city is still ripe for change and is the perfect city for young people across the country to contribute to this revitalization and act as agents for change and advocates for the people of New Orleans.
Another exciting part of doing these workshops at college campuses, is to get people who are all interested in New Orleans, in the same room talking to each other and getting to hear what they are working on. In New York, the people in the room all were passionate about New Orleans- some were from New Orleans, some had spent time there, and some were moving there and wanted more information.
Instead of promoting an event with a flyer and facebook, I am working with the people at All Day Buffet to create a web page that explains the event, and then allows people to sign up. We can see who is coming, and then get their email. My friend Mike Karnjanaprakorn and I will speak to students about the exciting ideas and projects that are coming out of New Orleans and how they can get involved. RSVP here
Erin Fitzpatrick, came down in March 2008, to photograph Umass alumn in New Orleans. Here is her article.