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Big Easy Living: A new social consciousness in New Orleans

I received an email from a friend last week, alerting me that, a national deal site whose co-founder and COO is from New Orleans, would be promoting the recycled designer goods of REpurposing NOLA today and tomorrow. You might remember the company as the one that took all the Superbowl banners from the stadium in Miami after the Saints’ win there and made shorts and duvets and shower curtains out of them.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how far in the past few decades we New Orleanians have come in matters of social awareness.

When I moved to New Orleans in 1975, there were many things I instantly loved about the city. Environmental consciousness was not among them.

Every day I walked from my Bourbon Street apartment to my job at The Historic New Orleans Collection, stepping over gutters filled with trash (and the occasional drunk) and crossing the street to avoid spray streams of water from sleepy restaurant owners out hosing the sidewalks of the previous evening’s detritus.

Back then, few people worried about wetlands loss, energy costs, or the half-life of plastic bags. It was common to see cigarette butts or beer cans fly from the window of the car in front of you. Ours was not a place high on social awareness. New Orleans, as I’ve said before, is a city where people tend to live in the moment.

As Scarlett said, tomorrow.

Of course, tomorrow arrived on Aug. 29, 2005.

There’s nothing like a 100-foot-high overnight landfill on the neutral ground of West End Boulevard – piled with Katrina’s offal: tree trunks, crushed drywall, rusty refrigerators — to make you think about things like conspicuous consumption and hazardous waste and what happens to our possessions in their afterlives.

In an interesting flip side to that coin, many of us discovered a new sport after the storm: curbside dumpster diving. I still have a tarnished metal planter and a rolling acrylic stand that I rescued from Katrina heaps. After I tossed my own flood-soaked furnishings on the curb, I glanced out the window the next morning and saw that our moldy leather sectional had disappeared overnight, presumably hauled away in the bed of a pickup by someone with more stamina for leather-resuscitation than me.

Suddenly, we were recycling on a whole new level.

A heightened awareness of our effect on our environment surfaced post-Katrina, too. We started talking about paperless drywall to combat mold, sprayfoam insulation and solar panels to lower energy costs, low-VOC paint and tankless water heaters.

Of course, having some 800,000 flood-destroyed residences makes you think of better ways to build. And certainly we were riding a national trend toward better environmental caretaking.

But I think it also made us feel a little more in control of our environment. This time we could build higher, better, dryer.

When Mother Nature rises up and slaps you in the face, you learn to take her seriously.

So our psyches changed after Katrina, and in measurable ways.

The grassroots effort to clean up the environment after the storm helped consolidate a more socially responsible attitude: The Katrina Krew organized neutral ground cleanups; school groups gutted moldy houses; volunteers replanted parks.

I remember, in 2006, when former Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, who had his finger firmly on the pulse of the city, became a litter vigilante. In one of his best columns ever, he recounts madly stalking a trash perpetrator at his local Circle K.

Now, almost six years after Katrina, we’re in a different place. We’re not so angry, but more thoughtful. We have a new population of young professionals, not only dedicated to environmental causes, but turning profits from them.

When I went looking for paperless drywall right after the storm, I had to go to Atlanta to find it.

Now, Louisiana’s solar energy tax credit is a model for the nation. New Orleans has companies devoted to bamboo products and slow food and insulation made from old jeans, as well as a “green light” district of eco-friendly shops along lower Magazine Street. takes the concept to the web, limiting its vendors to socially responsible companies “doing their part to make the world a better place.” The buzz word is “social entrepreneurship,” and I’m glad it’s getting some play here in New Orleans.

Even our old bad habits are getting a social entrepreneurship spin.

A friend recently told me about an incident in which a local bus driver tossed a soft-drink can out the door of his bus. An irate passenger demanded that he pick it up, to which he replied, “Can’t; there’s a guy comes along and picks up cans for money. It’s how he makes his living.” The passenger insisted, and the driver reluctantly collected his can.

“Just takin’ money out of a man’s pocket,” he muttered.


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