Right after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was emptied; we were all forced to leave. We then were all given a choice: to return or not return.
The strong, the feisty, the delusional or those living by our city’s myths and self-proclaimed “exceptionalism” chose to return. The weak hands folded and many moved on. But we who returned — we who were decried of our folly for our quixotic choice of lost causes – we became “us.” The others became “them.” You see, we chose sides.
For instance, before the meat even had thawed in the walk-in freezer after the storm, Ruth’s Chris moved its corporate headquarters from here to Orlando. Like many of you, I have never eaten at Ruth’s Chris since. That former New Orleans institution became “them” – and they were shunned by “us.”
Example Two: Emeril Lagasse disappeared and slammed the city from afar after the storm. He then experienced how we treat “them,” who were formerly part of “us.” He came back to “us” after coming to his senses, and we gave him a pass, forgave him and chalked it up to the all-too-familiar “Katrina Disorder.”
During those difficult times after Katrina, two institutions in particular filled the leadership void: The Times-Picayune and Tulane University. After the storm, the TP was our voice. Its staff brought us the news, “come hell and high water.” Tulane University, its president, Scott Cowen, and others there helped remake our educational system, and Tulane’s students and faculty worked together with us to gut houses and rebuild our city.
But now one of those leaders, one of our cherished institutions, has been disemboweled. It has been subjected to an experiment its New York owners have defended as the inevitable result of the digital age. However, the Newhouses, the quintessential “them,” underestimated “us.” They failed to foresee what to “us” was the obvious reaction to what we saw as a misguided makeover: A shunning. Thousands have cancelled their TP subscriptions. Many, out of orneriness, have subscribed to the New Orleans edition of The Advocate. Others have eschewed the (to me) unnavigable TP website, NOLA.com, for other local sites, including this one edited by my wife.
You see, Steven Newhouse, et al., we who returned are feisty and passionate. We will not allow “them” to befoul what we cherish, and we will shun you if you do.
Juxtaposed with the TP mess is Tulane and its beleaguered football program. For some serendipitous reason, I found myself deciding at the last minute this past weekend to attend the Tulane-SMU football game. Although a graduate of Tulane Law, I have not attended a Tulane football game for years. At best there were 2,500 fans in attendance at the game. Tulane football was in the midst of the nation’s longest losing streak, at 15 games.
But, like a true New Orleanian, such a “lost cause” did not dissuade but rather inspired me. Those college kids on that team, led by New Orleanian Curtis Johnson, fought hard in that game on that October afternoon, coming from behind in the last 35 seconds to win by one point.
You see, that team, those kids, that university are part of “us.” Just as the Newhouses tore apart one of our leading institutions, that losing football team represented a significant and vibrant institution in our community. Those Tulane students who were fighting, no matter how difficult during a losing cause of a season – who played in front of a scattering of Willow Street diehards — represent the best part of “us.” Just as their injured teammate, Devon Walker, is fighting in a rehab center. That Tulane football team, no matter how over-matched, deserves our support. I don’t know about you, but I plan on buying four season tickets next year to Tulane football.
Because they are us, and we need to stand together, against all of those who aren’t.
Stewart Peck is a New Orleans attorney and husband of NolaVie editor Renee Peck.