These past weeks, the media has been saturated with pieces on the ten-year anniversary of Katrina. In the August 24 issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick introduces Alec Soth’s photo portfolio, “City of Water,” with one of my favorite Lafcadio Hearn quotes: “It is better to live here [in New Orleans] in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” In another piece on the same issue, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for those who bettered themselves by leaving the city post-Katrina (“Starting Over”). Both opinions and stories need to be included when talking about New Orleanians in the wake of Katrina—those who left and improved their lives in Houston and Atlanta and elsewhere, and on the other hand, the mentality that many New Orleanians hold, that there is no place else.
That impossible dilemma, to leave or stay during the storm, is not one I ever had to face. I moved to New Orleans in late August 2008, three years after Katrina, into a freshman dorm room at Tulane. It took me about two seconds to fall in love with the city. It was my choice to move to New Orleans for college, and now it is my choice to move back, eight years later, after three years in New York for graduate school.
This time I won’t be back to take classes, but to teach them.
As an undergraduate, I knew what my role in the city was: I was there to study and explore and figure stuff out. I was a newcomer, a white, middle class eighteen-year-old with an amount of privilege. I used this privilege both to work in my favor (being able to trust the cops that patrolled my neighborhood; flying home for two hurricanes on my parents’ dime) and to work toward change (volunteering at a local high school; working against the stereotype of Tulane students as binge-drinking, rich, rude kids who never left Uptown). But ultimately, I was, simply, a student.
I am still a white, middle class transplant, but this time I am an adult moving back to New Orleans to teach in the nation’s ground zero of school districts, for a highly criticized teaching program. How do I help contribute to the rebirth of the city I love while making sure that I am not killing off what makes New Orleans what it is? How do I not romanticize “what makes New Orleans what it is?” Is moving to the Bywater or the Freret Street Corridor or the Treme aiding in gentrification? Is commanding a classroom after five weeks of training helpful to my future students, or detrimental? How do I work within my role to act as an advocate for New Orleans?
Some of my opinions on these questions do not align with the opinions of my friends. For example, I have no desire to move to the Bywater, Freret, or the Treme. This is not because I don’t love dancing to second line parades down North Claiborne on Sunday mornings or biking to the Freret Street Festival, but because I don’t want to be responsible for raising rents for residents of these neighborhoods that have been living there pre-Katrina. I have plenty of friends who live here, and they cite cheap rents; safer streets in the past few years; and a blossoming of new coffee shops, restaurants, and local boutiques. Living in New York has given me a crash course in gentrification, and I don’t want to push out the New Orleanians who make the city what it is, even if I would be doing so unconsciously.
I read about New Orleans public education, and I continue to educate myself on the city’s history, a habit I fell into in college. As I re-read Accidental City, Bienville’s Dilemma, The World That Made New Orleans, and Lafcadio Hearn’s collected writings, I focus on the difficult parts—the slave markets, the environmental destruction, Jim Crow, corrupt politics. I don’t want to be a young, white transplant who treats New Orleans as a clean slate when it is the exact opposite, an incredibly layered, complicated place with a history that should never be ignored or swept away. It is important to me to face the darker parts of the city’s history, even if I can’t come to terms with them.
Lafcadio Hearn and I can make comments about how we’d rather live in New Orleans penniless than live anywhere else. But it’s easy for us to say—we were not the New Orleanians Gladwell writes about, the low-income residents who used losing their homes as a way to rebuild themselves in safer, more affluent cities. When he was done writing about New Orleans, Hearn hopped on a ship to Japan to find new characters to write about. If I decide to leave, I will be able to—I already have, once.
I am moving back for good though this time. Reading all of the recent pieces about the ten-year anniversary has sealed the deal—New Orleans is perpetually on my mind. But I want to make sure that I do it right. I can romanticize the city and treat it as a beautiful, cheap playground of open container laws and new bars with Edison bulbs and infused vodkas, or I can work to find my own place in it while respecting what has come before me. There are a million problems in this city I love, and I want to make sure that I am working to fix them instead of creating more.
Sophie Unterman is an MFA candidate and creative writing instructor at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Jewish Daily Forward, Deep South, and the Toast.