The Big Easy

New Orleans is living out an experiment: what happens when one of the most extraordinary cities in the U.S.—one of the most distinctive cities in the entire world, even—is forced by a natural disaster to rebuild itself. How will it introduce the new without destroying the old?

Most residents would probably argue that New Orleans needs a revitalized infrastructure; even before 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, parts of the city languished behind others. The challenge planners face is revitalizing and infilling those parts of the city without destroying the spirit of New Orleans that has emerged and endured across hundreds of years of diversity, struggle, and success.

Which is not to say that other cities don’t experience this problem. Every neighborhood where there is revitalization, there is a preexisting community that feels threatened by gentrification. Usually it is communities that have worked towards the things revitalization brings—grocery stores, new small businesses, enhanced transportation systems—who are upset that it took an infusion of new resident (who are often white) to bring this critical services, and that longtime residents (who are often people of color) will now be priced out of the neighborhood.

There are elements of this story in New Orleans. But there’s something more, too—something unique that has risen out of a human-scaled street grid, largely laid out before cars were even invented.

This became evident during my bike tour of the Lafitte Greenway. Led by Sophie Harris and Nellie Catzen, executive director and community health program coordinator from Friends of Lafitte Greenway, we rode along the 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail and green corridor that connects neighborhoods from Armstrong Park north to New Orleans City Park. It was incredibly impressive to see these two women speak so passionately about this project, which acts as so much more than a transportation corridor. It provides a focus for development, which helps in building more affordable housing; it helps connect customers to local businesses; it increases safety in the neighborhood by concentrating foot traffic; it is a tool to handle storm water runoff in an environmentally sustainable way; it improves public health by providing community space and enhancing recreational opportunities; all in a traditionally—and historically significant—African American neighborhood. I've seen many different approaches to these issues in the cities I've visited, but nowhere have I seen a singular development that addresses them all so comprehensively. 

Lafitte Greenway - Image courtesy Friends of Lafitte Greenway

This idea was driven home during my roundtable with University of New Orleans Transportation Institute research associate Tara Tolford, and Regional Planning Commission’s (RPC) pedestrian and bicycle program manager Dan Jatres, held in New Orleans’ ACE Hotel. They explained how they try to use research and data to better model how residents of the city are connecting, where the gaps are, and how they can address those problems. They also were very upfront that a lot of the great work they were able to do post-Katrina came from federal emergency funds. That source of funding has dried up, and the city and state are having to think about new models to accomplish the research, planning, and building they need to do.

Earlier that day, I was able to I was also able to speak with the RPC’s principal planner Karen Parsons, who showed me around New Orleans Passenger Union Terminal, talked about long-term planning for service expansion and additional frequencies, and took me on a bike tour of the city’s bike infrastructure, in both newly renovated neighborhoods like the Warehouse District and historic neighborhoods like the French Quarter. Karen is a longtime resident, and has seen New Orleans’ transportation system go through many phases—even serving on a prior incarnation of the Southern Rail Commission. It was exciting to see the progress the city’s rail system has made through her eyes.

What helped tie all these experiences together was a visit with Martin Pospisil, TransDev’s program manager for New Orleans Regional Transit Authority rail expansion and capital projects. From the commanding view of a conference room overlooking the newly constructed Poydras Street Station, Martin was able to give me an extensive overview of the NOLA streetcar system’s past, present and future. With the oldest continually operating rail line in the entire world, New Orleans certainly has a legacy to uphold. However, the city lost all but one line of its extensive streetcar network throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The RTA has led the charge in restoring key streetcar lines, launching a new service along the Riverfront Line as early as 1988. Their newest project, the Rampart Street line, was started in 2015 and is expected to be completed by the end of this year (which is really an amazing turnaround!). Interestingly not only has Martin helped oversee much of New Orleans’ streetcar expansion, he also played a key role in implementing the systems in many of the other cities I’ve visited, including Dallas and Charlotte, so it felt a little bit like meeting the man behind the curtain! 

When I heard I was headed to New Orleans for this trip, I was beyond excited but also incredibly nervous. A city so interwoven into the country's popular imagination—through its history, beauty, and myth—almost sets you up to be disappointed by the city's reality. On top of which, said city is still recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in modern U.S. history. For me, as a first-time visitor, I worried I had over-romanticized New Orleans. I can safely say, though, that thanks to some incredibly passionate and diligent people, the Big Easy completely enchanted me. And I predict that it will continue to enchant visitors for many years to come—all while serving the needs, of all of its residents, better than ever before. 

À la prochaine, NOLA. Don't be a stranger.

(As a postscript: I can’t recommend the food at Commander’s Palace highly enough. And I don't really have to, since it’s won the best restaurant in New Orleans three years in a row and been Zagat’s most popular restaurant 18 years running. Still. Go! And if you can arrange it, I would also recommend getting the Mississippi and Louisiana chairs of the Southern Rail Commission to help select the best dishes. You won’t regret it!)

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