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New Orleans has a spring in its step.

I was happy to find, over Memorial Day weekend in New Orleans for a friend’s wedding, that the city appears to be doing better. Much better.

As much was conveyed to me by our taxi driver, a sweet older woman in a brightly colored muumuu who hummed to the jazz music on the radio between our exchanges. I told her I had first traveled there for business in spring, 2008 and returned later that summer. Almost three years had passed since Hurricane Katrina, but the city felt like something terrible had just happened.

No one was walking around in the Business District or Garden District, and what few drunken convention attendees and bachelor parties there were to be found in the French Quarter made the place feel all the more depressing. I stayed at a boutique hotel, a huge studio loft, and a W, all for around $100 a night, which was indicative of a weak local economy. A work contact drove me around what had once been the Ninth Ward but was then mostly cracked cement stairs leading to rotting houses or nothing at all. She showed me Habitat For Humanity’s first completed housing area, dubbed Musicians’ Village, and it was small. Philanthropic attention had long since moved elsewhere.

I started to tear up as we passed the convention center in the taxi cab, and the driver and I had a moment. But as we pulled further into the city, I noticed something was different. There were people everywhere.

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I was nervous about going to New Orleans. The alumni I work with are so proud of their city, protective of its reputation against outsiders the way an older sibling might defend a younger. But at the same time, they’re frustrated with it. They’ll say that they’ve moved on and that the city and its spirit would need a lot more than a hurricane to be raveled, but that a day doesn’t go by that they don’t feel the damage of Katrina. I hear that the residents unite in solidarity despite socioeconomic disparity and difference of race, but I know that the population is not even two-thirds of what it was before Katrina, and that the remaining homeless are predominantly African-American and very, very poor. Was the gap narrowed or exasperated? I don’t know. The city is encouraging tourism to reinvigorate its economy, and it is working. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest still attract spring breakers and music lovers in strong numbers, and convention facilities are booking well. But it feels a little forced. These are survivors and victims.

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