New Orleans' Post-Katrina Identity Crisis

The Big Easy is back. But what does that mean now?

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana--Hotel rooms are booked. The convention center is packed. Throngs of revelers spill out of jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street.

New Orleans is alive and thriving. Or so it seems. Nearly a decade has passed since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and displaced more than 400,000 New Orleanians. Billions of federal dollars have poured in to rebuild the Big Easy, along with thousands of volunteers and immigrant day laborers. Now the city boasts several Forbes top rankings, such as #1 Brainpower City and Fastest Growing City Since the Recession.

But away from the French Quarter, New Orleans is not the same place it once was. The famously African-American city has gotten whiter and more Hispanic. Townhouses have popped up where housing projects once stood, pushing poor, black residents to the suburbs to find cheaper rent--or to homeless camps under the city's highways.

Outside grocery stores and apartments, immigration agents frequently detain and fingerprint Central American workers who settled in New Orleans after cleaning up the mess Katrina left behind. Latinos now outnumber the city's established community of Vietnamese refugees, who are keeping the Louisiana shrimping industry afloat after a double hit from Katrina and the BP oil spill. Then there's the influx of the so-called white "YURPS" (Young, Urban, Recovery Professionals).

This is the new New Orleans, and it's going through a bit of an identity crisis.

"It's a melting pot, but there are still very problematic issues we have to deal with regarding race," says Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, an African-American lawyer and former district court judge, whose district includes the historic French Quarter and Tremé neighborhood. "Not everybody has enjoyed the glut that's come to our city."

African Americans, who made up two-thirds of the city's population before Katrina, are fighting to regain the political influence they lost after the hurricane displaced thousands of working-class black families. Ramsey's election in March was celebrated for returning the city council to a black majority for the first time since the disaster.

Now African Americans make up slightly more than half of the city's population, and they've had a tense—even hostile—relationship with the thousands of Latino immigrants recruited to clean up and rebuild the city. (An estimated 10,000 to 14,000 Latino workers had moved to New Orleans within a year of Katrina, according to a study by professors at Tulane University and University of California, Berkeley.) Black workers blamed the newcomers from Honduras and Guatemala for taking construction jobs and keeping wages down. This racial tension captured national attention in 2005 when former Mayor Ray Nagin made his infamous promise to return New Orleans to a "Chocolate City."

Since then, Nagin has gone to prison for public corruption and racial hostilities have softened. Nagin's successor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has helped shift the tone with his push for racial unity as the first white mayor of New Orleans in more than three decades. The city's black residents have also grown more tolerant--even sympathetic, in some cases--of their Latino neighbors.

"[Latinos] are part of the community and people know they are not going away, so we are getting to know each other," said Alfred Marshall, an organizer for STAND with Dignity, a non-profit group that represents low-income, mostly African-American workers.

The number of Latinos in New Orleans has increased by 40 percent since 2000, census data shows. In suburban Jefferson Parish, the number jumped 75 percent. That growth has continued despite Louisiana's high rate of deportations. The state ranks second after Georgia for issuing the largest percentage of deportation orders, according to 2014 data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Most of the people ordered to leave come from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Despite the high deportation rate, the total number of deportation orders in Louisiana dropped in half in the last five years, data show, and about half of those cases involved people with a criminal conviction.

But instead of hiding in fear, hundred of undocumented immigrants in New Orleans have spoken out against what they see as racial profiling and police harassment of law-abiding families. The Congress of Day Laborers, which represents the city's reconstruction workers, draws more than 400 people to its weekly meetings at a church gym near the Lower Ninth Ward. Recent guests have included the mayor, the police chief, and the Orleans Parish sheriff.

In 2013, the workers scored a major victory when the sheriff of Orleans Parish agreed to stop holding immigrants in jail for immigration authorities. He is the first southern sheriff to do so.

Aside from speaking out against harsh immigration enforcement tactics, the city's Latinos are getting involved in their communities. In September, they launched the city's first official Spanish-speaking neighborhood association, called Reunion de Vecinos, which roughly translates to "Neighbors' Meeting." The group's monthly meetings bring together about 40 Hispanic residents of Mid-City, a historically black neighborhood that is now home to the city's largest Latino population.

"We noticed that although there was a huge influx of Latinos, they weren't participating in community forums," said Julissa Gonzales, a community organizer for Puentes New Orleans, a non-profit group that promotes Latino civic engagement. "We started asking, 'what do you want your neighborhood to look like in 10 years?'"

It turns out that, above all, that they wanted to feel safe from robbers who target them and police officers who profile them. Increased access to education and health services are important too, said Gonzales. Vecinos members have already organized a neighborhood cleanup and volunteered at the city's first Festival of Latino Heritage at a local park. They've also met with their district's police commander and staff from the city's parks department.

"People are paying attention to us now," said Gonzales. "Before, we weren't even on their horizon."

National Journal recently visited New Orleans to see how the city has changed in the nine years since Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of African-American families and drew thousands of Latino immigrants to rebuild the city. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are redefining the identity of this iconic city.

Stephanie Stamm and Janie Boschma contributed to this article