It’s White Linen Night, one of the biggest nights on the New Orleans social calendar. On downtown’s Julia Street, beautiful twenty-somethings, all dressed in white, are sipping cocktails and strolling among the art galleries.
But Liz Shephard wants to talk about sustainability.
“The true costs of our unsustainable consumption are no longer hidden,” says the petite 26-year-old, who, in adherence to the evening’s dress code, is wearing a simple white blouse, offset by a thin, gold chain around her neck.
Gallery: Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans has “the kind of resiliency that marks any sustainable city,” she continues, paying no attention to the carousing around her. “And we are an enlightened people now, in that we have a story to tell” because of Katrina. “So we need to figure out, how can we tell that story and learn?”
Meet one of New Orleans’ Post-Katrina Kids, the large group of college graduates who flocked to the city in the wake of the hurricane, intent on applying their A-list degrees and earnest, over-achieving energy to help the city recover and become—in post-K parlance—“sustainable.”
In the last five years, people like Shephard, a 2008 Carleton College graduate, have transformed an economically depressed city that young people traditionally fled from into a thriving, “idea-based” lab, reminiscent of San Francisco during the high-tech, booming ‘90s.
Their “footprint,” as they would say, is everywhere. A few blocks down from Julia Street sits the Intellectual Property Building, one of the city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial hubs. A sleek, converted warehouse, the IP is home to young tech companies like iSeatz and TurboSquid; social-minded start-ups like Drop the Chalk; and Launchpad, a “work community” whose motto is “Embrace your potential and grow.”
Upstairs, there’s a gym with yoga classes. Downstairs, there’s an in-house watering hole, Capdeville, where the bar is lined with Post-K kids staring into laptops.
“It’s Google for New Orleans,” says Tim Williamson, co-founder of The Idea Village, which helps connect start-up companies with capital. The 45-year-old, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jeremy Piven and has an Ari Gold-like charisma to match, is one of the only people in the building who wears a suit.
The Post-K transplants are leaving their mark in innovate ways. Jennifer Schnidman, a 26-year-old Teach For America alum created Drop The Chalk, a Web-based software program that allows teachers to track their students’ performance from their iPhones. And Robert Fogarty, 27, a former AmeriCorps member, founded Evacuteer.org, which has trained hundreds of volunteers in how to assist the poor and elderly out of the city in the event of another deadly storm.
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• The Katrina DivorcesBut in a city where Friday afternoon is not considered an actual part of the workweek that has historically attracted jazz-loving drifters and hard-drinking scribes, the influx of highly-motivated, college-educated young “talent,” as Williamson calls it, has sometimes meant a clash of cultures.
“I think it’s kind of culture shock for everyone,” says 24-year-old Brent Godfrey, a Yale grad from Southern California who has been in New Orleans since 2008, working as a fireman in the New Orleans Fire Department, a place, he says, that is “not the Yale Alumni Association.”
“People give me shit all the time. I’m a history major with no real skills, and I’m working around these street-savvy guys, they’re all teamsters, they can build a house, a lot of them are tradesmen,” he says. “It’s not like I grew up working in construction, and sometimes I’m awkwardly bad at my job, and these guys will be like, ‘Yep, fucking Yale degree—it’s doing you great.’”
At White Linen Night, the contrast between old and new is glaring: seersucker suits, cream-colored Bucks, and pearls versus tattooed arms, purple boots, and porkpie hats. Drinking from plastic Abita Beer cups and nibbling on alligator cheesecake, everyone, however, gathered to hear a grungy acoustic duo, which had taken over the stage from a local brass band.
Locals are generally grateful for the care and interest shown by the Post-K kids. “The city is so pathetically crippled and was so sick after the storm that we just adore anybody who comes along to play on our team,” says Scott Sullivan, the former European regional editor of Newsweek.
But some bemoan the way the kids have transformed their city, and nowhere is that change more visible than The Bywater. The neighborhood near the Lower Ninth Ward now feels less like the run-down South and more like a trendy New York or San Francisco neighborhood with newly-painted, candy-colored shot-gun houses, trendy restaurants, and funky junk shops, where the cool kids walk around in undershirts and straw fedoras.
“It’s super-hipstered out,” says Kezia Kamenetz, who grew up in New Orleans and came back to city after graduating from Yale last year.
Beyond glamorizing certain neighborhoods, the overall effect of Post K-ers on rebuilding New Orleans is difficult to gauge. Although schools have been flooded with Ivy League educators, there is a high burn-out rate among teachers, and many leave the city after a one or two year stint. And the digital start-up boom aside, areas that were severely damaged by Katrina, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, are still lacking in basic services— schools and grocery stores have not yet been rebuilt and residents complain that the high grass has not been cut by the city, and that, even in the sauna-like heat of August, the mosquito trucks have still not been by.
“A lot of them are doing great work, and a lot are really classy people,” says Sullivan. “But we have some mammoth-sized problems.”
As Williamson sees it, five years after Katrina, the go-gooders need to channel their energy in a more capitalistic direction. “I think we need to be encouraging more for-profit business models that create sustainable solutions,” he says, sitting in his office, where there is a plaque that says, “Trust Your Crazy Ideas” and a copy of Innovator magazine on a white, Ikea-like table. “We have too many non-profits”—the result, he explains, of all the philanthropic dollars that flowed into the city post-Katrina.
“I think this new generation, they don’t know what they don’t know. They want to do good, but 'do good' has to be sustainable… To me, there’s a blurring of social and for-profit into one. But I think you have to be an entrepreneur first.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.