Nearly seven years have passed since hurricane Katrina caused mass destruction in towns and cities along the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans in the state of Louisiana was one of the hardest hit after the state’s poorly designed 350-mile levee system failed, leaving the city in tatters as waves roared ashore, killing more than 1,800 people.
But the devastated city has come back with vigour. Once-downtrodden neighbourhoods now host new coffee shops, galleries, bookshops, boutiques and restaurants.
This transformation has been helped by an influx of entrepreneurs and young professionals – both Americans who have no previous links with the city, and native New Orleanians who left during the brain drain of recent decades.
Neighbourhoods along the riverfront, the most elevated above sea level, such as the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, the Warehouse District and the Garden District, all show little sign of the flood. It is in these areas where newcomers are buying family homes and condominiums at a fraction of the cost of those in larger US cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Our condos sell for $365 per square foot whereas in New York you would be paying $1,200 to $2,000 for the same space,” says Richard Jeansonne, a broker at French Quarter Realty.
1225 Chartres Street, a one-bedroom, two-storey townhouse-style condominium in the French Quarter, is typical of the properties for which Jeansonne is seeing high demand. It is on the market for $269,000.
“We’re seeing a lot of people buying single-family homes in the area, mainly young couples and professionals. Many people are buying second homes too. A lot of money has been spent in New Orleans in the reconstruction effort and, as a result, more of these industries are coming back, from business to tourism, drawing people in,” he adds.
The city, with its Creole cuisine and jazz scene, has long attracted holidaymakers. A study released in March by the University of New Orleans found that 8.75m tourists spent a record $5.5bn last year.
In addition to federal reconstruction dollars and a healthy tourism sector, the state has in recent years tried to attract talent through the development of new industries. The construction of high-tech infrastructure and tax incentives for industries such as technology, film and renewable energy, among other initiatives, have subsequently made New Orleans the fastest-growing US city, according to the latest census bureau statistics.
Joe McMenemon, 26, a former banker, chose to leave his native New York and set up his social networking website Chapterspot in New Orleans, where he had attended university.
“My cost of living compared to New York is significantly lower for a much higher quality of life,” he says. “$1,000 a month in New York would not get you very much but I rent a great 1,200 sq ft apartment with a friend for $1,400 in a gated complex with two pools and a gym.”
McMenemon lives in the Warehouse District, an area that was first established as the industrial part of town in the 19th century and has since been transformed into an arts hub.
“In the past year and a half we have seen a huge increase in people moving to New Orleans for work,” says Suzanne Ebbert of Gardner Realtors. “New top-class medical facilities and the development of a biosciences industry are just a couple of factors drawing people in. There is a building and hiring boom.”
Among Gardner’s listings is 5626 Prytania Street, a four-bedroom 19th-century house in the Garden District that is on the market for $639,000. It is also selling a seven-bedroom, four-bathroom house on St Charles Avenue, also in the Garden District, for $2,395,000. The 161-year-old property has high ceilings, large formal rooms, a wine cellar and parking for 10 cars.
As a port city New Orleans has seen an influx of many cultures, from its founding by the French in 1718 to a period under Spanish control, and then under French rule, before being sold to the US under the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Residential properties reflect this diverse heritage, from Marigny’s Creole cottages and the grandes maisons on St Charles Avenue to the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter and the columned fronts of antebellum homes along Esplanade Avenue.
While some areas are recovering from the floods and the downturn, the hardest hit areas, such as East New Orleans, Lakeview and the Ninth Ward, are still visibly struggling.
Actor Brad Pitt has set up a foundation, Make It Right, to build 150 ecologically friendly and affordable homes for residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who were left homeless by hurricane Katrina. The foundation, which has been working with architecture firms including Gehry Partners, Morphosis and Elemental, will sell houses and duplexes for up to $200,000.
Persistent social problems such as crime, poor education and unemployment also continue to hamper the city. New Orleans has the highest per capita murder rate in the country.
Brent McCrossen, 39 and a native New Orleanian, launched his music licensing and technology company Audiosocket in Seattle but was drawn back to his hometown. He acknowledges that crime is a concern.
“While my wife and I don’t feel unsafe day to day, we do have eyes at the back of our heads. I have a son and I do worry about these things. But things are changing,” he says.
New Orleans is reforming its schooling with a push towards an almost all-charter system. Nearly 80 per cent of state-school students now attend schools that are publicly funded but operate autonomously with their own boards.
Kevin Wilkins moved to New Orleans in 2010 and joined the Idea Village, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in the city.
“I have three boys who went to a private boys’ academy in Boston when we were living there. Now two go to a charter school while one is in private school, and they are all very happy,” he says.
● Audobon Park
● Food and culture
● Outdoor drinking is permitted
● Crime rate
● Not an airline hub
● Difficult to recruit senior talent from elsewhere
What you can buy for …
$100,000 A renovated three-bedroom home in the Ninth Ward
$1m A two-bedroom house in the French Quarter