Sunday, January 22, 2006

Since I spend about 75% of my work time either in or thinking about New Orleans but live in Austin, I am often asked to compare the two places. I spent the last five years of my life as a highly visible, highly vocal booster of New Orleans, so many people I meet are surprised when they hear that we have settled, at least for the near term, in Austin. For Cassie and me, the decision to stay in Austin was pretty easy. We didn't have any assets to protect in New Orleans. Our house was pretty thoroughly destroyed so there was no hurry to come back. We also wanted to find some degree of stability for our son; New Orleans is a dynamic place right now and since he had already spent about a fourth of his life in evacuation/gypsy mode, we decided we would try to give him a rest.

So we arbitrarily chose Austin off the map. It was a reasonably short drive away from New Orleans. It was the only really progressive city in Texas. Much like New Orleans, it's a blue island in a sea of red. Of course, I was anxious about leaving my home of 14 years, leaving friends that were as close as family and leaving the only city I ever really loved. I left my work, graduate school and 90% of all the people I knew in the world. We started out from scratch, something that gets harder as you age. When you are nearing 40, you're pretty set in your ways.

Picture of Night Time Austin

My feelings about New Orleans pre and post hurricane, are very mixed. A friend recently wrote an op-ed that made the case that the oft-quoted term "Big Easy" had long been a misnomer for the city and it should finally be shed once and for all. Living in New Orleans was never easy. Anyone who chose to live there sacrificed to do so. They struggled to find good wages. Crime was a palpable and daily concern for everyone. Car and home owner's insurance was expensive and hard to get before the hurricane. I imagine it will get worse now. It was and continues to be a city with a political culture like that of the Caribbean or Latin America, with personality politics and petty corruption a sad fact of life that stymies many efforts at progress. Prior to the storm, the school system had been mismanaged to near chaos and a tourism economy virtually guaranteed that the city would continue to be a city that gambled its long-term viability away for a quick buck. Weather and water were a sword dangling over the city. Everyone knew the big one was coming, but like gamblers who are unwilling to walk away from a bet, everyone figured it wouldn't happen to them. Until it did. And it wasn't even as big as it could have been.

Yet, it was hard not to love the place. The food, the drink and the good times are all over the top. Perhaps continually looking in to the abyss frees the mind to take risks, to be playful, to look for a reason to have a party, to be a little dangerous. Like all flirtation, sometimes it can go too far. The danger was real in New Orleans. A culture of excess means that some don't come out of it. It means there are losers and victims. But surviving the place made you better for it. To steal a line about another city, if you could make there, you could make it anywhere. There continues to be a fascinating quality to the place. It is THE city of the body. We know how to dance, we know how how to drink and we know how to love with no compromises. It's a city that will hone your social skills. You will talk to strangers and like it. It's a funky, sweaty, earthy place. The part of the city that most tourists see is the spectacle that is designed to swindle the yokels from the colder and more uptight regions of the world. The real pulse of the city happens in hole in the wall bars and restaurants and in people's backyards and on their bikes and on the stoops of porches. It happens when you dance with 50 other sweaty people to a swaggering bass band playing hip hop beats at 3 in the morning and go to work the next day (probably smelling like you were dancing at 3 in the morning in a bar).

But the body eventually has to be balanced with the mind. When I visited Paris a couple of years ago, I was reminded that there was more to the world than pure indulgence (even though no one ever really wants to leave the proverbial candy store). Being in Cuba and Mexico stirred my political thought. Paris stirred that intellectual in me that had been so very thoroughly subdued for so long in New Orleans. Paris was and is a city of ideas and a city of possibility. I came back resolved the balance the two parts of my life, but that never really happened. It was just too easy for me to follow the fun.

So one day, you're hung up on the day to day crises of your life. All of the sudden, you are living in a new city and everything is changed. Now that we have found ourselves in Austin, we are surrounded by smart, progressive people. It was easy to be one of the smart folks in New Orleans. It just wasn't a city that was interested in intellectualism per se. The bar is much higher here. I have been delighted by the friends we have made here for their values and it's a friendly and down to earth kind of place. It's refreshingly open after enduring the many cliques and tribes of New Orleans. At a party here in Austin, I recently discussed my ideas about how to pay for health insurance for working people with a city council-member for 10-15 minutes over a glass of wine, something that would be unheard of in New Orleans, where political types expect and generally get the royal treatment and deference wherever they go.

Besides smart, progressive values and general friendliness, Austin is a good place to raise your kids. The public schools still sometimes work here and while it's difficult to balance the environment with a booming economy, the air and water are pretty clean and there are rivers, lakes and parks open to the public. Nice to be able to push the baby stroller on your morning walk and have enough mental space to simply enjoy a little bit of nature.

Austin isn't perfect. Like all Texans, they really love their cars here. The city's shiny, clean buses with friendly drivers roam the streets with only a handful of passengers as traffic jams double the time of even the simplest errand. Sprawl and McMansions threaten not only the feel of the city, but the quality of its most scarce resource, water. The very success of the place puts it most at risk as it tries to keep up with a soaring population growth. Gentrification is real here, with hispanics slowly being displaced from their long time homes and a quickly dwindling African-American population. But the fact that these issues and others are candidly discussed here and knowing that many people are committed to address these problems gives me hope for the place.

We are glad we landed here. I love New Orleans, but for now, it's good to be here. I expect that some New Orleanians, those stubborn souls that resist and resent change, will find it unacceptable that we would up and "abandon" the city. I am glad some of the best people have stayed and recommitted to the city. We each have our needs at this point in time.

There are pros and cons to both places. I miss my friends from New Orleans. I don't miss many of the city's dysfunctional qualities. I like to live in a clean, safe, friendly city with an actual diversified economy. Sometimes I find Austin to be a bit staid, even boring sometimes, but that can be a good thing every now and again. I like to live in a world that balances the corporeal and the cerebral. I like the friends we have made here. I like exploring a new world and I cherish my experiences from the old one too.