New Orleans Today

Politics

In 2017, Democrat LaToya Cantrell became the city's first black female mayor. The new leadership under Mayor Cantrell faces expectations to improve the local school system, remedy the housing crisis, keep crime low, and best prepare the city for future storms. Politics aside, New Orleans's strength has always been in the passion its residents have for the city, and local nonprofits and grassroots organizations like the Youth Empowerment Project, Green Light New Orleans, and the Tipitina's Foundation are just a few of the bright leaders in locally based change for the future.

New Openings

It's said that history reveals itself in New Orleans through both elegance and decay. And along those lines, the city's most famous museum is using sophisticated technology to knock the dust off its retelling of the Second World War. An ambitious $370 million expansion that will eventually quadruple the museum's size is almost complete at the National WWII Museum, and now includes an on-site hotel and parking garage alongside the new exhibits and pavilions.

But the biggest recent travel news out of the Crescent City is the brand-new terminal at MSY, the city's airport, which opened in fall 2019 after a long and expensive renovation. It is modern and sleek in design, with outposts of favorite New Orleans restaurants like Angelo Brocato's and Café du Monde, frequent live jazz performances, and local shops like Dirty Coast and Fluerty Girl.

Tradition

Red beans and rice on Monday, St. Joseph's altars, jazz funerals, a Christmas visit to Mr. Bingle in City Park—New Orleans is a destination steeped in tradition, with its unique customs carefully guarded for more than a century. Take Mardi Gras, for example: Some of the parading organizations, known as "krewes," have been around for more than 150 years, building elaborate floats annually and parading through the streets in masks. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is shrouded in secrecy and ritual, with "tribes" of mostly African American revelers spending months constructing fanciful, Native American–influenced costumes in tribute to actual tribes that once helped escaped slaves find freedom.

Hurricane Katrina and Beyond

2020 marks 15 years since Katrina hit the city, and the areas where tourists tend to wander—downtown, the riverfront, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, the Warehouse District, and the Garden District/Uptown—all show little outward sign of floodwater devastation. But predominantly residential areas like parts of east New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward are still recovering. As of July 2018, Census Bureau estimates indicated that the city's population was still 81% of what it had been before the storm.

Environmental Issues

New Orleans has survived an incredible number of fires, floods, epidemics, and scandals since its founding in 1718, and new buildings, streetcar lines, restorations, and festivals still keep the city kicking. But with the ever-growing threat of climate change, the city's unique geographical position and oft-lacking infrastructure seem to leave it particularly vulnerable for disaster. Many questions remain: The repaired levees held fast against 2012’s Hurricane Isaac, but will they withstand an even larger storm? Will New Orleans move past its political scandals, crime, and the ills of urban poverty? Despite the many fortune-tellers plying their trade on Jackson Square, no one knows for sure what the future holds for the Crescent City.

Diversity

It sounds like a tourist-brochure cliché, but it's true: New Orleans marches to the beat of its own drum, compared with the rest of the country. It may be due in large part to geography. This port city has seen an influx of many, many cultures over the course of its history. It welcomes diversity and tolerates lifestyles that deviate from the norm—a big reason artists and other creative types have long put down roots here. And the fact that the city lies mostly below sea level lends it a certain fatalism, which may unconsciously inspire the classic New Orleans "live for today" attitude.

Gentrification

The post-Katrina rebuild in New Orleans hasn’t always been respectful or positive for all the city's residents. A combination of corporate opportunists, bad policy, and a growing popularity has brought negative change to the city in the form of rising housing prices, overdevelopment in vulnerable areas, and Airbnb and short-term rentals displacing long-term residents.

But many also complain that the more things change, the more they stay the same. New Orleans seems to move at a more leisurely pace than the rest of the country, and, while it may be slowly losing some of its rougher edges and laid-back charm, good change can be slow to come as well. In response to community outcry, politicians and leaders have pledged to do things like better regulate Airbnb, improve housing and schools for everyone, and upgrade the system of pumps and levees that are supposed to protect the city from colossal flooding. The results of these promises are still to come.

Affordable Housing and Airbnb

New Orleans is in the middle of a serious affordable housing crisis. Today, tens of thousands of low-income residents can't find affordable housing and one major reason is that Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the city's housing supply, causing demand to skyrocket. Another culprit, however, is the short-term rental website Airbnb, which has become quite popular with travelers looking for a more local (and less expensive) lodging option than a hotel. But those potential earnings from Airbnb have enticed many local landlords to take their rental units off the market and make them available strictly as short-term rentals for tourists. This has the dual effect of further increasing demand for remaining units, while also pushing out families who have rented in certain neighborhoods for decades.

Landlords insist they have the right to profit off their properties just like hotels and bed-and-breakfasts do. More traditional accommodations say short-term rental units should be held to the same regulatory standards the rest of the industry must face. All the while, an increasing number of residents in the city worry how the prevalence of short-term rentals is changing the neighborhoods in which they exist. The city government has taken some steps to mitigate the negative effects of Airbnb, but there is still a long way to go. It's a complicated issue, but as a traveler, it's always important to think about how you influence the places you visit; a good rule of thumb if you like using Airbnb is to choose room-only rentals or entire apartments whose hosts live in their properties full-time and only rent out the units while traveling.

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