New Orleans: Why, as a proud Brooklynite, would you ever want to move there? It’s not even the sixth borough! But even before Solange Knowles, there’s been a slow and steady trickle of New Yorkers who’ve found themselves relocating down to NOLA. And in an effort to determine what madness may have motivated the move, this author visited the Crescent City and sat down with a few Brooklyn expats. There are the obvious benefits, like cheaper housing and all-night drinking that rivals the city that never sleeps; but there are also a lot of provincial behaviors, lack of business savvy and plenty of crime that is causing some people to second guess their move. Here’s what they had to say.
The Big Easy vs. the Big Hard
In the ’70s, when New York started to bandy about its old nickname, the Big Apple, New Orleans decided it needed an epithet to describe itself in contrast to the giant, cold metropolises of the North. It settled on “The Big Easy.”
Turns out they were onto something. Vivian, 25, a computer programmer and self-described “young snowbird,” calls Brooklyn home but decided to spend her winter months in New Orleans. Sitting down with her for brunch al fresco on a day when friends back home were text-whining about sub-zero temperatures up North, Vivian regaled me with tales of how she kept extending her stay, because “chill” suddenly became a word to describe demeanor, and not the weather.
“Everything in New Orleans is just chill. In New York you’re way more stressed out; even just walking on the sidewalk, you have to be on your A-game. I guess it’s because it’s more crowded,” she said on a post-brunch stroll through sleepy side streets.
Vivian admitted that while she likes the Big Apple, she rejects the masochism of New York, deeming it a city that takes itself far too seriously and revels in its own difficulty.
“Things don’t have to be so hard,” she said plainly.
There are also the obvious arguments around cost of living. Georgia, a 20-something transplant in the nonprofit sector, pays $625/month to live with two roommates in a cavernous two-story house right off the Mardi Gras parade route in the Lower Garden District — perhaps the New Orleans equivalent of Carroll Gardens. Rachel, 30-something transplant of a year with a burgeoning New Orleans-based interior design business, claims that for what she paid in New York, “I have, like, a house. Instead of, you know, a 350 square-foot studio.”
Even the street harassment in New York is markedly worse than in New Orleans.
“You can’t go walking around with a smile on. It’s like inviting a rapist to dinner,” said Rachel about the streets of New York. She remembers a stranger in New York yelling, “I’mma eat your [redacted],” at her before turning a corner and retreating into the crowd.
“It was really uncomfortable, to the point that I wouldn’t leave my house.”
In New Orleans on the other hand, Rachel has observed that men and women alike are referred to as “baby” by strangers as a means of establishing familiarity.
The psychological terror of street life in New York may, however, be countered by the threat of random acts of physical violence in New Orleans, a town with a long tradition of street justice rooted in Napoleonic Code.
“Horrendous things happen here and it’s like, ‘We tryin’ to find ’em,'” says Rachel, citing the slow response times of the New Orleans Police Department and their perceived lackadaisical attitude in the apprehension of criminals.
Her friend Chris, a 30-something NOLA-based tech entrepreneur born and raised in Louisiana, added, “There aren’t many drawbacks [to living in New Orleans], but crime is [one of them.]”
New Orleans might actually party harder than New York
One night, on a dive bar crawl of the Bywater (which some give the cringeworthy title “the Bushwick of New Orleans”), legal to-go cup of bar-supplied whiskey in hand, I was approached by a New Orleans lifer. While borrowing my lighter to get his cigar going, he professed his love for his city:
“When Katrina came, I took my FEMA money to get back to New Orleans,” he said. “You know why? New Orleans is where the party is.”
I thought New York was a boozy town that went hard, but the Big Easy gives it a run for its money. I walked by bars still serving when it was pushing five in the morning. Also, I thought New York could be weird, but people really like to dress up in New Orleans. I saw a dude costumed as a gondolier on a bicycle he’d hacked to make it look like a pretty convincing boat. (I gave him mad props. If I had a hat, I’d have tipped it.) I also ran into several people whose idea of a birthday was to get gussied up in carnival attire and get dollar bills pinned to them (a New Orleans birthday tradition).
“They’re not dressing up as something,” Rachel explained. “They’re embellishing themselves.”
My arrival in New Orleans was admittedly coincident with Mardi Gras, and I made a point of staying longer so I could see what the city was like after the party died down. But it never really did. The following Sunday — not even a week later — an unofficial second line street parade was in full effect in Mid-City, far away from the oh-so-touristy French Quarter, replete with brass bands, costumes, and of course, the open sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages underneath God’s blue sky.
It’s more than just a song and dance, as it turns out. All the costumes and merrymaking and easygoing attitude are an integral part of what makes New Orleans New Orleans.
Ambition will get you… somewhere
On the other side of the expat spectrum is Mary, a 30-something freelance composer who cries foul on New Orleans’ purported perpetual bliss. A veteran of both Brooklyn and NOLA, she lived in the former for 12 years and moved to the latter five years ago on a whim. New York was getting expensive, she found the jazz scene of the Big Easy appealing, and she had a job that allowed her to work remotely. So she hinged her decision on the outcome of a football game (yes, I said she moved on a whim), and decided to move. She fell in love instantly: with the city, with her future husband (found him two weeks into living in New Orleans), with life, and with everything, really.
Half a decade later, the honeymoon’s over — literally. She’s getting a divorce, and she’s on the fence about whether to keep her adopted city. When asked what she missed about New York, Mary mentioned the Indian food, the work ethic, and the city government, of all things.
“You can’t eat healthily here,” she said, claiming to have gained 30 pounds in her five years in New Orleans. In reference to the hustle, she added, “If you do have a work ethic, you’re ostracized.”
She also claimed the working world in NOLA suffers from a nepotism that runs as deeply as connections made in high school. “It’s all about who you know, not what you know,” Mary said. New Orleanians, she said, have “no business acumen.”
Chris was in agreement.
“All of the good developers are spoken for, play musical chairs between the same three to four NOLA startups, and don’t change jobs very often.”
Mary told us that the city also feels frustratingly provincial, explaining that you could whistle a jazz tune from an area musician on the street and someone else would likely complete the melody, but that same someone else might never have heard of Alicia Keys.
As for getting things done at a municipal level, Chris shared a similar gripe. “It’s a shadow government.”
Mary added, in kind, that New Orleans’ skepticism of outsiders can make it difficult to work with them, and lack of access to talent and (venture) capital can make it hard to get things off the ground. She went so far as to dub New Orleans “the most modern third-world country,” adding that “no matter what, it’s always gonna be as fucked up as it always is,” and that, “it cannot be changed.”
Chris was, on the whole, more optimistic. He pointed out that the live-and-let-live attitude of the Big Easy can work to your advantage.
“Just coming in, doing your thing, being yourself, focusing on the work, being as authentic as possible in the context of everything you do, that’s New Orleans,” he said. “Above all else here, people here appreciate authenticity.”
Failure isn’t punishing
The low cost of living certainly doesn’t hurt, either. The French Quarter is a mecca for gutter punks and transients of all sorts who can score enough cash to eke out an existence by busking for the constant stream of tourists. Trying hard in a city that prides itself on taking things easy makes you “stick out as someone who doesn’t do things The Way They Are Usually Done,” but then again, trying something hard in a city where failure isn’t as punishing makes it easier to pick up the pieces and try again. That, and it’s nice to know that even if you get totally absorbed in your work, there’s always the readily accessible escape to restore your sanity offered by New Orleans.
“I would work 24 hours a day, seven days a week if I had to and frequently do,” Chris told me. “Things like Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Fringe Fest, Halloween, 12th Night, all of these unique cultural experiences that you don’t get in any other city, they act as a beacon for me and force me to get out of my stupid entrepreneur zone and go and live life for a few days. The experience is rejuvenating. The fact that it reminds you that you are a human, and forces you to pause your relentless march of ambition, is a lifesaver.”
Okay, so should you move?
If you like to take it easy, and you don’t put much stock in the New York pressure-cooker, and you maybe know a guy who knows a guy who heads up a cool company in New Orleans, then by all means do it. NOLA’s a festive town steeped in cultural heritage and, like many American cities, is going through a lot of (largely positive) changes. On the other hand, if you’re really career-driven and you don’t have a good gig lined up before you make the move, you may be disappointed.
As for me, I’m currently unemployed in the most expensive major city in America and I don’t subscribe to New York exceptionalism; I know there are plenty of other great places to live. And I wholeheartedly believe in the work-life balance that seems to be oh-so-elusive in New York. I found New Orleans’ emphasis on enjoying life to be a breath of fresh air. By any measure, I should be an ideal candidate for transplantation.
But I’m stubbornly staying here. As a transplant to Brooklyn of just two and half years, it seems too soon to give up on a place I was just getting to know. I might, however, have lived here just long enough to have been Stockholmed into loving it despite its shortcomings. If New York can be trying, I’ll just have to try harder.
Of course, get back to me in a year and see if I’ve decided to take it easy. You’ll know where to find me.