Before Hurricane Katrina trounced New Orleans in 2005, the laissez-does-it city was a place not unlike Key West, a harbor, often, for lackey expats to get drunk, live cheaply and scribble bad poetry. “New Orleans was a place to hide,” Charles Bukowski said. “I could piss away my life, unmolested.”
But five years after Katrina, and just before the debut of HBO’s upcoming Big Easy drama, Treme, a hearty posse of young Manhattan men, mostly male, white and single, have been setting up shop, once again making New Orleans an expat refuge from the high costs of New York living.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans is the second-fastest-growing city in the U.S., behind New York City. Local business groups say there are more new bars and restaurants in the city than pre-Katrina, and realtors say that for every older professional who moved out of the city post-deluge, two younger professionals have moved in.
I’m one of the new expats. Last summer, I rented a 19th-century, antique-furnished carriage house for $1,100 a month. I lost eight pounds from sweating and bicycling (my only mode of transportation), and wrote a few hundred pages of a novel. Now, my wife and I are shopping for a house.
We’re hardly alone.
The Publicist: Jordan Friedman
“I was living on the Upper East Side. My business in New York City had stagnated, dating there sucked, it was crazy expensive and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger,” said Jordan Friedman.
And so, three years ago, Mr. Friedman decided to change his life and move.
Two days after the Saints won the Super Bowl, Mr. Friedman, now 36, sat in Parasol’s, a local bar and sandwich shop in the Irish Channel neighborhood, chomping on a roast beef po-boy, downing it with an Abita beer. The mood, at 11:30 a.m., was festive. A bartender was passing out Jagermeister shots to the crowded room.
Before Katrina hit, Mr. Friedman, who now co-owns a local PR firm, was a frequent visitor to the city. “What was really funny was that during the dot-com and bull market boom, I’d fly down to New Orleans for weekends because even with airfare, it was cheaper to spend time here than to stay in my own hometown. In a way, it was like coming home. People here knew I was one of them. And I am one of them. New Orleans was, to me, the closest you could come to expat living, while still being in the United States.”
He now lives in an historic apartment building, called the Orphanage, and pays $1,085 a month—“which is a little pricey by New Orleans standards”—for a 1,000-square-foot space with its own backyard.
“You’re either a New Orleans person or not. People here have a very different way of thinking than folks in other parts of the country, particularly New York,” he said.
But, he cautioned, “don’t let the simplicity of this calculus fool you. People here are not unsophisticated. In New York, I grew up among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. And I can tell you, without equivocation, that a large percentage of them are miserable and hate their lives.”
The Restaurateur: Sean McCusker
Sean McCusker left his Manhattan magazine job last April in an eBay-purchased Mercedes ragtop, which a friend dubbed “a 1980s coke dealer’s car.
”Mr. McCusker, 40, walked a visitor through his gutted, 3,000-square-foot restaurant space, built in 1785, 50 yards from fabled Jackson Square: prime New Orleans real estate.
“I’m hoping not to bring New York down here…by any means. We don’t want to be the hot-shit Manhattan thing coming down, because they’ll be a bit of a backlash.”
Mr. McCusker was living in New York in a $2,900-a-month brownstone in Williamsburg and working as the director of marketing for Complex, when he began to rethink his future. “I was like, I’m pushing 40, and I’m going to live in New York in a one-bedroom apartment for, hey, $800,000 or a million? It didn’t really make sense to me anymore. I miss my friends… I just don’t miss the lifestyle.”
He now pays $1,200 a month for a fully furnished, 1,200-square-foot apartment in the French Quarter, as he looks to buy a permanent home. He gets around mostly by bicycle, to and from his new bar and bistro, called Sylvain.
He considered why he chose New Orleans. “I was at Buffa’s Lounge the other day, having a po-boy, when a woman at the bar offered me a bloodied dollar if I would run across the street and check to see if the Porta-Potty was working. That’s pretty much par for the course here.”
The Entrepreneur: Nicolas Perkin
Sipping a Jack Daniel’s milk punch—while pushing his 3-month-old daughter in a stroller—Nicolas Perkin, 38, stood by a turtle-filled pond in Audubon Park, in the Uptown section of New Orleans. A flock of wild Monk parrots flew over his head. “It’s like Star Trek here, some planet no one’s ever seen before. … I spent my childhood going to Central Park to escape the insanity,” he said. “This serves the same purpose.”
He and his pals call JetBlue “the Jitney.” They can fly into Manhattan at 7 a.m., “do a meeting” and then fly home in time for a late-ish dinner the same day. “It actually takes a shorter time than going out to the Hamptons in the summer.”
Mr. Perkin, who runs “an eBay-like marketplace for selling receivables,” went to Tulane in New Orleans, and the town never got out from under of his skin.
He takes the streetcar to work instead of a subway, clanging toward downtown with the windows open. But it can be ugly in New Orleans, where crack houses and muggers still thrive. With a new child, does he worry about safety, as New Orleans nearly always tops the list of murder capitals for cities its size? “I’m a tough person,” he said. “I had a gun pointed to my head at 17, during a robbery. I saw a classmate of mine stabbed at 16. New York in the ’70s and ’80s, when I grew up, you could be mugged on your way to school in broad daylight. As a New Yorker, I just know to never go where I shouldn’t be.”
The Artist: Alex Beard
No one could say that Alex Beard was hurting when he decided to move to New Orleans this past spring. He had a namesake Soho gallery of his own and a recent, favorable write-up in Vanity Fair. His Impossible Puzzles were selling in bookstore chains. He even had a children’s book coming out.
Mr. Beard, who is 39, studied at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, where he was a fixture in the coffee house set, sketching paintings, often dressed in a sarong (he’d traveled all over Africa and India; the look stuck), and editing an alternative culture tabloid called Tribe.
Mr. Beard, the nephew of the notorious playboy-photographer Peter Beard, moved back to New York post-Katrina, opening his gallery on Mercer Street near Prince.
A year ago, he was shopping for a new apartment, and found one he liked. But a would-be neighbor complained that the artist’s paint fumes and turpentine would poison his child, infiltrating her room. “And the guy lived outside of the Holland Tunnel,” laughed Mr. Beard, standing with a mug of Café du Monde coffee, outside his new gallery on Antiques Row, Royal Street, in the Vieux Carre. “I ran into a buzz saw with the co-op board. The guy blackballed me.”
It was then that he received a call that a space in New Orleans was coming available, an old hat shop famous in the city. “I heard about the New Orleans space on a Friday, took it on Tuesday. All of that came together in one week.”
Mr. Beard is all grown up now, with two children and a wife, whom he met in Louisiana.
“Everything is just easier here,” he continued. “It’s more conducive in New Orleans to making great art … because you’re not having to fight all the peripheral crap. You just have more time to clear your mind.”
The Movie Guy: Bill Doyle
“It’s the most un-American of American cities,” said Bill Doyle by telephone on a recent weekend.
Mr. Doyle came to New Orleans two years ago as the location manager for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a job which entailed finding sitting rooms, bars, houses and shops for the $165 million, man-child movie starring Brad Pitt, who now keeps a residence in the French Quarter.
Mr. Doyle, who is 45, had been living in Chelsea, in an apartment where “you could almost touch the walls on both sides if you spread out your arms.” For that, he paid $2,000 a month.
Now he is working on Green Lantern, the comic-book movie, starring Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, which is shooting exclusively in the parishes within New Orleans city limits. His sublet apartment in the French Quarter has a Mardi Gras–beads–encrusted, street-front balcony and a rooftop terrace, where he entertains the cast and crew.
“They’re essentially paying us to be down here,” he said with a laugh. “They” is the Louisiana government, which offers movie production companies a 30 percent tax credit, including film expenses and incidentals like renting houses and going out for meals. He estimates that it saves big-budget movie studios like Warner Bros., which is behind Green Lantern, as much as $30 million to make films there.
Even Mr. Doyle’s girlfriend is benefitting. “She’s looking for work here in films, in wardrobe, and sent out seven résumés in just the past half-hour! That’s how many movies are being made here.”
Throughout New Orleans, television shows such as HBO’s new Treme and TNT’s Delta Blues (produced by George Clooney) are currently shooting. According to the New Orleans Office of Film and Video, never before have there been so many movies and TV series being shot in the city itself.
Meanwhile, Mr. Doyle spends his early mornings cruising along the scenic old waterfront of the French Quarter, along Esplanade Wharf. He wears a U.S. Navy T-shirt to please the Harbor Police, who navigate the heavily marked, no-trespassing-signed stretch that joggers and Mr. Doyle pretend not to notice. “The celebration of food, music, living here … It’s not fake, or put on for the weekend. It’s in the people’s blood.”
The Musician: Drew Young
Drew Young watched Hurricane Katrina come ashore on television while sitting in an Irish bar in Manhattan. “It was at that moment I decided I was going to fly back the moment it was possible to go. I just felt this amazingly strong urge to be ‘home.’”
Mr. Young, 43, is a singer and recording artist in the Pete Yorn vein. As a live performer, he had come and gone from New Orleans—he once had a band there called Ruben Kinkaid, named after The Partridge Family’s manager—but had been living in Soho in a rent-stabilized apartment, and he kept finding it hard to give up. The New York native didn’t make it officially back to New Orleans until this past year, when he found a house and landed a full-time job, working for a local record company, Putumayo World Music, as its strategic marketing manager.
He recalls how when he moved into his new two-bedroom, two-story house on Uptown’s Milan Street, a doctor neighbor living across the street immediately came over and started to help him carry boxes into his new home. “I got sick in New York once, and had to go to the hospital for a few days, and when I got home, I realized I’d been living in the same apartment for years, and I didn’t know anyone in my building. As neighbors, we grunted at each other in the elevator, and stared at the ceiling when forced to interact with each other.
And what of his music career? The competition is steep, there’s no shortage of good bands,” he says, “and that can be daunting. But it just makes everyone raise the bar.”