New Orleans' Marigny neighborhood, which has been gentrified in the past decade (Flickr)

“The post-Katrina influx just made it harder for people who are from here and are not the right color,” says Tracey Brown, a 24-year-old black New Orleans native who has watched her city get whiter over the past decade. “I have to ask those transplants: ‘Are you working a job where everybody at your job is not only not from here, but also white? Why do you not question that?’”

It’s a well-known fact that behind New Orleans’ sunny story of rebuilding and revitalizing is a tale of a whitening city: Before Hurricane Katrina, the city was 67 percent African American; now that number hovers around 60. But the story isn’t so, well, black and white. As Ingrid Norton pointed out in GOOD last year, young, educated, black entrepreneurs are moving to New Orleans, too. That still makes them gentrifiers, in the cultural and economic sense, but their race affects the way they’re received by their new neighbors.

Bryan Lee, Jr., a 28-year-old architect, moved to New Orleans from New Jersey in 2011. With his day jobs and side hustles, he makes a mid-to-high five-figure salary. He lives in Central City, a community that’s gentrifying—it kisses the border of the much more affluent Lower Garden District—but it’s also far behind the development of the Marigny and the Bywater. By anyone’s judgment, Lee is a gentrifier. But he’s also black and the vice president of the Louisiana chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects—hardly the type of outsider Brown describes.

When I ask what it’s like being a reason why the rents in his neighborhood are rising, he admits he feels “a little weird about it. I don’t want to be a proponent of pushing people out of their communities.” But Lee can’t deny that New Orleans natives react to his presence differently. Six months ago, he was out working at a job site when a local black woman wandered onto the property barefoot and bleary-eyed, angry that the construction noise had awoken her.

“Are you the foreman?” she demanded to know.

When Lee confessed that he was an architect, she hugged him and didn’t let go. She repeated, “I’m just so proud of you, I’m just so proud of you,” over and over.

“That was powerful,” Lee told me later. “In a community that doesn’t know architects, doesn’t connect to architects, I’m able to be a person in view and somebody that they can recognize, and I’m happy to do that.”

But Yasin Southall, a Cincinnati native who works at the Freret Street Neighborhood Center, says that even though he’s black, his transplant status is met with caution. “As soon as I open my mouth, people know I’m not from here,” he says. He admits he’s a gentrifier because he's an educated young professional, but at least he’s actively working alongside the community, rather than just coming here for a few years to have fun—not, in other words, a “hipster that’s sucking up air.”

Yet sometimes, even just having “transplant status” can trump prohibitive racial barriers that have traditionally plagued the city. A handful of natives I spoke with told me that employers seem to assume that locals of all colors are less excited, less educated, less…something. This realization is painful. Kezia Kamenetz, the New Orleanian I met last week, is white, and she told me that when she came home from Yale to get a job in the nonprofit sector, the preference for non-natives was crystal clear. Brown had planned to work at grassroots non-profits after school, too, but employers seemed to want visitors’ freshness rather than her extensive experience.

So the city’s gentrification story is less a color gradient and more a matrix of race, class and birthplace. But for many New Orleanians, it all boils down to whether these new “gentrifiers” are commited to the city, regardless of race. Brown wishes that white transplants “would align themselves with these grassroots organizations that already exist, rather than creating new ones.” Another native, 31-year-old Duane Williams, sees a huge difference between Southall (with whom he collaborates) and the “hipsters sucking up air.” The way he sees it, “they come here so they can go to a neighborhood, get something going, and then they can wander off and pat themselves on the back. That’s the most offensive thing of all.” 

Could New Orleans be the labor movement's next frontier? Read Nona Willis Aronowitz's report