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Pioneers Hope to Revitalize New Orleans

August 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the last of our reports this week on life in New Orleans two years after Katrina. Tonight, NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden looks at some of the city’s newest residents.

DR. LAUREN RICHEY, New Orleans House-Hunter: Yes, the yard is pretty small.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Lauren Richey and Michael Kovacs are house-hunting in New Orleans. They just moved here from Philadelphia.

DR. LAUREN RICHEY: It is big, though.

MICHAEL KOVACS, New Orleans House-Hunter: Yes, it is big.

TOM BEARDEN: Neither has any previous ties to the city, but Richie, who graduated from medical school last spring, says New Orleans called to her.

DR. LAUREN RICHEY: It just really felt like the best fit for me. There were a lot of people who didn’t have insurance and a lot of people who needed care, and I just felt like this is where I wanted to be.

TOM BEARDEN: Where you could do the most good?

DR. LAUREN RICHEY: Yes, where I could do the most good.

TOM BEARDEN: It wasn’t a decision that her father understood.

DR. LAUREN RICHEY: He thought I was crazy. He said, “Who would graduate from medical school and move there?” And I was like, “Dad, you’re missing what I want to do.”

MICHAEL KOVACS: Everybody we told we were coming down here, their initial reaction was, “Why? You could go lots of other places; you could be in a lot safer areas.”

TOM BEARDEN: Richey and Kovacs are part of a small but growing number of people who some are calling pioneers, people moving to New Orleans to be part of its rebirth.

Richard Sutton moved back to the U.S. from England to open a gourmet cheese shop in the uptown neighborhood. He sees an economic opportunity.

RICHARD SUTTON, New Orleans Business Owner: One of the things that I never get tired of is trying to say that there are some good things going here, and there are other people like me that are here trying to start something new. And New Orleans is a very difficult town, I think, for people that were affected by the storm. But for people that are able to look at the city maybe with a clean slate, I think there are opportunities for people to make a home here.

TEACHER: All right, so just take another minute or two and complete what you’re doing.

"Opportunities for pioneers"

TOM BEARDEN: There are a lot of opportunities for pioneers, particularly in education. Virtually every teacher at the newly opened Langston Hughes Charter School moved here from somewhere else within the last few months to help rebuild a school system that was troubled long before the hurricane.

TEACHER: "Flash, crash, crack! Lightning hit the mast and split it right down the middle."

TOM BEARDEN: These educators reject the idea that they're pioneers in the sense that they're breaking new ground. They say they're not here to tell New Orleans how to run its school system; they just want to help make it better.

ANDREW SULLIVAN, Teacher, New Orleans: Good afternoon. Good afternoon.

TOM BEARDEN: Fourth-grade English teacher Andrew Sullivan came from California.

ANDREW SULLIVAN: I wanted to go somewhere where real people were making real changes and really working towards reforming a system. And it didn't feel like that was happening where I was until I started to look around and I saw New Orleans as an opportunity.

Cultural differences for newcomers

TOM BEARDEN: But the transition is not always easy. Native New Yorker John Alfred is the principal of the new school.

JOHN ALFORD, Teacher, New Orleans: I will say, first moving here, it was very clear -- it was made very clear to me that I was not from New Orleans. People have been very supportive, very genuine, but there's definitely this idea that you're either from New Orleans or you're not.

JUSTIN CHEN, Teacher, New Orleans: All right, who agrees with that?

TOM BEARDEN: Justin Chen, who decided to leave the corporate world in Florida to teach in New Orleans, says it's a bit of a culture clash.

JUSTIN CHEN: People tend to be a little bit more laid back here. Things tend to move a little bit more slowly here. I think the cultural differences between a lot of people who are moving here and people that are already here is definitely the central sort of battleground that you're seeing in, you know, with the infusion of new teachers and just new personalities and schools.

TOM BEARDEN: Is there friction?

JUSTIN CHEN: You do sense a little bit of friction initially at least, because the initial perception is, "These teachers are coming from the outside to just change us," and it's a very "us versus them" mentality. But I think, like with everything, once the dialogue occurs and once, you know, personal relationships are established, I think it kind of disappears.


"Unique racial issues"

TOM BEARDEN: Nick Vilelle has been in New Orleans for an entire year, and he's seen quite a bit of that friction. He works for a non-profit organization that guts and rebuilds houses in the Central City area of New Orleans.

NICK VILELLE, Nonprofit Worker: How are you doing?

TOM BEARDEN: He says he loved getting to know homeowners like Miss Betty, who are clearly grateful for the assistance. But he says not everyone has been like that.

NICK VILELLE: New Orleans has some very unique racial issues I think here. And seeing some of that come in the way of getting progress done is really frustrating. The fact that our organization is a lot of white people in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and the fact that certain people don't want our help because we're white, it doesn't make sense to me. I can't compute that.

TOM BEARDEN: Vilelle says he's had enough of New Orleans, at least for now. He needs a break from the frustrations of dealing with government bureaucracy, which he says greatly slows down the rebuilding process. But he says he hopes others with the pioneering spirit continue to move to New Orleans. He just has one piece of advice.

NICK VILELLE: I would really say to try to tone down your ambitions. Just be realistic about what you can accomplish while you're here and to focus on the small scale. Don't let the entire city of New Orleans and the state it's in overwhelm you. But focus on Miss Betty's house, and focus on your interaction with Miss Betty, and get to know Miss Betty, and understand that she doesn't deserve any of this and that you can do a lot to help her get her life back in shape.

TOM BEARDEN: Regardless of why they came here, the pioneers all agree that rebuilding New Orleans will be a generational undertaking. And most of them are not sure they're willing to devote the rest of their lives to this place.

ANDREW SULLIVAN: We want you guys to start thinking different about school.

TOM BEARDEN: But at least for the next few years, they say they're committed to doing everything they can for their new home.