Meet the Young, Black Entrepreneurs Remaking New Orleans
Lavonzell Nicholson, founder of PlayNOLA
In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.
In a room packed with young people, 23-year-old Brittany guides attendees to a raffle sign-up sheet and admonishes them to come to future events. Jennifer, 28, a Californian who recently got her masters in urban planning, examines posters for community service initiatives. While she checks her Blackberry, her friend Michael, a native New Orleanian, explains how after he was laid off from a restaurant job last January, he decided to found Youth Ambition, a non-profit that will mentor at-risk youth. DC native and Howard grad Kimberly, who moved to New Orleans from Phoenix in May, chats with an engineer who just moved here from Jackson—about New Orleans’ vibrant culture, about how it takes six months to find your feet in a new city. All of the bright, go-getting 20-somethings milling around the Community Book Center are part of New Orleans’ post-Katrina explosion of entrepreneurialism and development, which has made the city a hub for socially-minded Millennials. All of them are black.
Reporters love talking about the city’s recent “brain gain,” and they usually credit it to people like me: young, white, creative, college-educated, and from elsewhere. Before Katrina, the city was 68 percent black; now it is 61 percent. The issue of New Orleans' newcomers is charged and often drawn along racial lines, with an influx of privileged white kids supervening low-income and middle-class black natives displaced by the storm. But the reality is more nuanced: The recovery effort and New Orleans’ inviting business climate are also a magnet for young black people from around the nation.
This group is in a unique position: They have access to New Orleans’ burgeoning opportunities, but are more attuned to the needs of the city's black community than their white peers. Many are preoccupied with ensuring that the city evolves equitably. New Orleans’ population is still 29 percent lower than it was pre-Katrina. As the city makes crucial decisions about school reform, urban planning, business development, and cultural continuity, black Millennials are shaping the city’s future and protecting its past.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a Houston native and author of Harlem is Nowhere, is one of them. Sitting beside a brick fireplace and piles of books in her Tremé apartment, she tells me she moved to New Orleans in 2010 and instantly bonded with local spots like the Community Book Center and cultural arts space the Gris Gris Lab. Rhodes-Pitts is acutely aware of the need for such spaces, which strengthen the continuity of black culture in the city’s core neighborhoods amid worries of gentrification. The black population in her neighborhood, Tremé, has declined by 20 percent since Katrina. Many houses remain vacant.
Rhodes-Pitts sometimes worries that white newcomers to neighborhoods like Bywater and Tremé don’t keep a pulse on the city’s rich black urban history. She recalls hearing one commentator on a radio program gush about creative young people arriving, and was infuriated that the radio program didn’t acknowledge all the people whose lives were destabilized by the storm, particularly the black population. “It was just so coded, whose arrival they were celebrating,” Rhodes-Pitts says. She thinks that young black people like herself may slip beneath the radar because they are more likely to get plugged into the city’s preexisting black community: “There’s a way in which comparable young people of African descent may not see themselves as arriving to change things—rather they’re arriving to be drawn into what’s already going on.”
New Orleans wasn’t always such a magnet for youthful energy. For decades, the city was known for its stagnant economy, which depended on the declining oil, gas, and shipping industries. In the 1990s, Louisiana experienced a net loss of 41,000 25-to-35-year-olds. But since Katrina, redevelopment initiatives and an increase in government investment and grants to creative industries like film has fueled a New Orleans renaissance. The proportion of the city’s college-educated adults jumped from 26 to 32 percent in the last decade. 504ward, a program focused on retaining young talent in the city, has 7,200 members, 70 percent of whom aren’t from New Orleans. Idea Village, a start-up incubator, has launched over a thousand businesses.
Lavonzell Nicholson has directly benefited from these resources. A few years before the storm, she came to the city, where she has family, to look for a job. When she couldn’t find one, she returned to Baltimore to get an MBA at Johns Hopkins. She returned post-Katrina and founded PlayNOLA, a start-up that runs sports leagues for young professionals across the city, inspired by a 2009 business plan competition hosted by Idea Village and 504ward. “In the devastation of the city, people have found light. We’re willing to test ideas out,” she says. As a black woman in the typically white, male world of sports entrepreneurship, she is aware of her twin roles: helping her white peers be more diversity-minded, and providing a role model to other women of color. “My presence brings awareness,” she says.
Nicholson views her company as a perfect example of what she sees as the Millennial generation’s value system of combining quality of life with community outreach. She goes out of her way to tell young members of her West Bank church and her sisters, who are in college, that entrepreneurship is an important option in the New Orleans where they’re coming of age. (Her parents are still wondering when she’ll get a “real job.”)
Other young black professionals, like 28-year-old Bryan Lee, Jr., are drawn to New Orleans’ rich black culture. Lee, a New Jersey native, nearly took a job at a well-regarded architecture firm in New York City. Instead, he decided to move to New Orleans, a decision he considers to be one of the best he’s ever made. He's now an associate at Billes Partners, a prominent, minority-owned firm (their motto is “Create Innovate Inspire”) where he nudges white coworkers to consider the community effects of design—like adding a basketball court to a park instead of just creating an open lawn. At the local chapter of the National Association of Minority Architects, which relaunched after Katrina, he's helping to initiate a mentorship program.
Lee says he gets ideas from both white friends and his African-American barber, who runs a neighborhood outreach program called Close Ties. “I feel like for our generation it’s normal to be that gumbo,” he says, alluding to his peers’ diversity. Now that he’s ensconced in the community—serving as a mentor for local teenagers, providing feedback to urban planners—he has a feeling he’ll stay in New Orleans for a long time.
Brittany, 23, didn’t move to a brand new city—she got reacquainted with her old one. She was 16 when Katrina made landfall and inundated her family’s house in Gentilly. She evacuated to Atlanta, graduated from college in Kansas, then returned last year. The economics major was excited about reconnecting with friends from high school, but many of them hadn’t come back. The middle-class black neighborhood where she grew up was “like a ghost town,” full of houses that had never been reoccupied.
Brittany moved to Central City and set out to build a new group of friends. Most are transplants, drawn to education and non-profit jobs from places as varied as Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Missouri. Like her, they practice capoeira and volunteer at community and cultural events. “It’s a mix of white and black and all my friends are very open-minded. There’s a lot of multiracial people: even though they’re transplants, it’s a good sample of what New Orleans is,” she says. “And the funny thing about it is, they don’t want to move back.”
Photo courtesy of Andy Cook.