Over the past few weeks I have had hanging over my head the need to write a 10th anniversary post about Katrina. I’m not alone. It has been on the radar of every media outlet for months now. Everyone loves lists and anniversaries. If you have been reading and watching all the coverage you have Katrina-fatigue and understandably. So with this post I want to share something that has not been covered yet. This is the story of starting Dirty Coast and a word of warning on where the city might be heading.
On Sunday, August 28th in 2005 at 8am I was woken up by my then girlfriend Susan. I remember it like it was yesterday. She tapped my leg and said “Babe, the mayor is on TV. We have to leave town.” I had the reaction that most New Orleanians have, or at least used to have, when anyone said they were leaving town for a storm. “Really? Leave town? Miss the opportunity for a hurricane party?”
Yes. That is what I thought. In my defense I have attended some epic hurricane parties in the past. But she was insistent that we needed to leave. That everyone was leaving.
We packed up the car with our 2 dogs and made our way to my house to grab some items I needed for work. Computers and hard drives. Along the ride down Magazine Street we saw everyone closing shop and making preparations. There was a sense of panic that I had not witnessed before. The most surreal of days began with that drive down Magazine Street. Seventeen hours later we would arrive in Atlanta as refugees.
Have you ever been a refugee? It is strange now to think back at that time. An entire American city collectively, all at once turned into refugees. We were refugees and we were New Orleanians. How we came to arrive where we found refuge and the months or years later are unique to each of us. Together though we were “the displaced.”
Susan and I lived in Atlanta in a guest room for a week, in an attic bedroom in Zachary outside of Baton Rouge for a week and then in Lafayette for 6 weeks living above a garage. I could write about that experience at length but it is easy to summarize. You did what you had to do until you knew you could return to see just how much your own life had been impacted.
One item that I should share from my experience in Lafayette has to do with the story of Dirty Coast. Anywhere I could find wifi became my office. A CC's coffee shop was one of my temporary desks while we lived there. It was at this coffee shop that I designed the "Be A New Orleanian, Wherever You Are" sticker. The idea behind it was simple. If you live in New Orleans you are a unique breed of person. You live differently than the rest of the country. No matter where you are, you are a New Orleanian and should be proud of that fact. This is not just the case when something as momentous as a mass exodus occurs. You can be a New Orleanian living in Utah and not even know it. You visit New Orleans and you meet your people for the first time, you then might realize that you are home. These “Nola Converts” have moved to the city and embraced the culture for centuries. It seems we have an almost endless stock of New Orleanians living elsewhere just waiting to discover that this is where they belong.
Dirty Coast at this time was only a few designs, a domain name and an LLC. I had yet to print a shirt, launch the online store like I was planning. It just so happens that I was building a brand that would have some role to play in the Katrina story.
Before August 29th, Dirty Coast was being developed to fulfill a selfish need that I had. I wanted shirts that I could wear that represented the city I loved. The Quarter was filled with t-shirt shops selling to the lowest common denominator. There was a void that needed to be filled.
I grew up in the tree streets area of Uptown. I left for the first time to attend college in 1994. From '94-'99 I was away at school or traveling the country and had a short stint in Australia. Everywhere I went, when I would inform someone that I was from New Orleans, I would be met with such curiosity. It was such an easy icebreaker. These hundreds of conversations with those who had visited or wanted to visit made a major impact on me. Where I had grown up was a special place for so many people. This is what led to launching Dirty Coast and the creation of the sticker.
When you grow up somewhere you just know it as home. You have no measuring stick unless you have the luxury of travel at a young age. It isn't until you leave home that you can see it from the outside.
When I returned home in '99 I had a mission to learn more about my home town. In doing so I met many interesting people and discovered the neighborhoods. I drank the kool-aid like everyone else who makes the choice to live here. It does not take long to understand what makes this such a strange and intoxicating place. It’s our appreciation of the beauty of entropy, of having character, our lack of ambition to have to compete with other cities, our shared experiences like hurricanes and floods, the food and the humidity. It was our own special secret. Our own way of living, talking and being.
In 2000 when the MTV Real World and Starbucks came to town I thought we had been figured out. The secret was out. We were about to be invaded by the rest of America. It did not turn out to be that dramatic. All the PJ's did not close and the TV show just helped with the narrative that New Orleans was Party Town USA. More tourists would visit and stay within the confines of the French Quarter, never the wiser of what they missed within the neighborhoods we all lived in.
The invasion did happen after August 29, 2005 and is still happening.
After the storm we had people moving here not because they were New Orleanians at heart but because they wanted to help. People drawn to the challenge and wanting to take part in a once in a lifetime event. An entire American city forced to leave and then return to start again. What would happen? Could all the things that were broken finally be fixed? Would all those wonderful people be able to make it back home? Would they have a home if they could make it back?
What I experienced upon returning was more than I could have dreamed. People did return and were even more passionate about the city and their neighborhoods than ever before. It helped that so many that had no connection to the city were saying openly that it made no sense to rebuild a city like New Orleans. Every blog comment, politician and tv commentator who suggested that New Orleans did not deserve a second chance just made us that much more dedicated to rebuilding.
I realized that this T-shirt company I had wanted to launch before the storm so I could have some cool insider shirts to wear and sell to others like myself, had a much bigger mission. The lowly t-shirt can be a billboard that you wear. It can say to those you meet that this is part of my identity. The t-shirt is way to share what tribe you belong to. I listen to Rush. I am a vegan. I really love cross-fit. With Dirty Coast, each shirt could hint at what it means to be a New Orleanian. If designed well and with the right ideas these shirts could also spark conversation about the city at a time when it needed attention.
From that day in Lafayette to now we have tried as a brand to create designs that only those who are linked to this city and state would understand. Making the products that we hope you love has been a rewarding experience. It has allowed us to poke fun at the city we love. It has let us put statements and ideas into the public consciousness. Most importantly it has allowed us to meet so many of you, our neighbors and curious visitors. Every day we talk about and celebrate the city.
We also realize that we have taken part in our own way of adding a few lumens to the spotlight on the city since the federal flood protection failure of 2005. It is this spotlight that has both helped to revive parts of the city and now threatens what we have loved about it. The secret is out.
We now have money and investment coming to town which is a good thing, right? The problem with money is it does not care about culture or tradition or neighborhoods. Money does not care about the people. Money only cares about more money. Money is how every other city in America judges itself in comparison to one another. Ask anyone who lived in New York City in the 80’s what money can do to a neighborhood.
The heart of what makes New Orleans the special place, the source of all that is celebrated starts and ends with the people. It is those New Orleanians, wherever they might be, that make the culture. If those people can't afford to live in our neighborhoods then we will one day wake up and start making new bumper stickers. We will start printing stickers that say "Keep New Orleans Weird." And like Austin, it will be too late.