Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the subsequent levee breaches and flooding resulted in a demographic transformation of the city of New Orleans. Its metropolitan population has dropped by between 300,000 and 400,000 residents. And many of those who have returned are today living in outlying parishes rather than New Orleans proper.
For retail, the changes mean that New Orleans is a different kind of city — it has become a commuter city rather than residential. Traffic on major highways into the city is up by 90,000 cars a day post-Katrina. The city empties at night, a ghost of its former self. Retailers located in the city's core are grappling with this new reality. Many are operating on limited hours, if they are open at all.
I visited three major retail destinations in a driving tour through the region. In New Orleans itself, General Growth Properties' Riverwalk mall has reopened, but the bulk of its shops remain closed. The stores have cleaned or renovated their spaces, but have not yet reopened. Walking through the property, I encountered no more than a few dozen people, and only about 25 percent of the shops were open. But the people who were there were optimistic. An operator of the mall's camera shop — who himself had returned to New Orleans just three weeks prior — pointed through the mall's riverfront windows at a Carnival cruise ship docked in the Mississippi.
“The cruises are returning, the conventions are returning and tourists are returning,” he said. “New Orleans will be back.”
While I was walking around, Chico's had a table set up outside its empty storefront where a lone employee handed out applications to prospective workers.
Just up Canal Street a few blocks sits the upscale Shops at Canal Place. All the in-line shops were renovated or open. However, the anchors — Brooks Brothers and Saks Fifth Avenue — seemed a little further off. But the property is clearly en route to revival.
The west bank of the Mississippi is a different picture. General Growth's Oakwood Center is a ghost mall. Metal barricades bar car and pedestrian traffic from many of the entrances. The property's Sears is being used as an emergency services center. One of the mall's entrances is a “checkpoint” and spray-painted signs everywhere warn against trespassing and advise anyone coming in to wear safety goggles.
Structurally — at least from outward appearances — the mall appears to be intact. The interior is a different story. According to reports, the mall was ravaged by the storm and looted, and fires inside wreaked havoc.
Elsewhere, in the hardest-hit part of New Orleans — the lower 9th ward — there is little sign that anything has or will be done. That part of the city has been robbed of nearly all its residents. Those that remain are heavily dependent on aid. Retail establishments have been turned into emergency distribution centers while fast-food parking lots serve as camping grounds for volunteers.
In the grand scheme, retail is a low priority for what needs to be restored. But looking at the sector provides a glimpse. After all, retailers are reactive and driven by demographics. Seeing where retail is coming back helps illustrate the path of New Orleans' rebirth. And for parts of the city, big questions remain.