NEW ORLEANS – Five days after graduating from college in Philadelphia, Miji Park was gutting houses here.

Bright and articulate with a degree in urban planning, Park said she was “not the world’s best gutter,” so the 23-year-old volunteered for a month at The Idea Village, a local nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs. She interviewed more than 60 entrepreneurs that month, from New Orleans and everywhere else. Each was passionate about contributing new ideas and services to the post-Hurricane Katrina economic landscape, as were her colleagues.

Park had been here only a short while, but she realized that if any city in the United States could take a Katrina-induced breath of progressivism and turn it into something truly groundbreaking, it was New Orleans.

“It was amazing,” she said. “This to me was really the spirit of entrepreneurialism. It really drew me to the city.”

Park had lined up a well-paid research position in her hometown of Berkeley, Calif., and was to start in July 2006. She saw her work in New Orleans as more urgent and relevant, and she resisted the nice salary and a ticket home.

“The job in Berkeley was just a number and nothing else,” she said. “What I could get from New Orleans was so much greater.”

Park took a full-time position with The Idea Village last August as an associate in community development and urban planning, and she has been here since.

‘Greatest legacy’

It’s a story told over and over with out-of-state young professionals who arrive in New Orleans, bright-eyed and typically not long out of college, or young natives who return home with a renewed sense of civic pride and duty.

Although the influx is by no means massive, experts cite plenty of anecdotal evidence that New Orleans, cast nationally as a place where many residents have not returned and others are still mulling whether to leave, is quietly attracting young people drawn by a sense of purpose.

Philadelphia native Jennifer Glick, 27, graduated from Tulane University’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine and stayed in New Orleans to organize a sexual health program for teenage girls. Dan Favre, 25, from Joshua Tree, Calif., completed a summer internship for the Gulf Restoration Network and now works as a full-time campaign organizer for the nonprofit organization. There’s John Alford, 32, who started a new charter elementary school, and Stephanie Slates, 28, a project manager for New Leaders for New Schools.

Many, like Park, arrive to volunteer for a couple of weeks and decide to stay. Others hear about post-Katrina life from friends who have settled in New Orleans and become intrigued by the wealth of opportunity the rebuilding city seems to offer. Many feel compelled – called, even – to help right the host of New Orleans’ social ills that Katrina showed to the world.

“All the problems the city is facing – economic development, health care, education – are not that unique,” Park said. “I think post-Katrina, New Orleans is the greatest challenge our generation will ever face, and it’ll also be our greatest legacy.”

It’s a bold statement, especially for someone who describes herself as “not much of an optimist to begin with,” but therein lies the sentiment driving young people to a suffering city that before the August 2005 storm was hemorrhaging young talent as graduates sought job opportunities elsewhere because of New Orleans’ moribund economy.

Now, instead of the brain drain, the city is nurturing a brain gain. New Orleans has become the testing ground for a new career and lifestyle ideal among today’s 20-somethings – called “millennials” by some – one that places less importance on the value of money, title and a swift climb up the corporate ladder.

Faced with an increasingly global economy, less job security and more awareness of global problems, many graduates are seeking a more fluid and socially responsible career. New Orleans, with its myriad systems in crisis and authentic laissez faire charm, has emerged as a new mecca for adventurous young people hoping to start their careers, have a good time and make the world a better place.

Takes a Village

To Tim Williamson, 42, founder of The Idea Village, the influx of young people is more than a trend. He sees it as part of a shift in New Orleans’ collective ethos, one moving away from an entrenched old guard toward what he calls the “vanguards” of post-Katrina New Orleans.

The blow Katrina dealt to the city’s centuries-old economic, political and social patterns has created an unprecedented amount of room for new ideas to take hold, which is precisely the kind of gap Williamson hoped to fill in 2000 when he founded The Idea Village to focus on innovations in business.

“It’s based on the belief that how you fundamentally change the city is innovation, and innovation is based on the execution of ideas,” he said.

From 2002 to August 2005, The Idea Village received 215 applications for entrepreneurial assistance; since September 2005, the applications total 978. While the nonprofit group does not track age, Williamson acknowledges a rise in the population of young professionals, citing it as an indication that post-Katrina New Orleans is a magnet for fresh talent.

“Post-Katrina, there’s an opportunity for talent to be attracted to us because there’s an environment of social change. The people who are coming here are passion-driven. If you graduate from Harvard or something, you can move to New York and be just another person, or you can come here and be a part of something that’s going to put your mark on changing the city,” he said.

Richard Campanella, a geographer and associate director of the Tulane University Center for Bioenvironmental Research, estimated in early 2007 that 2,000 to 3,000 new young professionals had arrived in the city since Katrina.

In June, Forbes magazine ranked New Orleans 17th among major American cities for attracting young professionals, beating out larger metropolises like Houston, San Diego and Chicago. New Orleans placed third for its concentration of unmarried people in their 20s and 30s.

According to data from Hire Tulane, the university’s career services center, 25 percent of students who registered with the center during the 2006-07 school year said they planned to stay in New Orleans after graduation. Amjad Ayoubi, director of Hire Tulane, calls it a “very decent number,” considering that 80 percent of the student body is from out of state.

Teach for America has placed 120 new teachers, almost all of them age 22-35, in New Orleans for the 2007-08 school year. In addition, more than 200 Teach for America alumni, who have completed their two-year stints, decided to stay in New Orleans to continue their careers, 100 of them working within the education system.

Meet the ‘YURPs’

In something of a reversal, the long-suffering New Orleans public defenders office recently cherry-picked 10 new hires from some of the nation’s top law schools. Washington lawyer Brian Privor, who clerked in New Orleans after law school and recently completed a six-month post with Tulane University’s Criminal Law Clinic, said before Katrina, public defender positions in New Orleans often were seen as an inferior alternative to private practice or other government jobs. With impossible caseloads and scant funding, the office tended to attract only the most devoted public servants and those hungry for trial experience, as well as law school graduates who couldn’t land more attractive positions.

After garnering national media attention about the deplorable state of the criminal justice system after Katrina, the public defenders office began to see more interest. They hosted hundreds of law school volunteers to help clear a Katrina-induced backlog of indigent defense cases and received 110 applications for 10 public defender positions. Among the applicant pool were graduates from Harvard, New York University, Columbia and University of California-Berkeley, as well as Tulane and Loyola universities.

The public defenders office is “happy to be one avenue by which professional people are choosing the city of New Orleans post-Katrina,” said Christine Laymann, director of the office. “I know from personal conversations that those around the country who have applied to the OPD or who have offered their time on a volunteer basis are doing so in large part because they have been touched by the crisis in our city and want to do their part to help rebuild.”

Nathan Rothstein, 23, a native of Massachusetts, works three jobs, one as a recruiter for New Orleans College Prep Charter School, another developing the Newcomer Incentive Program for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, and an unpaid position developing the NOLA YURP Initiative, a Web site and nonprofit dedicated to helping foster a strong community of young professionals in New Orleans.

As a graduating senior, Rothstein had been offered a full-time position with the Democratic National Committee. He turned it down and headed south in June 2006, intent on absorbing as much of post-Katrina life and politics as possible.

“The minute I got here I decided to go to one meeting after another just to get a sense of what was going on. I didn’t speak; I just listened,” Rothstein said.

In April, Rothstein founded a Web site to help young professionals network, share resources and find jobs in New Orleans. While The Idea Village prefers the term “vanguards,” Rothstein’s project caters to “YURPs,” or young urban rebuilding professionals.

The Facebook-style Web site has attracted more than 500 members in the past two months. A list of 59 “member objectives” ranges from the vague and lofty – “alleviate the causes of poverty in New Orleans” – to the simple and specific – “create a political action committee … that could create and prioritize political objectives for young New Orleans professionals.”

Sanctimonious carpetbaggers?

Such eagerness sometimes makes New Orleans’ young professionals come off as naive to residents worn out by the daily grind of post-Katrina life.

It’s an easy criticism: They’re carpetbaggers, they’re dilettantes, they’re just here to get their do-gooder fix and after six months, they’re gone.

But several young people interviewed for this story said they have no plans to leave. Rothstein and Favre say they can see themselves settling down in New Orleans. Park says she’ll probably return to the West Coast ultimately but has resolved to stay through the summer of 2009, after which she plans to attend graduate school.

“I don’t see myself staying here for the long haul … but I’m a very loyal person, and I think in order to make an impact, you need a few years,” she said.

Williamson says the young professionals trend is going through a “sorting process,” wherein the newcomers are still finding work, finding one another and finding their voices.

“Once they gain the traction and momentum and realize they have influence – economic, social, political – when that happens, that’s when you’re going to see this movement reach the tipping point, I believe,” Williamson said.

Privor, the Washington lawyer whose six-month rebuilding stint has come and gone, acknowledges that the wide-eyed moxie of many young newcomers has a certain tinge of naivete and sanctimoniousness. However, he said, they still fill an important role in the rebuilding.

What’s more, their experiences in New Orleans, whether they last six months or six years, will form their sense of civic duty and social justice for the rest of their lives – and he should know.

A self-described cynic, Privor calls his time with the Criminal Law Clinic a “transformative experience,” helping him to better see the social obligation of his work.

“I think if you spend any significant amount of time here, I don’t think you can avoid being changed by it,” he said.

Molly Reid is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. E-mail her at [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.