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on March 18, 2013 at 7:14 PM, updated March 18, 2013 at 7:15 PM
The 300-year sweep of New Orleans history includes three major surges inentrepreneurship, with the city now in the midst of the third one, said Walter Isaacson, the best-selling author and New Orleans native, on Monday. He spoke at Gallier Hall for the opening the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week festival of start-ups.
An era from the founding of the city, when boosters for New Orleans sought to recruit people from an unusual mix of cultures, to cotton production innovations, the invention of sugar refining and the emergence of the steamboats in the early 1800s represented the first wave, said Isaacson, who serves as president of the policy research group the Aspen Institute and has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.
Isaacson identified another renaissance in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the city was a center for the cotton trade, writers rhapsodizing about New Orleans created a worldwide mystique for the city, the advent of cookbooks helped distinguish local cuisine and musicians influenced by the exceptional cultural blend created one of the city’s and country’s greatest contributions to culture with the rise of jazz.
“That was, to me, the real explosion of New Orleans creativity,” he said.
Then, he said, “There was somewhat of a great decline in New Orleans.” He cited the onset of a level of racial segregation previously unknown in the city, neighborhood development spreading out under the belief that more land was shielded from flooding by levees and population shifts to the suburbs.
But residents’ response to Hurricane Katrina, he said, ignited a new renaissance.
“The influx of people who came back to the city were people who really cared,” he said. “I think there was a new spirit that came in the wake of the hurricane.”
New Orleanians, he said, had a heightened sense of unified purpose. He recalled neighborhoods fighting for survival when the Bring New Orleans Back Commissionproposed turning some locations into green space, marked on maps by the now-infamous green dots.
“It was that rallying of neighborhoods that also created that sense of mission,” he said.
This environment helped introduce political reforms, education reforms and a rise in entrepreneurship, he said.
He recalled his famous recent subject, Apple founder Steve Jobs, saying that he preferred to work at the intersection of the arts and commerce, because creativity generates products with deeper meaning than mere commodities. Isaacson said New Orleans has an inherent advantage, with its colorful culture, to combine creativity with other pursuits.
“Now what I think is happening is that creativity is being connected to entrepreneurship,” in a business climate for start-ups that has been lauded nationally, he said.
To maintain and grow that trend, he urged residents to avoid 20th-century-style ethnic segregation and sprawl and ensure strong education opportunities for children. He recognized school reforms have been widespread but said they haven’t all been successful.
“If you want to make this sustainable, just make sure every kid in this community gets a shot at a decent education,” Isaacson said.