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NEW ORLEANS -- The Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans is a haven for the artistic and bohemian. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, it’s one of the neighborhoods benefiting from the surge of gay and lesbian transplants, relocating to and rebuilding the city.
“It’s been a remarkable journey,” said Will Poole, who with his partner Loren Penton bought the Maison de Macarty Bed and Breakfast.
They opened just in time for Halloween weekend, one of the biggest LGBT celebrations in the city.
Poole and Penton lived in New Orleans before the storm but moved to Denver. When the lease ran out on a chocolate shop they owned there, they decided to come back to the Crescent City.
“There is opportunity and affordability here,” Poole said. “We’ve been watching properties since Katrina. Prices are great now, right for businesses and there’s no bad neighborhood. It’s the perfect time to be here.”
What’s driving Poole and others to set up shop is what’s always kept “The City That Care Forgot” afloat: tourism.
“We don’t just have seasonal conventions,” Poole said. “New Orleans is a party seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We have our own form of glitz and glamor. People love it.”
More and more LGBT visitors are discovering post-Katrina New Orleans. An estimated 135,000 revelers took part in Southern Decadence this year, held Labor Day weekend.
Organizers say the city’s largest gay and lesbian festival pumped $160 million into the local economy.
“Southern Decadence is a good measure of what’s happening here,” Poole said. “The numbers were up, the city is on a gay and lesbian rebound. We’ve always been accepted, but now it seems more the case.”
Poole and Penton are just two just of the faces of today’s gay NOLA. Prominent Los Angeles nightclub entrepreneur Sandy Sachs recently became the first female owner of the French Quarter’s most popular gay hot spot, the Bourbon Pub and Parade.
The Pub has special meaning for Sachs, who graduated from Tulane University.
“It was the first gay club I stepped foot in,” Sachs said. “The Pub is the cornerstone of the LGBT community here.”
More than keeping the Pub a favorite venue for locals and visitors familiar with the city, Sachs wants to make New Orleans one of the top five U.S. gay and lesbian destinations. Sachs aims to draw more lesbian visitors by adding events just for the ladies and plans on opening a coffee shop across from the Pub next year.
“The biggest challenge is convincing the LGBT community there is something to do here,” Sachs said. “As a business owner you have to expand your marketing and reach people who might go to San Francisco or other cities instead of New Orleans.”
Local gay residents are also doing their part.
Artist and Tulane graduate student Derek Galose lives just a few blocks from the Pub on Bourbon Street with his partner. He moved here after the storm to help restore buildings that were damaged -- and ended up falling in love with the city.
“It’s a stronger place now,” Galose said. “People are safer than they were before the storm. You really have to come here and experience it to appreciate it.”
The population of the city is still less than 20 percent of what it was before the storm, but interest continues to grow.
“It’s funny, we’ve had a few guests say the city isn’t at all what they had expected,” Poole said. “A couple of them told me they’d like to move here.”
A half-decade after those unforgettable images of flooding, looting and chaos, a growing number of LGBT residents are transforming the city.
More than generating revenue, they bring a commitment to see New Orleans emerge as the next top gay hot spot.