My Love Letter To New Orleans

March 31, 2009 · By Sloane Davidson, Founder and CEO, Hello Neighbor

Frenchmen Street Institution

“Way down yonder in New Orleans In the land of dreamy scenes There's a garden of Eden You know what I mean.”

Dear New Orleans,

I have loved you since the moment I laid eyes on you. It was March of 2002 and I was being spontaneous, feeling full of adventure and madly in love, and madly in love with being madly in love and set off on a road trip from Pittsburgh, PA with the goal of hitting the coast. We drove through the night and hit the Florida panhandle. We lingered on the beach and stumbled upon Destin, and drove West until we found you.

I often talk of cities as if they were people. You know this about me. They take on human-like qualities and some become fast friends, others short-lived lovers, and hopefully one day I'll find one to be with forever. But then there was you. It was the best first date I've ever been on. Everything was so funny, eye-opening, new. We laughed, we drank, we ate, we listened to music and we wandered the streets with not a care in the world! We'd been to so many of the same places, we liked the same random things "You like open courtyards, I LIKE open courtyards" and "You like brass bands playing on the street, I LOVE brass bands playing on the street!" It was like everything was falling into place just so we could have the perfect evening.

You lightly took my hand and led me through the crowd and looked over your shoulder to make sure I was ok. We didn't have a destination in mind, we just let whatever happened happen. We talked closer and closer in the waning light that turned day to night and when you kissed me goodnight, my heart skipped a beat. I missed you the second we parted ways. We were inseparable that trip. Remember that nap we took in Jackson Square? In an afternoon daze, we looked up at the clouds and talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. We ate at Cafe Maspero and drank at Lafitte's and meandered the cemetery for hours and took the streetcar and we were unstoppable!

We were so young. Such kids. It felt too soon to make a permanent change. I had so many things on my mind and a whole life taking off up North. I felt like I hadn't even really begun yet. I wasn't ready. So when I had to go, I'll never forget you kicked and screamed and begged me to stay. "Life isn't the same without you!" you said. Tore at my heartstrings. I almost did too. Almost stayed.


I came back two years later. You were the same. Better even. Sweeter. I was growing up! I had my first taste of a "real" job and was fleeing as fast as I could from Boston to California to chase my dreams. I wanted to give back, wanted to make a difference in the world and leave my mark. My idealism was back and I just knew something special was waiting for me out there, and I was still madly in love and you were sharing me on this journey - as you had the last. This time, I explored more than just you. I went down Plantation Road, camped in Grand Isle, drove up through Houma, Morgan City, New Iberia. I just wanted to know more about you, I couldn't resist. In learning more about you, I learned more about myself. I learned to trust my instincts, I learned to let go and let life fall before me. This beautiful amazing life that was unfolding in front of me at every turn.

I settled into Los Angeles and five years passed.

And then, loss. Hurricane. Another. Devastation. How could it be? The light in your eyes almost disappeared forever. I cried for you. Big crocodile tears. I've never been good with loss, with saying goodbye and from all I saw, this seemed almost too much to bear. There was scandal and disappointment. I couldn't come visit and couldn't console you. I was working and had a life of my own I couldn't just up and abandon. I donated money, I did what I could. But I vowed - then and there - that one day, one day, I would come back for an extended visit to give all I could.

Sister City Cartegena

After all, it's not every day that someone makes you feel that alive. I mean sure, I've been to others cities, all over the world in fact (I sent you that postcard from Cartegena telling you how much she reminded me of you) - and you - you've had lots of visitors, lots of people come and go. I imagine to some extent we did what people do, we thought less and less of each other. But somehow my thoughts always went back to you. To your bright colored houses of the French Quarter, the long wide boulevards of the Garden District, the shotgun houses scattered through the city, the music a mix of jazz, blues, Cajun and zydeco, the food, the revelry. But there was more, the Southern Hospitality; how you hug when you first meet someone (it's so adorable); how inviting you are to take anyone in and make them feel at home. Sure sometimes you have one too many and do things you regret. No one's perfect! Not everyone feels about you the way I do. But I know you have a strong sense of family, of God, of community and that means a lot to me.

I started plotting my return. First in my head, then to a few friends. I won't get into all of it now, but life has thrown me a few curve balls and so I have some time on my hands and some resources to spare. It's been my dream to come back to you. I got to the point a few weeks ago where I just knew. So I told people:

"After SXSW, I'm going to New Orleans and I'm going to stay for at least a month. I'm going to freelance volunteer - reach out to my networks and get connected to nonprofits really making a difference in the area and people who are committed to your rebirth and to building community. I want to volunteer doing everyday tasks, building houses, feeding the homeless, planting neighborhood gardens, but I also want to volunteer my social media, digital and fundraising experience. I want to help nonprofits assess their current structures and help devise best practices for them. It can be a website redesign, a fundraising program or a whole social media strategy. Whatever it is, I want to give give give every day as long as I'm there and make all the difference I can."

I know! Can you believe that I can do all these things now? I've grown up so much since the girl you once knew and I can't wait to show you all I learned out there in California the past 5 years. So many amazing people have opened themselves up to me already! It's amazing when you're doing something for the right reason how the pieces just seem to fall into place.

It still might not be forever. It might still be at the "it's right for right now" phase. But I promise you this. You have me heart and soul. I'm here as long as you'll have me. I can't wait to get started.

Yours now and forever, Sloane