Two years ago, I got a text from a cousin I love announcing that she had moved to New Orleans, leaving behind a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and a job of millennial fever dreams. At 26, Tess was head of research and development for Christina Tosi and her baking empire, Milk Bar, the great 21st-century dessert disrupter.
At the age of 12, Tess was already selling her brownies to a gourmet market on Cape Cod; her ascent seemed the equivalent of an anointment at J.P. Morgan for the child who went to bed calculating short positions on foreign currencies.
Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.
This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.
I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.
Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said. The news was an awakening. When she had moved to New Orleans she volunteered for Planned Parenthood. She knocked on doors to ask for donations, expecting at least some to be slammed in her face. But nearly everyone she met was already making contributions to Planned Parenthood.
“The New South’’ was a term conceived in the aftermath of the Civil War to suggest a set of aspirations of some southern elites who hoped to rebuild a backward and devastated place into a world better aligned with Northern urban values.
Over the many decades. it has acquired various layers of nuance, but today it tends to call to mind a string of cities from Charlotte, N.C., to Austin, Tex., that have essentially been Brooklynized by way of a progressive social culture and a tweaked fidelity to some of the South’s more marketable traditions.
In this iteration the New South has a powerful public relations arm in the magazine Garden & Gun, which really would require many more thousands of words to properly describe, but it is presented, in essence, as a lush-life destination where the mint-julep cups are always sterling, the leather is hand-sewn and the pastrami is made from duck you shot yourself.
It has been a successful formula. These revitalized cities have benefited from the system of afflictions that places like New York and San Francisco impose on their young. At the end of last year, LinkedIn, which regularly mines its database of 150 million worker profiles to analyze patterns in American employment and migration, reported that Atlanta had received more workers from New York City than any other place in the country during the preceding 12 months. That development has continued for most of this year.
In the last 15 years or so, I have made no fewer than 50 trips to Birmingham, Ala., where my husband’s family lives, each time marveling at how much more exquisitely it meets a particular set of consumerist and architectural fantasies — the book shops, the midcentury modern furniture stores, the retooled industrial spaces, the gyms that are indistinguishable from the ones in TriBeCa, the soaring leaded windows, the restaurants now nationally known and the new ones always coming up.
I once landed at the airport with a hypnotic determination to try the pizza of a young African-American chef who had returned home, by way of Cobble Hill and Per Se, to open a restaurant in an old Birmingham post office. Two years ago, in the lead-up to the special election that would find Doug Jones beating his Republican opponent Roy Moore for Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, it was hard not to notice that nearly every political sign on a lawn in a Republican suburb a few minutes from downtown was a sign for Doug Jones.
I would return to New York and market these truths to skeptical friends whose experience of the South typically never extended passed Arlington, Va.
It is this understanding of the modern Southern city — that you could nurture the addictions you had cultivated somewhere else — that has allowed places like Birmingham to grow into budding technology centers and to lure the bright and the driven.
A few years ago, Time Inc. set up a campus there. Shipt, the online same-day grocery delivery service, was started in Birmingham by a 32-year-old high-school dropout who sold the company to Target two years ago for $550 million.
How will these new abortion laws affect the redistribution of talent to places whose economies prosper from that talent? Under the current conditions, I wondered if women like Tess and her friends, many of whom moved from New York or Los Angeles, would have chosen to relocate to the Deep South. I asked some of them, and they told me that they were not sure.
One, Allison Gourlay, arrived in New Orleans a few years ago from a studio in Greenwich Village she could barely afford. At first she had a hard time finding work and questioned her decision.
“I was talking to a friend one day when I wasn’t sure and she said, ‘Stay, this place is about to blow up. It’s on the cusp of something big, can’t you feel it?’ This is cheesy, but I got goose bumps. New Orleans is really a place to establish work-life balance but I’m getting ready to start a family and it scares me,” she said.
“When you meet all these young people moving here who are so passionate and intelligent and changing the rules and making the city what it is, it is so inspiring. But it really worries me that it could no longer be that place.”