'Treme' Stew: Race, Culture, Politics

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As 'Treme' airs, New Orleans is undergoing its first Census count since the levees broke.

Photo by: Pangaeus

As 'Treme' airs, New Orleans is undergoing its first Census count since the levees broke.

“Welcome to the City care forgot” a black father says with a bitter chuckle as he welcomes home his musician son. The son has cancelled a gig in New York—because he is worried about his dad—who he has learned is living in a hurricane-damaged barroom in their neighborhood on the edge of the French Quarter called Treme.

This scene comes near the end of the first installment of David Simon's HBO Series “Treme”—an episode he aptly titles, “Do You Know What I Means?”

Fans of “The Wire” may be a little perplexed at the pace of this new Simon offering, but locals, expatriates (like me) and fans of New Orleans know it takes a while to get to know the city. The series opens the way one prepares the staple New Orleans Monday dish of Red Beans and Rice. The beans have to soak overnight. Then there is the chopping and slicing of ingredients. These are tossed in with the beans. It all cooks at a low simmer until all of it melds into a deep, brown, rich, flavorful saucy stew.

From the music—which ranges from Louis Prima to a Professor Longhair riff on the piano—to the lingo (which is the place where most New Orleans movies flunk), Simon, with the help of local writers Lolis Eric Ellie and Tom Piazza, offers the right New Orleans ingredients, each in their proper proportion. “Treme isn't about the business of taking a
socio-economic or political view of the storm's ravages,” writes Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker. She is correct that Katrina politics is not the show's dominant flavor, so far. But it's there. It's there in the scene with the dad in the barroom.

The musician son is worried, not only that his dad is living in this bar that he does not own, but that he also spending all of his time trying to repair it. When he expresses these concerns, his dad will hear none of it. Instead, he tells the son to go pay the water bill.

“Let me understand something” the son says. “I came all the way down here from New York City to pay the water bill on a bar you don't even own?” There are no words in response, only a cold, hard, determined stare from the father, who is a Mardi Gras Indian Chief. The son finally obliges.”All right, OK.”

You can imagine scenes like this one played out all over the city after Katrina. Many a homeowner made just as momentous a (and some would think foolhardy) decision as the dad in the bar. They did it when they decided to stay and rebuild their home, even as neighbors on all side of them threw in the towel and gave up.

This is Simon's view of what saved New Orleans. He told USA TODAY, “What brought New Orleans back to the point where it is now—and that's not all the way back—has not been government intervention, has not been the money, it's been the culture. “

City Limits made a similar point about government efforts in its 2008 Special Report “1095 Days After Katrina.” In it, my co-author Jarrett Murphy and I pointed out that multibillion-dollar post-Katrina federal programs “undoubtedly helped thousands of people move back to New Orleans,” but that those programs' flaws “may have prevented many others from coming home.”

Exactly how many left, or returned, and how many post-storm newcomers have joined them, is a questions that's plagued New Orleans for nearly five years. It's no small coincidence that Treme premiered in the midst of the 2010 Census. In no city is this count more critical than New Orleans. Right now, Crescent City citizens have no reliable way of knowing if the crime rate is up or down, because crime rates are recorded per capita and nobody knows for sure how many people really inhabit the city.

As important as the overall number will be the color of those counted in New Orleans. It is widely believed that the city is significantly less black than before the levees broke. It is hard to talk about post-Katrina New Orleans and not mention politics, and hard to talk New Orleans politics and not discuss race.

Simon gets into it, rather subtly, near the start of episode one. It happens as the daughter of the man who ends up living in the bar, a black woman, is driving across the Crecent City Connection—one of the twin bridges that connects New Orleans to the West Bank, where majority white towns like Gretna lay. Just riding on the bridge causes her to shudder in anger: “Damn Gretna Police with guns telling black folks to go back.” It was a reference to a defining moment after Katrina, and one that will be debated for years to come: the move by Gretna police, guns drawn, to deny refugees access to the West Bank.

The debut of the series coincides with the first guilty plea by a former New Orleans Police officer for an alleged atrocity that occurred in September 2005 on another local bridge, the Danziger. The former cop, Michael Hunter, told the court that he and a squad of NOPD officers shot and killed two unarmed blacks and wounded four others. During the incident at least one officer is alleged to have stomped on a mentally disabled man as he lay dying from the gunshot wounds. This second bridge incident might find its way into the “Treme” script next season when the feds will likely be bringing the officers to trial.

After all, Simon already has a sharp civil rights lawyer in his cast of characters. She's married to John Goodman, a local activist who is trying to get anyone who will listen to understand that Katrina was not a natural disaster—it was man-made. Goodman rants, curses, even tosses a British correspondent's microphone into the waters of the Industrial Canal because he is so frustrated that nobody outside of New Orleans seems to comprehend what seems to him a simple point. Goodman is perfect for the role—big and loud. But Simon knows that most of America still isn't listening, and that the truth, like everything else about New Orleans, is far more complex than something you can bellow.

New Orleans was the 34th largest city in America pre-Katrina, and soon the Census will reveal whether the battered city can still cling to its top 50 ranking.

Simon may be right—New Orleans' unique culture might be the only chance it's got. Chance or not, at least it's got it. He ends part one with a jazz funeral. The musicians move with a slow, swaying half-step to “A Closer Walk with Thee.” The camera pans past a typically New Orleans graveyard, with its vaults raised above ground, trying to escape the water.

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