New Orleans The HBO show Treme is gearing up for another go in their efforts to Disneyland New Orleans as a constant musical carnival and cultural minstrel show. In the past I’ve had mixed feelings about David Simon’s show and the fact that though he means terribly well, but is missing the heartbeat and essence of the city and is miles from the mark he set in The Wire, his exceptional series set in Baltimore. Now I have to admit that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by the fantasy of HBO’s Treme, and have been overlooking the real and present danger faced in the New Orleans Treme neighborhood by the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency and its vision in the Choice Neighborhoods redevelopment of the area.
Sometimes you only see what is under your nose, when you see something somewhere else. This happened to me yesterday morning while I met with several colleagues from Memphis before they embarked on a dog-and-pony tour in New Orleans organized by the City of New Orleans and our Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). They had sent me the agenda for their tour and were interested in a reality check before they were trotted around the city to look at Treme in what New Orleans was touting as a coming model for “heritage tourism” and the impact of a “bio-district.” Having been in Memphis only weeks ago to work with scores of organizations on the proposed “redevelopment” (read destruction) of Foote Homes near the Civil Rights District and the Memphis Bio-District, suddenly it hit me what was slipping under the tent in our own city.
Part of the dispute here was well known and a battle seemingly already lost when HANO and its partners including Pres Kabacoff’s Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) Properties and others had been chosen to redevelop the old, solidly built Iberville Housing Project abutting the French Quarter. The post-Katrina reshaping of the city’s public housing in the so-called “big four” projects had delayed the return of thousands of tenants and its shrinking number of units had pushed many lower income families into mini-ghettos in rental housing elsewhere in the city at premium prices. Kabacoff and HRI had been locally and nationally controversial and infamous for their earlier pre-storm devastation of the St. Thomas Housing Project and its conversion into River Gardens and hasty record of systematic exclusion after completion in what was supposed to become a viable mixed income development. Iberville had long been felt to have been in the HRI sights and their emerging partnership was unsettling to many. Timing is everything and HANO and HUD took advantage of the dislocation post-Katrina to push through its plans when opposition was disjointed and local residents were scattered.
The $30 million from HUD through its Choice Neighborhoods project though is a much bigger problem than just what happens to Iberville in the destruction of yet another housing project. The footprint of the project when I looked at the map is huge and encompasses a lot of the 7th Ward and virtually all of Treme in a 300 square block area bounded by Tulane Avenue (which puts the program into the CBD and the “bio-district” and new hospital construction across Canal Street), St. Bernard Avenue, Rampart (one of the boundaries of the French Quarter) and Broad Street going West and into Mid-City. The “heritage tourism” notion may currently be aimed at taking over control of Armstrong Park that includes historic Congo Square, and several cultural buildings like the Mahalia Jackson concert hall, which would fit hand in glove with the tune Simon and HBO’s Treme have humming and distracting us with its siren song.
In a story in the New Orleans Tribune, reporter Lovell Beaulieu quotes ex-SNCC organizer and long time Treme community and cultural activist, Jerome Smith, on how he sees the threat, including from self-styled groups like People United to Save Armstrong Park:
We were too busy smoking a cigar and drinking a root beer. There was a lot of displacement, promises. Let’s go after the promises. The folks who had the resources were busy battling each other. I think we have a class thing here. There’s this big eraser, and because of our absence from a historical consciousness, we are allowing ourselves to be erased. When the water came citywide, it also came with a rope. It’s the new day lynching. We have to be cautious. We speak about the hood. They have something more vicious than the hood. Before they used to kidnap us, now they take the property, with our assistance.
Harsh words? Perhaps, but in an editorial note Tribune publisher, Beverly McKenna, is also crystal clear that Treme residents have to say “No” to the real estate interests and developers who are trying to “blockbust” Treme in reverse by waving money now so they can flip the property to incoming white settlers sooner than later. The headline on Beaulieu’s story was Gentrification: The new segregation? White Flight in Reverse and included the outrage of a picture of white panhandlers in what was for years the African-American community’s Main Street on Claiborne Avenue. McKenna relates stories of cold calls to property and business owners with offers to pack and move to prepare for the newcomers.
In HBO’s Treme we watch the petty dispute of self-styled hipster and WWOZ DJ with his gay neighborhoods in Treme over noise and are lured into the current political and cultural divide over sex and gender, and it is easy to forget that both are already interloping gentrifiers in Treme at the sharp and painful points of the longer and still bridgeless chasm of race and class. Who knows what “heritage” tourism might be, and I can hardly wait to hear a report from my Memphis colleagues on what the City’s description might have entailed. Nonetheless, the claims now cropping up everywhere in Treme that HUD, Choice Neighborhoods, HRI and others are really just trying to extend the French Quarter past its historic boundaries at Rampart, a mile from the Mississippi River, another mile or so into and through Treme through gentrification and displacement of this classically, hundreds of years old, African-American community seem real and present dangers.