Treme for Tourists: The Shell of the City Set to Music

ACORN Personal Writings Rebuild New Orleans

00030065New Orleans Henry Butler, the well known New Orleans piano player, and his music were featured on the Treme episode in the regular HBO Sunday slot.  Early in the show, he said it was “good to be home.”  In the real world of post-Katrina, Butler had showed up with thousands of others on the porch of the ACORN building at the time on Elysian Fields near the corner of St. Claude.  He had waited his turn.  ACORN was one of the few places open and able with crews of workers and volunteers and running a home “gutting” program that ended up handling close to 6000 houses before all was said and done.  There was no FEMA money, city money, federal money, or anything but what people put forward or what ACORN had raised.  Butler got all of this.  He didn’t mince words.  He wanted ACORN to do the gutting, he knew his place on the list, but was desperate to get home and be sure that his house was declared more than 50% damaged and therefore ineligible for recovery monies from the state Road Home disaster.  The real cost of gutting each house down to the studs so it could dry out and be prepped for rebuilding was $2500.  Butler paid it gladly and the day the work was finished came by and gave CD’s of his music to all of the workers and staff around the building.  He has been quoted frequently by reporters and others speaking about how much ACORN, the gutting, and its work fighting to rebuild the city meant to him.   This will never be a part of the story in the tourist version of Treme.

I loved David Simon’s The Wire, set in Baltimore.  I was never confused that it was “real” or some kind of docudrama about Baltimore.  It was good drama in an urban setting that was filled with straight talk, bent angles, and people from unions, politics, crime, and throughout the city that were multi-dimensional, complex, and felt real.  ACORN organizers and some other commentators in Baltimore felt slighted by the show because it didn’t depict the part of the world that included community organizing.  I got that, but I was a fan.

I’m having a harder time with Treme. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the show is on the air, and I’m delighted to see it set in New Orleans.  When they film in front of my house at Fredrick Douglass High School or elsewhere in the Bywater neighborhood where I live, I’m happy to move my truck out of the way.  I’m friendly to the caterers, truck drivers, security and duty cops.   I shake hands and give the thumbs up at local bars and restaurants featured as background for the action.  On that score it’s all good and thanks, Mr. Simon.

With The Wire I knew it was all just made up stuff, but I liked the gritty slices of the Baltimore we knew being part of the action.   Simon doesn’t know New Orleans, but in Treme he tries to compensate with more “historical” and “contemporary” references to substitute for the real New Orleans, the city he seems to like, but can’t quite grip, except from a tourist perspective, which just grates on me.  Even as great as New Orleans music is and as much as I like the exposure given to some of the local players as a stalwart citizen of the hometown, I often have trouble with the one-dimensional minstrel show aspects of all of this, which sometimes are just painful to watch.

One of the things that worked in The Wire was the nuanced and complex way that Simon, a former police and beat reporter up there, handled the bad guys.  They were real people.  He drew you in.  You rooted for some of the guys and against other guys.  There is no day in the streets of any city where I wouldn’t want to make sure that Omar had my back and was a block or two behind me.

New Orleans is a violent city, even more so that Baltimore, but after a year a half it is amateurish how Treme deals with this intrinsic part of the patter n of the city.  One of the main characters is the Indian chief whose struggle and cultural rectitude is supposed to attract some of our sympathy despite the fact that he is invariably a cranky son-of-a-bitch.  In the first season we watched him lay in wait and then beat up a young fellow within an inch of his life, and possibly to his death, who had stolen his tools.  Nothing more on that…it was all just left hanging and random.  In Treme the cops are plastic, tinny, and nothing more than crooks with a badge, save for one hero, who seems largely our hero because he gets along with the sniveling, heart on her sleeve lawyer, who is so committed to the truth that she can’t tell her teenage daughter about her father’s suicide.

The violence this season was a grisly rape and general beatdown of one of the main characters, a woman bartender, as she moved to close up.  Where was Simon on this story?  None of this was real.  Watching the “tourist” Treme, we’re supposed to believe that there is a bar in the hood in our fair city that doesn’t have a shotgun or some kind of firearm behind the counter.  We’re supposed to believe that our woman bartender wasn’t packing heat, mace and more.  We’re supposed to believe that there’s a woman or man barkeep in the City of New Orleans that blithely packs the day’s money in their purse or pocket and stands in the dark to lock the door.  Maybe all of that happens in Disneyland, some college town or Toronto or perhaps even Baltimore, but that’s not New Orleans, friend!

I don’t want to seem unkind about Treme, but the tourism tinge of everything also pulls everything about race out of kilter from the real city.  In a service industry where more than 50,000 people were employed in the hospitality industry before the storm and restaurants were unable to open for years because public housing was closed and affordable housing was out of reach for the largely African-American service workers trying to return to their jobs.  Despite the fact that this is the New Orleans industry, it is a afterthought seen through a story of white woman chef whose  black sous-chef has a French accent?   I don’t even want to touch the character that is a white former DJ, trying to be a rapper in our city which is famous for our hip hop and rappers.  One of the truest notes in the show slipped out this season when he admitted he had gone to Newman, an exclusive, uptown prep school, which to hometown folks just about said everything about this dude!  It also says yet more about Treme’s losing struggle to come to grips with the reality of race in the real city which can only be ignored in the tourist’s ghetto of New Orleans, where Simon and his team seem lost.

Using Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native from Press Park, the first African-American suburban development in the city, as perhaps the key character doesn’t give Treme the cover it needs in Treme. He’s a trombone playing, good times, skirt chasing scamp, and he plays it to the hilt, but that’s simply a caricature.  For some reason Simon chose a cartoon figure rather than a someone who felt like a real working musician from the city.  You want to be a serious musician in tourist-Treme, then you need to be based in New York, speak Dutch, play the violin, or something.  Phyllis Montana, the real daughter of a former Indian chief, is one of the few touches of reality anywhere near all of this, and her line about Pierce getting a “job job” rather than all of these gigs was a lightening shot of reality in the show.  I can still remember having organized carriage drivers in the French Quarter and their endless arguments about whether there work was a “job” or a “hustle,” and all that went with that including unionization, benefits, respect and dignity.  This is real!

Speaking of caricatures, all New Orleans politicians are corrupt and incompetent.  Yawn.  This is the rap, not the reality.  It’s the uptown club view and the outsider’s assumption.  The Simon of The Wire knew better.  It’s time for that Simon to come back to work on Treme.

The references to Katrina are too painful in a tourist-Treme. I know someone who couldn’t watch a show the first season without crying.  The show does pull some heartstrings for locals, although in my view Katrina is just a docudrama reference and little more.  The real life drama in every family of return, rebuilding, rejection, or recovery just doesn’t make it into Treme. In real life the resilience of the city and its population to come back and remake the city is one of the great and lasting dramas of heroism of low and moderate income working people of all races and backgrounds.  It hurts me and is painful for me to have to watch every show and think about how much is missed.

Working with ACORN in New Orleans, we had a front row, frontline seat in that struggle, but like everything that has to do with real people in the city, working and lower income people that have been and will be the majority of the city, those fights and victories that prevented the hijacking of New Orleans, its neighborhoods, and people will simply stay another story for the real citizens rather than tourist-Treme.

I was driving to the gym yesterday in my truck.  I still have a “Call ACORN – Hurricane Recovery” sign on the back.  I will always ride for the brand.  A car came up Rampart as I drove up the Treme neighborhood boundary line and started honking.  The passenger window was down, so that when he caught up to me, I looked over.  A guy was grinning with his thumb up, and I could see him mouthing the words, “Yeah, ACORN!” as he signaled and turned right on Esplanade.

Treme is better than nothing about New Orleans, but there’s a great show about the real city and its people that is still waiting to be made.   Sadly, Treme is not that show.  At least not yet.