Tag Archives: David Simon

The Real Danger in Treme is HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods and Heritage Tourism

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.

Iberville Housing Projects ~ on the list to be torn down



What Does TV Say about Reality: Deconstructing HBO’s “Treme”

Professor Vicki Mayer on Treme

New Orleans    The HBO show, Treme, another auteur urban tour from David Simon following the wildly acclaimed Wire, may not have found mass appeal out there in viewerlandia, but in New Orleans literally everyone has an opinion, all of which made for a fascinating evening with Tulane media and communications professor Vicki Mayer as part of the Fair Grinds Dialogue series.  It was fascinating to listen to the Mayer’s presentation but also to hear the discussion.  People in New Orleans watch Treme for so many different and highly personal reasons that if this were an Occupy general assembly, the dialogue would never end, because quite simply “the personal is the perspective” for many here.

Mayer was able to color in parts of the picture that locals couldn’t imagine especially the enthusiasm and interest by scholars around the world.  After an astute opening comment on the way the film industry in New Orleans is “colonizing” the city and contributing to the “privatization of public space” (amen!), Mayer said there were three main points to the scholarly interest in Treme:

  • As multiply layered art with various tropes and themes of such significant interest to film auteurs that HBO could afford to run the show to advance its partnership with Simon as a “loss leader” despite slimmer ratings because the later box sets and long term sales would be good.
  • Scholars see the show as one of a smaller group of television offerings that tries to “speak about social ills in society, especially the post-Katrina, post-crisis society.”  My own view is that the show does this very poorly, but that doesn’t take away from Professor Mayer’s point that there are damn few that even bother, so it’s worth a good look.  The concept of “private mobilization” that emerged as part of this story was interesting.  There is agreement between those at the dialogue and scholars that the occasional intersections with New Orleans culture are important and interesting, regardless of whether or not the show makes this a tourist film and musical minstrel show of “Disneyland on the Mississippi.”
  • Perhaps most interestingly, Professor Mayer shared that many looked at the show as an allegory for the “prototypical neoliberal city” where “citizens take care of the city” develop as local entrepreneurs who are in “training for how to be a good citizen.”  The subliminal message of the show in some ways, Mayer said, is that citizens “can’t count on the city to do anything.”  Wow – right on! I knew I resented this part of the show, but was grateful to Mayer for putting a name to it!

This being New Orleans, there was a lot of discussion about how poorly the show dealt with women, power, and race and how they worked in reality as opposed to in Simon’s Treme.  One dialogue participant told a story of being an extra in a Treme neighborhood joint she frequented and being asked along with others to leave during the filming, because the club scene wasn’t “black enough.”  At the same time person after person at Fair Grinds told how the show “spoke” to them because of a street here or a restaurant there or something that was still a “marker” of home, particularly for many now recently returning from the New Orleans diaspora after Katrina.

There was also a hearty discussion not often heard in New Orleans about whether the burgeoning film industry is “paying back” to the city.  The huge tax credits that are writing off 1/3 or more of film costs are the most lucrative for the industry in the US now, but here there was criticism and mourning about how little was being done to train and develop long term jobs in the industry and deepen the skills and connections for a film industry in the Crescent City for the future.

Perhaps that point deepens the theme of the neo-liberal, global city.  Industry comes here in a race to the bottom for wages and work, and never sets root so they can easily flee to the next place in the future without leaving any skills or infrastructure.  Best that Treme not talk about power, because there should be popular and political accountability at the city and state level in Louisiana about who could have allowed the city and its citizens to be exploited once again as if we are little more than a third world Jamaica without a beach and a China of little labor standards and migrant, transient workers.