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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



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

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.

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