“Anthropology, the science of man, has been mainly concerned up to the present with the study of primitive peoples,” Robert E. Park, the founder of the “Chicago School” of sociology, wrote in The City in 1925. “But civilized man is quite as interesting an object of investigation, and at the same time his life is more open to observation and study.” Park, a former newspaperman, was principally responsible for marrying the theoretical German sociological tradition (he got his Ph.D. in Heidelberg) to a kind of painstakingly detailed, firsthand academic research on, to use a metaphor he liked, the ecology of the city.
For two or three decades after the publication of The City, Park’s students and his students’ students produced a torrent of work describing urban (usually Chicagoan) subcultures—taxi dancers, hobos, machine politicians, small-time criminals—with a special emphasis on how each element in the ecosystem related to the others, and a conviction that outsiders, losers, and violators of the rules were especially useful objects of study if one wanted to understand the dynamics of the city as a whole.
Although it’s not clear that David Simon, the journalist turned nonfiction author turned cable television auteur, has ever heard of Robert Park, The Wire, his HBO series on Baltimore, was about as complete a realization of Park’s dream of capturing the full richness and complexity of the city as anyone has ever accomplished. One of The Wire’s virtues was that, without denying any of its characters an iota of humanity, it resolutely kept its attention focused on Baltimore as a total system, in which every neighborhood and every institution exist in some relation to every other and people behave according to the incentives and choices they find set before them, more than according to whether they are good guys or bad guys.
Now Simon, along with his collaborator Eric Overmyer, has turned his attention to New Orleans. Over the summer the initial ten-episode season of Treme, his new HBO series, ended. A second season will begin next spring. At first blush Treme would seem to be quite similar to The Wire: a synoptic portrait of a poor, old, troubled, black-majority American city, expressed through the intertwined unfolding stories of a group of characters. But there are several important differences—the most obvious of which is that The Wire presents Baltimore as the object of slow-motion devastation, in the form of a couple of generations’ worth of changes in urban economics, race relations, governance, and geography, whereas Treme presents New Orleans as having been devastated much more dramatically and rapidly, by Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005. The action of Treme begins a few weeks later; the series concerns itself with its characters’ struggles to rebuild their…
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