The bohemian culture on display in Treme took form around the time of the founding of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in 1970. The festival’s organizers understood that New Orleans music wasn’t merely jazz from the era of Louis Armstrong’s young manhood, either preserved (the best-known jazz venue of the post–World War II era, founded in 1961, is called Preservation Hall) or gruesomely transmogrified into “Dixieland” music played in hotel lobbies, but also blues, country, zydeco, and boogie-woogie.
The festival resurrected and turned into its central heroic figures a group of black rhythm-and-blues musicians who had had some local commercial success in the 1950s and then become obscure: Irma Thomas, Huey “Piano” Smith, Ernie K-Doe, and, most of all, Henry Roeland Byrd, a wiry little piano player who recorded as Professor Longhair. (“There is only one God and his name is Professor Longhair,” Davis McAlary declares in an early episode of Treme.) Just as some of the pioneer jazz musicians had been working as stevedores on the docks before Preservation Hall came along, Professor Longhair spent most of the 1960s working as a janitor, but the Jazz Festival put him back on the stage. New Orleans’s most important music venue—featured, naturally, in Treme—is Tipitina’s, a club founded in 1977 and named after Professor Longhair’s signature song.
The Jazz Festival demonstrated that, by giving the right cultural signals, New Orleans could attract a new kind of tourist—not drunken University of Arkansas football fans, in town for the Sugar Bowl, careening down Royal Street shouting “Pig! Sooey!”; not a continent’s worth of dentists crammed into large hotels for their annual professional convention; but hip, sophisticated people who appreciated the real New Orleans rather than the ersatz, mass-production version one would find in the section of the French Quarter nearest Canal Street. I used to see Woody Allen wandering through the grounds of the festival in those early years.
Over the years New Orleans developed a greatly expanded subculture of revived old neighborhoods, music clubs, and chef-owned restaurants serving food in the local tradition (another leading character in Treme, Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens, owns such a restaurant), and it became at least a part-time home to many more writers, artists, actors, and musicians, some native, some émigrés looking for someplace different from the rest of America. These people prided themselves on having created a little interracial world inside the Deep South—or, to be blunt, on being the blackest white people around. Simon does a brilliant job of showing the precise (which is to say, less than total) extent of self-delusion embedded in this dream; Davis, for example, goes around greeting his white friends by joyously exclaiming “My Negro!”
But these developments don’t entirely characterize the recent history of New Orleans. At the same time that hip tourism was booming, so was unhip tourism, especially after casino gambling was made legal in the 1990s. New Orleans became one of the country’s major convention sites, which was fortunate, because otherwise its economy was deteriorating. Because charm is impossible to quantify, in any accounting of quality of life in America’s cities, New Orleans has long vied with Detroit for last place, thanks to its very high crime and poverty rates and its poor schools and civic infrastructure. It has gone from being an important port and a regional financial center to having a classic Caribbean economy, dependent on plantation agriculture (rice, sugar cane), natural resource extraction (oil, gas, sulphur), and tourism. After the civil rights movement, its politics followed the standard Southern pattern: a two-party system developed; most whites became Republican and because of that the Democratic Party became mostly black; and the significantly enlarged black middle class was disproportionately employed in a variety of thankless jobs managing the deteriorated public sector.
Treme is tremendously concerned with being authentically New Orleanian, and also with distancing itself from whatever is inauthentically New Orleanian. Every distinctive pattern of speech (“What that is?” instead of “What is that?”), every bit of local nomenclature (“Lower Nine” for the Lower Ninth Ward), every native foodstuff, seems to appear somewhere in the ten episodes. Characters effortlessly pronounce place names that defeat newcomers, like Natchitoches and Tchoupitoulas. Conversely, Treme takes pains to make fun of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Bourbon Street, Sazeracs, the most famous but least cool Mardi Gras parades, such as Rex and Endymion, and anything else that unschooled tourists associate with New Orleans.
The procession of New Orleans signs and signifiers is relentless to the point of being exhausting; I found myself longing for a character just once to sit down for a meal and have a hamburger and a Coke instead of mirlitons and a Barq’s. Also, the line between insider and general-public taste is difficult to maintain strictly; Treme has to note, and can hardly be against, red beans and rice and gumbo, Mardi Gras and jazz funerals, Jackson Square and the Mississippi River, but you can’t get ten yards down the airport concourse after deplaning without being made aware of these. Most of the classic artistic renderings of New Orleans—A Streetcar Named Desire, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which John Goodman’s character is seen reading—in a first edition!), or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—didn’t work nearly so hard to be local, and neither did The Wire.
Simon’s aim is not to be omni- authentic about New Orleans. Nobody in Treme goes hunting or fishing though those are treasured local activities. Although Treme is set deep in the South, almost nobody in it ever says anything politically conservative. Although it is substantially about African-American music, it devotes no attention to hip-hop (in a late episode, we see the name of Lil Wayne, the most famous New Orleans rapper, flash by on a marquee, as if to signal that the makers of the series aren’t unaware of his existence).
The place about which Treme means to be authentic, and is, is the place devoted to maintaining local cultural traditions—but Treme leaves the strong impression that that place is the real New Orleans, the heart and soul of the city. Davis McAlary’s line about Professor Longhair being God is meant to express his character, of course, but it also expresses what seems to be the message of the series itself. Whenever a character in Treme picks out the opening bars of “Tipitina” or “Big Chief” or “Iko Iko” on a piano, it’s played as a taking of sacraments—whoever it is, whatever is going on, they are now covenanted and therefore are fundamentally going to be okay.
The story line for Albert Lambreaux’s son Delmond, a rising young trumpeter in New York who’s in love with the precision of modern jazz, involves his gradually coming to honor both his father’s Mardi Gras Indian tribe and the funky Professor Longhair way of being in the world. The first season of Treme begins and ends with a kind of informal New Orleans street parade called “second line,” and in the last scene Antoine Batiste’s standoffish sons, who are being raised by their black-bourgeois stepfather, a dentist in Baton Rouge, find redemption by enthusiastically joining in.
Treme aims to depict a corner of New Orleans that, as a matter of factual accuracy, is partly inhabited by glamorous seekers of the authenticity its characters are purveying. The real John Goodman lives there part-time. So it isn’t wrong, exactly, that the series is full of cameos by hip celebrities. Some of them (like Steve Earle, the alt-country singer, and Vernel Bagneris, the actor-director) play minor characters; most play themselves. Elvis Costello turns up in a bar sitting next to Davis McAlary. Delmond Lambreaux chats with McCoy Tyner and Stanley Crouch at a party. Four celebrated New York chefs turn up at Janette’s restaurant. It’s fun to spot these people, but collectively they confer a jarring lightness on a story that Simon plainly thinks of, and rightly so, as a tragedy. In Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, the expatriate New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard is shown sobbing as he sees his family’s house, flooded out, for the first time since the storm; in Treme, Blanchard, accompanied by the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, appears as an impressive guest at a New Orleans party.
That is an off-note; but there is a more fundamental problem with coming at New Orleans via the subculture Treme uses. What one wants from David Simon, and what he further whets one’s appetite for by choosing a great civic disaster as his subject, is a powerful, persuasive explanation of how the entire system failed an American city. Treme has the challenge that always presents itself in narratives whose ambitions encompass social critique: either the story itself has to carry the author’s message in an unmistakable way (think of Oliver Twist or The Jungle), or a strong analytic voice (in film, a voice-over, or an observational character) has to be somehow worked into the piece. In Treme, the main message that the intertwined story lines carry is that a local, mainly musical, mainly African-American culture with deep historical roots in struggle and privation offered New Orleans about the best help it could get after the storm. But you can’t help wondering why less spiritual, more tangible forms of help did not materialize.
The leading characters in Treme are not deeply enough embedded in the city’s operations—politics, education, law enforcement, business—for Simon to be able to address that question simply by showing them as actors in the urban tableau, as he did with the characters in The Wire. He can only show them displaying individual determination. And those characters who do try to explain what happened, mainly the English professor Creighton Bernette and Davis McAlary, plus an occasional walk-on like Jacques Morial, the son of New Orleans’s first black mayor, don’t have access to real information.
Creighton is shown reading John M. Barry’s 1997 book about the 1927 flood, Rising Tide, which painstakingly put together the story of the human (and therefore avoidable) elements of a natural disaster from a distance of fifty years; Creighton’s attempts to do the same for Katrina are far less analytically effective, because, though he’s smart and well read, he’s also so depressed that he spends his days in excruciating inactivity, sitting at his desk at home staring at a blank computer screen. Davis lives in a state of perpetual mild intoxication, and not just on the magic of New Orleans, so his take is just as limited.
In the aggregate, the position of the characters in Treme is that, as a matter of right and justice and pride, post-Katrina New Orleans must be entirely rebuilt. No neighborhood, even (especially!) the Lower Nine, should be written off. (Creighton, in one of his YouTube sermons, derides “idiot planners putting green dots on maps,” which refers to the several failed attempts at master plans to rebuild the city in a prescribed order.) Charity Hospital should be reopened. So should the housing projects; Albert Lambreaux, his Mardi Gras Indian tribe having no place to live, leads a heroic occupation of one of them, and consequently spends his first Mardi Gras after the storm in jail. And who should do all this rebuilding? It isn’t specified, but the implication is, probably the Bush administration. Another bitter rant of Creighton’s: “You rebuilt Chicago! You rebuilt San Francisco!” Some outside entity, Creighton comes close to saying several times, has made an intentional decision to let New Orleans die.
It’s this romanticizing of the pre-Katrina New Orleans in toto that has led, for example, to the funding by Brad Pitt (another part-time New Orleans resident) of the construction of a couple dozen dazzling new houses by Thom Mayne and other famous architects in the most devastated corner of the Lower Ninth Ward, where they sit scattered among empty lots and the remains of ruined houses. Charity Hospital and the housing projects that weren’t rebuilt were nightmarish places. In The New York Times during the height of the controversy over the project in 2006, Adam Nossiter quoted a former director of the New Orleans housing authority describing life there this way: “Women that would put their babies in bathtubs at the sound of gunfire, that was a reality; coming home from your job and having to walk through young people participating in drug trades.” However ignoble President Bush’s reasons for being unpersuaded by the rebuild-everything argument may have been, it’s worth noting that President Obama has been unpersuaded too.
Simon traffics a bit, especially in the later episodes of Treme, in another, less externalized theory of the disastrousness of Katrina, but it amounts to a general cultural, rather than a specific institutional, explanation. The idea is that New Orleans’s lack of Babbitry may be deeply appealing, but that it comes at a price: in exchange for being free of the standard all-consuming American preoccupation with progress, you get an excess of lassitude and inefficiency. LaDonna struggles for months to have the roof of her tavern repaired; finally a young guy appears, announces “I’m from Texas, and y’all got a deficient work ethic around here,” and completes the job in a couple of days. Janette, the chef, loses her restaurant and decides to move to New York and pursue her career ambitions there. “This town beat me,” she says. Davis, in the course of a day spent fruitlessly trying to persuade Janette to change her mind because life outside New Orleans is always unpardonably pallid and routinized, says, “Which would you rather have, a healthy economy or a four-hour lunch?” Exactly! I’ve had that conversation myself, back when I was in my early twenties and was spending a lot of time deciding whether to wrest myself away from New Orleans.
Neither form of generalized blame—of unsympathetic outsiders like Bush or unreliable insiders like Davis—is as useful as the story of what actually happened would be. Like the BP oil spill, the subsequent Louisiana disaster, which coincided exactly with the air dates of Treme, Katrina (not the hurricane, the appalling aftermath) was entirely avoidable. In a new book called The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us,1 Kristina Ford, former director of the New Orleans city planning department, lays out the story of how, during the twentieth century, the city set up the disaster by permitting extensive building on low-lying empty land that was highly susceptible to flooding, and constructing the Industrial Canal, which broke open next to the Lower Ninth Ward during Katrina. All this was supposed to be safe because of an extensive levee system that was designed to withstand a storm of Katrina’s magnitude. It did not because of corner-cutting construction. Those who share Creighton Burnette’s love of Louisiana literature will recall that Willie Stark’s career in All the King’s Men is set off by a similar incident, back in the 1920s, involving the collapse of a staircase in a public school building. BP’s Deepwater Horizon well would not have blown out if it had been built to better, more expensive safety standards.
The evacuation before Katrina hit, a local responsibility, could have been handled far better. After Katrina, a big, instantaneous deployment of the National Guard would have made an enormous difference; that is a state and national function. After the waters receded, the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the local civil-business establishment were all serious underperformers in the rebuilding of the city. (Creighton’s “they” who rebuilt Chicago and San Francisco more than a century ago was not the federal government, which was tiny by today’s standards.)
Ford’s book describes in detail the sad procession of plans to rebuild in a more organized way than by simply letting each individual homeowner apply for reconstruction funds and then wait endlessly for them to come through, while the city refused to say when it would restore full services where; much of this story is available as future material for Treme, since it mainly unfolded after the action of the first season. Weak states all over the world construct poorly, underregulate, and underserve their citizens in basic matters of health, safety, and education. Civically, New Orleans isn’t in the league of Haiti, but it isn’t in the league of New York or Chicago either. How did that happen? How does it work?
Underneath its culturally celebratory surface, Treme succeeds at conveying, with patience and humanity, quite a lot of the grinding cruelty of life in post-Katrina New Orleans: the unpardonable privation and death during the first few days, the uprootedness and uncertainty of every single ordinary life in the city, the relentless difficulty that even the bravest and most determined people had to face in rebuilding their flooded houses, the pain of the slow realization that things were not going to be the same as before, at least anytime soon. As good as it is at effects, Treme isn’t so good at causes—of the immediate disaster, and of its seemingly never-ending aftermath. To explain that, Simon will have to move outside the appealing and tight cultural frame in which the action thus far has taken place. Maybe next season?
Yale University Press, 2010.↩
Yale University Press, 2010.↩