Friday, April 22, 2011

The Shrinking of Black New Orleans: The White Power Recreates the City. How Does It Fare on HBO? (BUZZFLASH)

The Shrinking of Black New Orleans: The White Power Recreates the City. How Does It Fare on HBO?

Submitted by BuzzFlash on Thu, 04/21/2011 - 3:54pm. Guest Commentary


The Return of HBO's 'Treme' is Set Against a Divided Community, a Devastated Landscape and a Displaced Citizenry
The second season of HBO's 'Treme,' a post-Katrina gumbo of vibrant characters, absorbing story lines, and kick-ass music premieres Sunday, April 24. Will this year's episodes more deeply examine the underbelly of institutional racism in a city where more than 100,000 African Americans can't make it back home?

On Sunday, April 24, the second season of HBO's series "Treme" premieres. Last year's 10-episode season was a Grand Slam for most television critics, yet the series did not draw a large audience despite the fact that David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who had been the architects of "The Wire," an HBO masterpiece, were the creators behind "Treme."
Last April, The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley wrote that the series (which was set three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina), was "a tribute to the 'real' New Orleans by filmmakers who have become connoisseurs of the city, depicting its sound and ravaged looks with rapt reverence and attention to detail."
Recognizing that Simon and Overmyer had an extremely difficult story to tell, Stanley wrote that "Treme" "is most of all a story about survival - and the pursuit of pleasure - in the wake of a catastrophe that quickly morphed into, as one character puts it, 'federally induced disaster.'"

"Treme" year one was all that and more. It was great storytelling, authentic music, and a collection of extraordinary, yet recognizable folk - a cross-section of the likeable and the less likeable - played by an ensemble of exceptional actors. The show no doubt provided a voice to many that had none, as well as employment opportunities for those who really needed it.

Anyone who has visited New Orleans during the past nearly six years since Katrina, will recognize that what Salon's Heather Havrilesky called the fight for "survival -- of a culture, a city, of downtrodden individuals," is a battle that continues to this day. We, the viewer as voyeur, might have expected "Treme" to tell us all there was to know about post-Katrina New Orleans. But it couldn't and it didn't.

My New Orleans Excursion
Here's a story my father told me one afternoon a long time ago while we were sitting in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village: It was the 1930s. My Uncle Joe was selling insurance policies door-to-door in rural Louisiana. One afternoon, he knocked at the door of a small homestead and a Black woman answered. Joe told her why he had come to her home. She quizzically looked him up and down and asked, "What are you boy?" Uncle Joe responded: "I'm from New York City and I'm Jewish." She quickly responded: "I knew you weren't no White man!"

That story has been spinning around family circles for years, mostly because I tell it over and over again. My father told it to me, but I never really knew if it was true or apocryphal.

Late last month, my wife Gale and I went to New Orleans. She was there to attend a conference, and I was stringing along. Actually, I was there for more than just a bit of stringing. Strange as it had always seemed to me, our family has deep roots in New Orleans and in Bogalusa, some 70 miles away. My New York City born and bred uncle and his family moved to Bogalusa, becoming one of the first Jewish families in town.

The last time I was in New Orleans/Bogalusa was 1948, when my mother, father, sister and I took a train from New York to attend the wedding of my cousin, Uncle Joe's daughter. I of course, remember nothing of that trip, but there are family stories: the "coloreds only" water fountain my mother was warned to stay away from by some white guy on the street; relatives who ran a department store in Bogalusa; and me running in and out of doors at my uncle's house, which must have seemed palatial to a 4-year-old growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.

I was excited about visiting with my cousin, the woman who had gotten married in 1948, and who I hadn't seen in nearly 63 years. As a bonus, Lance Hill, an old friend from Kansas, had agreed to spend an afternoon showing us as much of post-Katrina New Orleans as possible.

Hill picked us up on a warm Tuesday afternoon outside the hotel we were staying at in the French Quarter He shepherded us around town for the next five to six hours. We drove and we talked; mostly we asked questions and Hill explained what we were seeing.

After driving around the well-appointed residential areas surrounding the French Quarter, our first major stop was the lower Ninth Ward, where the levees breached during Hurricane Katrina. I took pictures of a batch of abandoned houses, their front doors marked for demolition nearly six-years ago by National Guardsmen; a few of the older homes that had been renovated; and about a half-dozen newly built "Brad Pitt Houses" ("green" houses sponsored by Pitt's Make It Right foundation). Mostly we saw vast stretches of abandoned streets. No trees, no cars. Only concrete slabs, and a few molded ramshackle structures providing witness to this once vibrant, if poor neighborhood.

Hill was not your usual tour guide. He has lived in New Orleans for more than thirty years; for nearly twenty of those years he has been the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, whose offices are located on the Tulane University campus. Hill is well versed in the politics of his adopted hometown and he is a historian and the author of The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and The Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Hill was a community organizer for fifteen years; from 1989-1992, he served as Executive Director of the Louisiana Coalition against Racism and Nazism (LCARN), the grass roots organization that led the opposition to former Klansman David Duke's Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns. One of the coalition's founders, Hill directed LCARN's research program and extensive media campaigns. The New Orleans Times-Picayune credited LCARN for "much of the responsibility" for Duke's defeat in the 1990 Senate campaign.

According to Hill's bio posted at the Institute's website, "The Institute's tolerance education program-the most comprehensive project of its kind in the South-has provided training to more than 4,000 teachers from 785 schools in the Deep South. The program uses case studies of the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement to teach the causes and consequences of prejudice."

We drove across the bridge where the police refused to let residents trying to escape from the flood pass, the Super Dome which "housed" thousands in unbearably ghastly conditions, several school that were once public schools but that had been subsequently converted into charter schools, and the housing projects that were demolished by the city in the face of protests that they could be rehabilitated and remain viable housing for low income residents. Hill pulled the car over and we stared at the site where hundreds of people once lived; now an empty, rock strewn, fenced in lot.

"Treme": Season Two

In her review of "Treme" for Salon in early April of last year, Heather Havrilesky pointed out that Simon and Overmyer "offer up such an intimate portrait of this strange, soulful American city that watching it makes you feel as if you're there, mopping your brow over a cold beer in a dark corner bar, taking in a jazz band at a club, tapping your foot along with a parade on its streets. Suddenly, all the talk of the uniqueness of New Orleans culture, the passionate embrace of its music, the struggle to revive the Lower Ninth Ward and bring its natives back home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, all of it comes together and you can feel the heartbreak of this city, from the second-line parade that opens the first 80-minute episode to the slow funeral procession that ends it."

However, the first season barely scratched the surface.

"Treme" is an extraordinary piece of entertainment, fortified by an admixture of politics and history. It has no pretensions to the depth of analysis of Spike Lee's brilliant 2006 documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," or his follow-up, 2010's "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," both of which also premiered on HBO.

Nor is "Treme" "Trouble the Water," a remarkable Academy Award nominated film directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (

So if you're going to watch "Treme" - and I heartily suggest you do - don't expect it to get at the whole truth of Hurricane Katrina's effect on New Orleans and its people.

Nevertheless, it is important to ask some Poor Boy-sized questions about what is included and what is left out of "Treme."

Will more of the troubling reality of New Orleans' deracinated political landscape make its way into Season Two? Will there be any answers offered up as to why more than 100,000 African Americans never made it back to the city?

Will the story be told of how the city's "old-line families," represented by such "prominent figures ... as former New Orleans Board of Trade President Thomas Westfeldt; Richard Freeman, scion of the family that long owned the city's Coca-Cola bottling plant; and William Boatner Reily, owner of a Louisiana coffee company.... [along with] some newcomers and non-whites," as the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper reported in September 2005, were committed to a developing a new post-Katrina socio-economic order for New Orleans?

And what of that Dallas meeting of business and political elites, also reported by Cooper, which took place in those early days after Katrina?

As James Reiss, descendent of an old-line Uptown family, told Cooper, "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically. I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

Cooper pointed out that Reiss "acknowledge[d] that shrinking parts of the city occupied by hardscrabble neighborhoods would inevitably result in fewer poor and African-American residents."

Its not just the well-publicized cases of police misconduct that we need to know about? The wholesale turning over of the public school system to charter schools? What about public policies that explicitly perpetrate a permanent reduction in affordable housing for the poor and the working poor? What about federal and State disaster and reconstruction aid that failed to provide sufficient funding to homeowners to rebuild in the Lower Ninth -- that led to those empty blocks and cement slabs where families had lived for generations?

In a commentary about the 2008 elections ( dated December 6, 2008, and published in the Louisiana Weekly, Lance Hill asked, "So how is possible that New Orleans can be a black majority city, where black voters command 60% of the actual vote, yet the City Council and School Board are majority white? The answer lies in the geography of election districts."

Hill concluded his piece by writing: "New Orleans remains one of the most racially polarized cities in the United States. At the heart of the distrust is the fear that many blacks have that whites have not relented in their plans to demolish black neighborhoods under the banner of protecting residents or reducing government costs. Indeed, while the debate on reducing the "footprint" of the city at the expense of black neighborhoods has largely been put to rest, some white leaders continue to float proposals to selectively 'greenspace' poor neighborhoods into parks or retention ponds but this time through zoning laws or withholding public services and utilities."

Another telling election - and one that put the issue of a divided community directly into the spotlight - took place in the city in May 2006, when Mitch Landrieu, son of a civil rights pioneer and the city's last white mayor, squared off against incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, who, after Katrina, had become somewhat of a national lightening rod. What was particularly unique about this race wasn't so much that Nagin prevailed - which did surprise many -- but rather the way the votes were divided. When Nagin first ran for Mayor in 2002, as the business candidate, he received 86% of the white and 38% of the African American vote. By 2006, the numbers dramatically reversed itself as Nagin received 83% of the African American vote and only 21% of the white vote. (For more on this complicated election, check out "Race," an extraordinary documentary film by Katherine Cecil --

These days, we are constantly hearing from the City's Chamber of Commerce types the slogan, "New Orleans is back." The New Orleans Saint's Super Bowl victory certainly created great joy amongst the people, and judging from the hordes of tourists we saw in late-March the refrain "New Orleans is Back" appears to be true in certain ways.

However, anyone who visits New Orleans now, nearly six years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, should not be fooled by what all too often seems like a hollow catch-phrase. For the more than 100,000 African Americans that haven't yet been able to return home and most likely never will, New Orleans may forever be Louis Armstrong singing "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans when that's where you left your heart" (


Carey said...

Reading this brought a tear.

I've been a "native" since 1965, when our family moved here after living in various places around the gulf coast, including Lake Charles and Houston for my first thirteen years.

We moved into our house two weeks before Hurricane Betsy hit, and I remember the news photos of people on their roofs in the lower nine surrounded by the floodwaters. After rebuilding then, why has it been so impossible for so many to do the same now? Why the continued diaspora? Where is the appreciation for our former culture and its people?

It seems too many are still without, and too many have come in to take more. That is why I have refused to watch "Treme" so far. My perception of the melodrama is that it is simply another vehicle designed to capitalize on the accessibility and vulnerability of our culture without doing much, if anything, to improve our condition.

From what I've seen of their "sets" and encampments around town, there is little concern shown for the sensitivity of our infrastructure, nor for the welfare of the neighborhoods they inconvenience. It's just seems like another outsider (and/or opportunistic insider) coming in to make a buck and then leave us no better off than before.

Isn't that what seems to be happening all over the still-decimated parts of town and with the "blighted properties" initiatives, and the razing of Mid-City? While there is merit in ridding neighborhoods of blight and creating economic opportunities, what about preserving and enhancing such basic necessities as housing, especially when there still exists a huge deficit of habitable structures?

It begs the question of who's really benefiting from the continued displacement of so many, doesn't it?

It was ironic recently when the city demolished a stand of homes and the "Treme people" were interviewed. What was typical, however, was their cavalier dismissal of their complicity in failing to save the structures, or even helping to bring them down by using them (in their advertising) and then abandoning them.

Oh sure, they say they "sent a letter" to the mayor "hoping that a way could be found to finance the rehabilitation of the houses" (See HERE), but why couldn't they have given back to the city by buying the houses and renovating them?

Too much to ask? Is it too much to ask of any entity that hopes to capitalize on our culture and its condition that it contributes to our wellbeing after it uses us? Gee, ask Brad and Angelina. Or better still, go to the ninth ward and see for yourself.

Until and unless I see some very substantial improvements to our infrastructure being made by projects such as Treme, and some concerted effort and expense invested in bringing our people back and restoring our culture, I cannot and will not participate in their operation by my patronization.

And so, I am still saddened by the reality of our post-Katrina renaissance, a "new New Orleans" which is less a "city that care forgot," and more of a "city which forgot to care."

Carey said...

Great site, Planetary Sister!

I found you while researching "Yahoo Pipes" (See HERE) in my quest to improve webmaster abilities.

I'll be looking forward to your future posts and will be recommending you to all.

Thanks for your ongoing dialog. It helps!