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10 Years After Katrina, ‘Treme’ and the Transformation of New Orleans

10 Years After Katrina, 'Treme' and the Transformation of New Orleans

In “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” from the first season of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s remarkable “Treme” (HBO, 2010-2013), a bright winter morning in New Orleans’ Jackson Square turns suddenly toward sorrow. Though transplanted buskers Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) presume him to be a tourist, the man in the natty blazer who thanks them for playing is in fact a resident displaced to St. Louis, with all of the grief that entails. His home in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood was destroyed six months prior, in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina; three of his neighbors drowned. “I’m home,” he says, voice catching, “for Mardi Gras.”

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You need not be familiar with the city’s peculiar geography, hemmed in by the Mississippi River on one side and Lake Pontchartrain on the other, for the scene to suggest powerful currents of emotion. But watching “Treme” on the back patio of the Rusty Nail, crammed in under the interstate rising to meet the Crescent City Connection, such moments registered as a much deeper cut on a city I was then swiftly coming to love. Six years after moving here, I remain, by comparison with those who lived through the unthinkable period that “Treme” depicts, a New Orleans novice, yet the series allowed me to learn the city’s recent past as I continue to learn its present: by heart.

“Treme” is a story of “recovery,” then, one that honorably refuses to narrate the years since the catastrophic failure of the levee system in the simplistic language of “progress,” but even more than this it’s a warts-and-all mash note to the city itself—the more sincere in its affection for recognizing and condemning New Orleans’ most intractable injustices. If “The Wire” was a portrait of the American city, writ large, “Treme” is a portrait of this American city, measuring the tempo of its evolution so precisely as to seem a kind of miracle.

From its ingenious opening sequence, introducing us to trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), his ex-wife, bar owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander), and radio DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) as the camera dances and dashes through the first second line since the storm, the series is unabashedly under the city’s spell. With the sublime colors of the Mardi Gras Indians, the bursts of hot brass, and the lilt of neighborhood names on native tongues, “Treme” conjures up an extraordinarily detailed representation of the place, at least as I’ve come to know it.

The series thus establishes itself as a work of art invested in the real-life rhythms of its setting, which lends its accompanying criticisms tremendous power—particularly with regard to the storm’s disproportionate human, infrastructural, and cultural toll on New Orleans’ black neighborhoods. In the first season, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) sees visitors snap photographs of a funeral from the air-conditioned confines of a “Katrina Tour” bus, and hunkers down at the Calliope Projects to demand their reopening; LaDonna enlists attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) to find her brother, lost in the prison system since the flood; Toni’s husband, Creighton (John Goodman), inveighs against the American public’s “Katrina fatigue,” lords of misrule at every level of governance, and the reconstruction of a city whiter, more technocratic, and possibly more unequal than the one destroyed. “Fuck you fucking fucks!” he cries, at no one and everyone.

“Treme” is practically an X-ray of the fractures in the post-Katrina city: over school closings, blighted properties, crime rates, racist policing, FEMA trailers, inefficient ERs, and even “carpetbaggers” like myself, who moved here in the years after the storm and were often greeted, not always unfairly, with suspicion. If the series can be said to possess a villain, it is the faceless machinery of corporate and state control over workers and citizens. The line of corpse-filled trucks that dwarfs LaDonna after she identifies her brother’s body is cast as an evil beyond the individual imagination, an automaton long since decoupled from its inventors.

And yet, as it proceeds, “Treme” leavens its rightful rage with ideological nuance, gallows humor, and most especially melodic bliss, weaving notes from the city’s past, present, and possible futures into a symphonic whole. (If there’s a better TV series about the many uses of music—as satire, as celebration, as come-on, as aide-memoir, as dirge—I am not aware of it.) Indeed, the fact that the exact balance of elements in the city’s heady brew continues to change becomes as central to the story in later seasons as the storm itself. The question “Treme” poses is not “Can we rebuild?” or “Should we rebuild?” but “How, and for whom?” In this, it remains as timely as ever. 

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, this August 29, resolves the neat narrative of “disaster” and “recovery” only when viewed from afar, a frankly dangerous fantasy that “Treme,” the series finale of which is set during Mardi Gras in 2009, rejects with impressive vigor. Rather than promise closure, comeback, triumph, “Treme” pauses to consider the consequences of the shooting that occurred during that year’s truck parade, as if to say, don’t forget about us just yet.

Indeed, though the transformation of New Orleans has had effects both positive and negative—which is which may depend on who you ask—”Treme” ultimately derives its force from the belief that the destruction of an American city, the abandonment of its most vulnerable residents, and the loss of more than 1,800 souls across the Gulf Coast can scarcely be considered an act of God with unexpected benefits. The inundation did not, despite the received wisdom, “wash the slate clean,” and even to frame it in those terms is to commit an awful cruelty.

In documenting the communal effort to save a city several columnists once proposed to scrap, and then the halting, still-unfinished process of determining what shape this strange, 300-year-old experiment will take, “Treme” thus offers an answer to Satchmo’s old question, split between the series premiere, “Do You Know What It Means…” and the series finale, “… To Miss New Orleans.” If it’s possible to sing of homesickness for a place you haven’t left, “Treme” carries the tune for New Orleans. To my mind, that’s tribute enough.

“Treme” is available via HBO GO, HBO NOW, and Amazon Instant Video.

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