I recently watched Faubourg Tremé, a documentary on the Tremé section of New Orleans, directed by Dawn Logsdon and co-directed and written by Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a main writer on David Simon’s HBO series, Treme.* The filmmakers’ families are well-known in New Orleans; Elie’s father is a prominent local lawyer and civil rights activist, and Logsdon is the daughter of a well-known local historian and civil-rights activist. Having largely grown up in the city, and having a network of personal associations that overlap those of the filmmakers, I thought it would be minimally interesting to see how people I know were reporting the city, and, indeed, several are interviewed. The documentary, which was undertaken in the early 2000s but not completed until after Katrina, is well done. But it also gives some insight into what Elie and Simon think they’re doing in the tv show. At least it helps to address a vexing question: Why is Treme so bad, especially in comparison to Simon’s previous urban exploration, The Wire? What accounts for the series’s abysmal failure – as cultural narrative or drama?
Interesting and well done as it is, the Faubourg Tremé documentary also hinges on two primary touristic mystifications. It rehearses a sacralized image of neighborhood as self-contained, organic community, and it indulges in the much more recent discourse of heritage tourism in general and black heritage tourism in particular. References to neighborhood are commonplaces of urban representation, but the idea of a neighborhood is not natural or given; it came into existence in the U. S. with the emergence of markets for residential real estate in the era of urban industrialization between the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth. It has always been an artifact and engine of historically specific political-economic and ideological forces that simultaneously fueled the growth of a real estate industry and impelled spatial segmentation by class and race. The neighborhood not only does not lie outside these processes; it is inseparable from them. Its mystification, as is already playing out in the case of Tremé, is itself a node in the logic of redevelopment. That is, the aura of distinctive neighborhood, particularly when accompanied by the cachet of cultural authenticity, is an element in the commercial valorization that defines areas as “hot” and ripe for rent-intensifying redevelopment. In this domain, as in tourism and many others, market forces depend on the fiction that there is a territory of culture that lies pristinely outside the market.
The documentary’s second crucial mystification is its indulgence in the much more recent discourse of heritage tourism. Elie laments early in the documentary that Tremé had “lost” its distinctive identity by the postwar period and was known to most people prosaically as the 6th Ward. It is noteworthy in this regard that, in a street-parade scene that features a young musician interviewee leading the crowd in call-and-response, the crowd represents itself as 6th Ward, not Tremé. This underscores the recentness of the invention. As with all such fixed or transcendent narratives of identity attached to place Gabon, France, Chinatown, Little Italy (by 1930 there were or had been 11 sections of Chicago known as Little Italy, none of which had a majority or even plurality Italian population, and Little Ireland contained only about 3% of the city’s Irish population and was only 30% Irish1) – the identity is hortatory rhetoric, assertion of an organic ideal, not the reflection of an empirical reality.
This is no surprise, of course; it’s hardly news that the notion of an organic community is itself a modern construct and driven by essentializing and prelapsarian assumptions. What is significant is how persistent and pervasive the notion remains. It is a default posture even among many of those who consider themselves part of a left condensed around objection to neoliberalism or globalization. In fact much of ostensibly left critique of neoliberalism or globalization takes as its normative standard some version of communitarian fantasy. One such fantasy idealizes the brief moment of capitalist accommodation in the postwar period as natural law. Other, more flamboyant ones imagine a smaller-scale, voluntaristic capitalism, perhaps romanticized through some neologism like “solidarity economy” or a fetishized localism, as the idealized alternative to globalization. In general, “community” figures into this strain of leftism as sacrosanct and reified, a monolithic entity that is treated as a natural unit, as politically self-evident and self-justifying. Proliferation of multiculturalism/diversity and other strains of essentializing identitarianism and their corollary hostility toward working-class politics and political-economic critique within the left in the US and its imperial reach have only exacerbated this tendency, not least by reinforcing authenticity and claims to Most-Oppressed status as the basis for political legitimacy.2
This leads back to Tremé – as documentary, tv drama, and neighborhood. The neighborhood has been “rediscovered” within the moment of New Orleans’s transformation, as Kevin Fox Gotham argues in Authentic New Orleans3 from a culture with tourism to a touristic culture. Locals now understand themselves and their own histories and quotidian practices, as well as the history of the city writ large, through the tourism industry’s discourse of authenticity and exceptionalism. Black politics in New Orleans as elsewhere is a petit-bourgeois class politics that projects demands for group recognition as equivalent to demands for popular redistribution; as retrenchment has become the political norm, recognition has increasingly displaced redistribution as the foundation of the political agenda. Even nominally insurgent or populist political expressions are articulated entirely within this framework, which is not without material stakes. The stakes, however, involve descriptive racial representation — i.e., black beneficiaries as contractors, officials, or grantees who stand in for the black population as a whole — rather than more general social wage policies. Even “militants” or those who understand themselves as insurgent activists abjure the latter in favor of a rhetorical anti-racism and demands for recognition of diversity. Recognition of diversity confers primarily symbolic benefits to the black population in general and material benefits to specific individuals who organize, administer, and enact the recognition. A politics anchored to this asymmetrical structure of benefits depends on a rhetoric of authenticity no less than touristic ideology does; it can work only to the extent that individuals or small groups can successfully present themselves as linked organically to a larger but amorphous constituency – e.g., a “black community” – on whose behalf they speak.
Racial recognition within the logic of the touristic culture and the political economy of its reproduction has become a constitutive element of black political discourse and practice in the city.4 Felipe Smith has examined the Zulu parade’s changing place in Mardi Gras’s political dramaturgy, describing the evolution of a ritual relation between Zulu and Rex to rule Carnival jointly as an expression in the cultural domain of the post-segregation political regime.5 That regime is articulated through negotiation, within a biracial and interracial governing class, of the distribution of costs and benefits within the local polity. The now orthodox touristic narrative that centers on New Orleans’s purportedly distinctive Afro-Caribbean culture and diversity is also partly product, partly constitutive of that regime. The regime’s solidity and durability, moreover, have been underscored by its survival intact and without noticeable disruption – despite doomsday pronouncements that ran through black political discourse and some whites’ nostalgic fantasies of return to white rule – of the post-Katrina shift in the racial demography that for two decades had assured election of black mayors and city council majorities.
This is the context in which Tremé has been invented as the iconic black neighborhood, as the historical wellspring – “oldest black neighborhood in the New World” – of the city’s black cultural authenticity and thus of its touristic distinctiveness. Construction of the Mardi Gras Indians over the last two decades or so as embodiment of an autonomous and insurgent black popular culture, with narratives suggesting their routine harassment by authorities and disparagement by the borderline racially inauthentic black respectable strata is an overlapping invention— decades after the Indians had themselves become an element of centrally orchestrated and marketed touristic Carnival6 — that reinforces the imagery of authenticity. There had been a parallel invention of the 7th Ward as the font of New Orleans’s distinctive Creole culture, which centers more on a narrative of Francophile cultivation, early professional accomplishment and a tradition of active political engagement challenging inequality.7 As in the Tremé documentary, proponents poach freely from these origins narratives. For instance, the Tremé advocates claim the political history, including an 1811 slave uprising upriver from the city in St. John the Baptist Parish, as generically black New Orleanian, and in fact the 7th Ward was as important as Tremé in the evolution of the jazz form. This is no surprise because the boundaries between the two areas are imperceptible. Instructively, the narrative of Elie’s documentary doesn’t mention that its copiously featured Louisiana Living History Project, which sends actor/re-enactors out walking the streets in character to engage with tourists and residents, is a program of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and is directed by a professional events coordinator. Its list of characters includes, among others, Andrew Jackson and Baroness Pontalba, the wealthy 19th-century Franco-Spanish Creole aristocrat, as well as the black figures displayed in the documentary.8
Developer Pres Kabacoff is an instructive exemplar of the contradictions at the core of this touristic discourse of cultural authenticity. Kabacoff is a self-styled hip-capitalist (note his and his voodoo priestess partner’s multiculti, exotically spiritualist/New Age abode9) developer. He has invoked nominally liberal black Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, known for the view that “concentrated poverty” incubates a pathological urban underclass, as his inspiration for a pre-Katrina gentrifying development initiative that razed the St. Thomas housing project, resulting in a net reduction of low-income housing in the trendy Lower Garden District. And he and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) have currently proposed a similar “revitalization” for Tremé, one that includes razing one of the city’s last remaining housing projects and involving the odious Michelle Rhee – vanguard militant in the assault on public schools and teachers’ unions and recently deposed (with allegations in her wake of having jimmied stats to produce her vaunted turnaround in school performance) superintendent of the Washington DC school system – to organize the schools for the new development.10 As politically attentive locals commonly noted with a sense of irony from the beginning of the HBO series, it was only a matter of time, once Tremé’s invention as site of authenticity had been solidified, before it would become grist for the development juggernaut. Indeed, if the U St area of Washington, DC is indicative, Tremé’s invention as the locus of authentic black New Orleans even could have been a more conscious instrument of its preparation for redevelopment.
So, as to Treme the drama, Simon bought the framework of touristic mystification hook, line and sinker. He was not helped by his dependence on local writers like Elie and others who are embedded in the touristically reinvented discourse of New Orleans’s distinctiveness that is no longer capable of recognizing and reflecting critically on itself and can do no more than celebrate its black inflection. Simon was also undone by not having a clear critical perspective on neoliberal capitalism – as either free-market utopian ideology or pragmatic program for relentless upward redistribution – and its logic of systemic reproduction. He has a brilliant feel for the social and institutional impact of deindustrialization on cities and the urban working class at both individual and group levels. He portrayed that impact with truly rare grace and intelligence in The Wire. But he lacks a coherent view of the larger forces that drive deindustrialization, which he is inclined instead to characterize in moralistic terms. In The Wire this tendency extends to reifying the moment of postwar working-class economic mobility as a Golden Age, a natural moral order which greedy, self-centered or insensitive corporate elites and their minions have violated.
Simon was thus primed to lap up the touristic narrative of cultural authenticity. Since Katrina, that narrative has swirled together with the powerful imagery of an impoverished and abandoned black New Orleans, victimized by racialized inequality and injustice. Despite its symbolic power, that imagery was in some ways more apparent than real. For example, blacks were displaced by the flood at only a slightly higher rate than whites.11 And it was poor people of every race who were disproportionately stranded on overpasses and at the Superdome or convention center and who have had greatest difficulty in returning to the city, restoring losses and reconstructing a normal life. Although news footage of stranded black New Orleanians immediately called forth a familiar narrative of racial injustice, the immediacy and certainty with which perception of those images linked to this narrative contrasted with an utter vagueness concerning causal processes through which the inequalities are reproduced and why, therefore, they are most accurately or effectively characterized as specifically racial.12 Easy pieties like “black and poor victims of neglect” conveyed a generic sense of injustice but provided no clue as to its nature or sources, much less possible remedies. The dramatic imagery of the stranded and displaced, and the apparent urgency of the moment, overwhelmed capacity for sober reflection or interrogation of the pietistic declarations. Analogies to clearer, explicit forms of racial oppression like slavery or Jim Crow segregation commonly stood in for examinations of causes of manifest inequalities and strategic responses to them. That rhetorical move is not restricted to application of the discourse of racial oppression to post-Katrina New Orleans but is a conventional feature of black political discourse, across the ideological spectrum. A widely touted recent book attempts to understand mass incarceration as the “new Jim Crow,”13 and anachronistic allusion is the essential trope of reparations talk. In general its function and appeal lie in asserting continuity with regimes of explicit racial subordination in the past to support claims – in the absence of direct causal argument – that manifest racial disparities in the distribution of social and economic costs and benefits are best understood and addressed through the discourse of anti-racism.
New Orleans, because of the combination of the Katrina narrative and the place of the imagery of racialized authenticity in local touristic ideology, has become a distinctively evocative prop that melds celebrating diversity and lamenting racial disparity – the two moments of a national discourse about inequality that has made peace with neoliberalism by foreclosing broad downward redistribution as an option. Thus Treme’s first season employed the ridiculous plot device of a solitary sit-in by the proud Mardi Gras chief, who wanted projects opened so that members of his crew could return in order to prepare for Carnival, as a vehicle for engaging the controversy around HANO’s refusal to re-open scarcely damaged low-income housing projects and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s plan to demolish them in the face of a massive shortage of affordable housing. Simon’s own understanding of the sources and nature of the inequality to which he wants to draw attention and its relation to the cultural production he wants to celebrate is confused and incoherent.
Perhaps worst of all, his second season story line abets the rehabilitation of former City Council President and felon Oliver Thomas, who six months after the storm, in response to protests that displaced poor people were not being helped to return to the city, complained that government agencies and programs had “pampered” the black poor and infamously declared that “We don’t need soap opera watchers now.” Nor would we ever know from Treme that Thomas had been centrally instrumental in the long-term campaign to cleanse the Lower Garden District of the St. Thomas project. Instead, Simon rehearses the sanitized, only superficially penitent narrative Thomas has been projecting post-incarceration (including in his one-man theatrical performance) to recuperate his image, perhaps even to get back into the game. So we see him as a genial, well-intentioned “populist,” who was undone by a combination of almost benign personal failings and being enmeshed in a culture of corruption. This is a Flip Wilson defense. Maybe the Devil did make him steal, but Thomas set himself on a career path propelled, on every step upward, by attacking poor people.14
That incoherence is why every episode of Treme, when not lurching from one didactic soliloquy to another, stretches dialogue, in a way reminiscent of John Sayles or Spike Lee, to drop little morsels of authenticity or distinctive local idiom. Not only is everything that was good about The Wire, such as use of silence and nuance to make points and to evoke the effects of deep structural forces and a narrative that is decidedly and proudly not moved along by music or soap operatic plot devices, bad about Treme; Simon is also in way over his head. His vision has been captured and colonized by the touristic discourse of “real” authenticity. His most conspicuous gesture at subverting that paradigm – when Albert Lambreaux, the Mardi Gras Indian chief, erstwhile avatar of perhaps the purest strain of the discourse of authenticity, adamantly and preposterously insists that a West African mask he saw in a New York museum must have been taken from New Orleans Indian style – is almost immediately undone by having Doctor John, Donald Harrison and other prominent musicians affirm Lambreaux’s insistence that New Orleans music – even the same composition played by the same musicians – doesn’t sound the same when produced outside the city.
This is a house of mirrors from which it’s not possible to see the rest of the city and its dynamics except as reflected through touristic ideology. To wit, the biggest blow to the local economy since Katrina was welfare-defense contractor Northrup Grumman’s announcement last summer that it will close the Avondale shipyard – the largest employer providing decent wages in the area.15 Of course, this announcement occurred outside Treme’s temporal setting. But the vision of New Orleans that grounds the series includes only the human embodiments of black cultural authenticity, those who chronicle, admire and emulate them or attempt to regulate their production of authenticity (and thereby reinscribe the aura of the authentic), and, of course, the circles of rich Uptown whites, whose relations to the discourse of authenticity and place in the city’s reproduction are a muddle.
My point isn’t that Treme is too narrow in the slices of New Orleans that it depicts. That complaint would be as wrong-headed about Treme’s New Orleans as it was about The Wire’s Baltimore. The problem is not the breadth or diversity of its depictions but the lens through which it constructs the city. Treme cannot help us make sense of the social forces that have produced New Orleans and its patterns of social relations and that will shape its and its residents’ future because the series adopts the ideological lens of the touristic culture that depends on making those forces and relations invisible. There is no way, for instance, to get from that vantage point to the Avondale travesty in the subtle and powerful way that The Wire commented on deindustrialization. This contrast is particularly striking because the dockworker narrative that anchors The Wire’s second season may have been, as Kenneth Warren suggests, the most important one in the series.16
David Simon is a very perceptive and sensitive observer of urban life with an uncommonly astute feel for the imprints of large structural forces on quotidian experience, worldviews and life-chances, and he is without question motivated by humane, progressive and admirably tough-minded inclinations. (In full disclosure, I had a happenstance encounter with him when Treme was still in production, and we talked about politics and cities through a train ride from Philadelphia to New York.) These traits and concerns were impressively visible in The Wire. They are absent from Treme because Simon couldn’t avoid being swept up into – snookered by – the hegemonic touristic ideology’s discourse of authenticity. Or, in that local idiom which the show prides itself on representing (even to the point of persisting gamely with excruciating failures like Clarke Peters’s Indian chief character), he got took, yeah.
* Simon and HBO made a conscious decision to exclude the acute accent from the program’s title.