I have been teaching an honors colloquium about New Orleans for the past several spring semesters. It has been a chance to learn from afar about a city I have known -- so far -- only through books, music, radio stories, and of course maps.
The series is immersed in the political ecology of Katrina on the one hand and the cultural geography of the city's food and music on the other. In fact, many New Orleans musicians (and a few visitors) appear as themselves throughout the series. A professor played by John Goodman delivers a brilliant soliloquy that captures the paradox in just 92 seconds; HBO elaborates on Tremé as cause for celebration on the program's web site.
Our Tremé immersion has coincided with the ongoing saga of (pathetic) Congressional wrangling over infrastructure spending. For those reading this after 2021 -- or for those not following the (pathetic) saga, Congress has spent most of the calendar year debating two bills on infrastructure, and in November finally got the first "easy" one signed into law.
We learned about a longstanding problem in the Tremé neighborhood because of hopes it would be addressed as part of the $1,700,000,000,000 of roads-and-bridges spending that had finally been approved. Hopes were raised, according to NY Times journalist Audra D.S. Burch, by $20,000,000,000 that had been included to address the racially imbalanced impact of the Eisenhower-era construction of interstate highways.
As the map of the neighborhood makes clear, Tremé suffered a common fate of African-American communities. Highway construction tended to connect prosperous places without disrupting them, and to do the opposite to less powerful people living in less expensive locations. Because of the legacy of redlining, highways divided neighborhoods that would have been left intact if the properties were more expensive or the residents better connected. In the case of Tremé, Interstate 10 rumbles through the 442-acre neighborhood, separating the legendary Congo Square -- the point of origin of African music in North America -- from its neighbors.
The details, sadly, are far less hopeful than the headline. Congress removed 95 percent of what the Biden administration had requested for such projects nationally, leaving just $1 billion to address a problem that cost $20 billion to address (through the notorious Big Dig) in the city of Boston alone.
At the top of this post, I mention having only recently learned of Treme the show and Tremé the neighborhood. I learned of them from journalist Melissa Harris Perry's recent interview with Wendell Pierce, a star of both The Wire and Treme who is a native of New Orleans as they discussed his response (in both thoughts and deeds) to Hurricane Ida, which had befallen his beloved city the week before.
|Wendell Pierce as Antoine Baptiste (Image: HBO)|