'Treme': Post-Katrina New Orleans Gets Complicated

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At one point in this week's episode of Treme, the saxophonist Donald Harrison reminds Delmond Lambreaux that there isn't just one New Orleans sound or culture. (Delmond had expressed surprise to hear the banjo-heavy performance of Don Vappie on the "Crescent City Twelfth Night" tour he joined.) It's an interesting point for Delmond to make, as he himself plays more straight-ahead jazz than New Orleans swing, but it calls to mind a reoccurring theme in the show, and in audiences' reactions to it: that of what is authentic, and what is the "real" New Orleans.

Last week, Atlantic correspondent Lane Wallace tackled the idea of what makes a place "real," noting: "On some level, it's impossible to capture or define the "real" anywhere, because places are not just fixed buildings you can point to. They're a melding of culture, viewpoint, character, detail and experience. And every person's experience of a place, group, event or culture is unique ... what we view as the "real" version of places we know, or have known, is almost always one in which we belong."

She continued:

But in the end, when we argue about what the "real" New Orleans (or anywhere else) is—beyond a general definition of a place that's far more complex and far less sanitized than the mass-market sights most tourists see—we aren't arguing about reality at all. We're arguing about narratives. The irony, of course, is that a narrative is just a story we've created in our minds. So while we can enjoy exploring all the rich and varied stories and perspectives that exist within a community, city, or country, and they can give us a far greater understanding of its many faces and truths, perhaps the reality is ... there is no "real" New Orleans. Or America. Or, at least, not one we can ever objectively describe or define, outside of our own minds.

Those differing experiences play throughout the episode. A few weeks ago I criticized the show for its two-dimensional take on NOLA law enforcement, but last night we started to see more depth, specifically in former NOPD cop Jim Dietrich, whom Toni seeks out in the hopes to tracing what happened to Daymo. When she asks why Dietrich abandoned his job, he responds simply that he couldn't take it anymore—he worked for nine days straight after the storm, living out of his car, with his house underwater. Dave Walker of the Times-Picayune points out that there were 91 officers like Dietrich, who quit the force in the aftermath of the storm, while another 228 were investigated for leaving their posts.

Toni performs some impressive detective work to trace Dietrich, and then tracks his abandoned squad car to find his arrest book, which confirms that Daymo was arrested after a traffic stop the morning of the storm, on account of a warrant that should have already been cleared. Basically, poor Daymo has spent six months lost in the prison system because he ran a red light.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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