Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Modern American City

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A trip to Louisiana, filtered through the TV show Treme, explains the relationship between culture and a vibrant community

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You are looking at a photo of Congo Square, in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, adjacent to and just northwest of the French Quarter. Slaves once gathered here on Sunday afternoons to dance and make music, and some say it is the birthplace of jazz. I'm certainly not going to romanticize slavery, but one has to admire the resilience of those forced to endure it, claiming a day and a place for themselves and their culture. More recently, Congo Square was the site of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, until Jazzfest outgrew the space and moved to the fairgrounds.

I may care about music even more than I care about the environment, or at least it is closer to my soul. And that's saying a lot.

I'm headed to New Orleans today to take part in the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects. As a non-architect, I take a certain pride in being invited into their circle. I'm looking forward to being on a panel with my friends David Dixon and Laurie Volk. And I'm also looking forward to returning to New Orleans, for what I think will be the third time since Katrina.

In honor of this trip, I'm going to be running three posts about the city, which—speaking of resilience— is proving to be a remarkably resilient, if also remarkably challenged, community. In today's post, I'm going to look at New Orleans through the lens of the fabulous HBO dramatic series Treme, about the neighborhood and the post-Katrina lives of the musicians who live there. The show is infused with tons of authenticity--sometimes disturbing and sometimes uplifting—and incredible music.

I've spent a great deal of time in New Orleans over, gosh, four decades now, in many parts of the city. When various charities sprang up in 2005 as a result of the hurricane and flooding, the one that I gave to was a fund organized by legendary NOLA radio station WWOZ (well represented on the show) to help displaced musicians survive. I may care about music even more than I care about the environment, or at least it is closer to my soul. And that's saying a lot.

So this series has become one of my all-time favorites. It was co-created by David Simon, who also created The Wire, which was to crime and police work in Baltimore what Treme is to music and post-Katrina survival in New Orleans. Reading a number of interviews with Simon, I've been struck by how he makes the connection between Treme and larger issues about urban community and the importance of culture to community in America. The remainder of this post will largely be devoted to Simon's words, extracted from a series of articles that I encourage you to read in full.

For example, here are a couple of quotes from an interview conducted by Andrew Anthony and published last year in the British newspaper The Observer:

This is a story about culture and how American urban culture defines how we live. New Orleans is an extraordinary and unusual culture, but it comes from the same primal forces in American society of immigration and assimilation and non-assimilation and racism and post-racialism that really are the defining characteristics of this melting pot society. [Note: see Lee Epstein's excellent essay, posted here Monday, for more on this very concept.]

What is it about Americans that makes us Americans? The one thing we have unarguably given the world is African-American music . . . The combination of African rhythms and the pentatonic scale and European instrumentation and arrangement. That collision of the two happened in a 12-square block area of a city called New Orleans that had a near-death experience in 2005.

You can read the interview in full here.

Simon expanded on those themes in a later interview with Vince Beiser of The Progressive, published in March of this year:

This show, if we do it right, is an argument for the city. For the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can't be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we're different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.

I listened during the last election cycle to the rhetoric about small town values and where the real Americans live . . . That idea was lost with the Industrial Revolution. And yet with more than 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, there are still demagogues who want to run down the idea of multiculturalism, of urbanity, being the only future we have. We either live or die based on how we live in cities, and our society is either going to be great or not based on how we perform as creatures of the city.

Some of my friends who prefer rural and small-town living may find a bit of discomfort with that, but he has a point. We've got to get cities, suburbs, and metro regions right.

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Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.
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