By Dawn Logsdon & Lolis Eric Elie http://www.tremedoc.com
The Faubourg Treme documentary opens with Katrina footage, but it's about so much more than that. Lolis Eric Elie invites us in to explore his new neighborhood with him, and as we do, we discover a rich history that Katrina put in jeopardy. This is no huge, pondering comprehensive history lecture, but rather a lyrical, lighthanded conversation with a man who bought a house in a historical neighborhood and who wanted to learn more. Mr. Elie is a newspaperman, a reporter for the Times-Picayune, and his journalistic curiosity led him to archives and to neighborhood informants who gave him the personal tales that so enliven the scope of history.
Treme was founded when New Orleans was only the French Quarter. A landowner by the name of Treme sold plots of his land for suburb (faubourg) housing, which were quickly bought up by free blacks and whites alike. The reality of slavery in New Orleans was much more complex than our typical education by mainstream sources leads us to understand. There was indeed a large free black population in the area, as well as slaves who had more rights and privileges (to walk freely in the streets and do business) than elsewhere in the nation. It's speculated that this was due to the French and Spanish influence in the area, and I could have watched an entire documentary on that thesis alone.
This unusual begining led to a number of remarkable accomplishments over time, including the founding of a black newspaper during the Civil War, L'Union, later the Tribune, that not only agitated for empancipation, but also social justice. These calls for integrated education, suffrage, and property ownership spoke to the high level of literacy and enterprise among the community. These concepts of full citizenship were still unheard
of in the Northern US, because most were fighing the institution of slavery, not agitating for full rights and citizenship.
Unfortunately these gains were lost after Reconstruction ended and the Federal troops left, when segregation was violently reimposed. The flourishing of the new jazz music scene was an expression of the lack of voice under segregated oppression. The Plessy v. Ferguson case was planned by New Orleans activists to bring segregation to the courts, but unfortunately, they lost. Irving Trevigne, Mr. Elie's home renovator and informant about the Civil Rights era, said, "All the kids would play out on the streets together, but then had to go to different schools. It was weird, man." Somehow, Treme always managed to remain a mixed neighborhood.
After the successes of the civil rights movement,Treme experienced the same sorts of urban blight problems that neighborhoods across the country are dealing with. A wonderful, oak-lined avenue, Claiborne, was destroyed to put in I-10. The eighties saw the rise in drug addiction and its concomitant crime. Then Katrina hit and put Treme underwater for days. The tragedy here is not only the physical damage, but the dispersion of Treme's people and their struggle to deal with the loss. As musician Glen David Andrews said, "There's going to be a lot of psychological problems, and I'm going to be the first in line."
More time has passed since this wonderful piece was produced, with more residents returning to the area, more reconstruction (although ridiculously slow) and certainly more national attention on New Orleans as an irreplaceable part of US culture and history. Mr. Elie gives us a snapshot (this documentary could have been twice as long and not felt overstuffed) of a place over time. His investigations show the connections of a deeply rooted neighborhood--his home renovator, Mr. Trevigne, was a great-great nephew of that black newspaper founder,Paul Trevigne of L'Union.
Wynton Marsalis describes the improvisational nature of jazz as a tradition that the musicians have done for so long, that not only is it a musical moment that never happened before, it is a also a moment that has always happened. I think that is true of Treme after Katrina. Not only has the neighborhood never existed like this before, it also has always had struggle, and as the poet says, "this is not stronger than we are as a people."
The Tribeca Film Review
Mr. Elie is now part of the production/writing team for HBO's Treme. Here is an informative (remember he's a newspaperman) youtube video about the pronunciation of "Treme" and "New Orleans."