I had never heard of the Treme district of New Orleans until that wonderful HBO Television series of the same name appeared earlier this year. If you don't know what I am talking about, ask your video store about it, or read more about it here. Having seen the first series of Treme before leaving on our trip, we were never going to miss out on visiting the area while in New Orleans, and it proved to be a day full of surprises.
This plaque at one end of Esplanade Avenue, near the 1-10 Interstate, summarises the history neatly, but it can't tell the story of how Treme was hit so hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and how the district has fought back since then. Watching the HBO TV series is a good way to get a basic feel for the people, the district and their struggle since then, but of course the real story is infinitely more complex.
Our first surprise was seeing the extent to which many buildings have been restored, repainted and revived. Some evidence of Treme's long roots into African-American music remain, such as the front of this (closed at the time) streetside theatre.
The big surprise though was the number of freshly renovated houses. In the streets where we wandered around, only about one in ten houses was boarded up with "no trespassers" signs prominent on the temporary cyclone wire fences. The rest were colourful, revived and looking great.
Treme is a smallish district about half a dozen streets wide by half a dozen streets long, and the houses range from these simple homes on the side streets through to flash looking mansions on the main street, Esplanade Avenue.
We stopped off at local legend breakfast/lunch soul food spot, Li'l Dizzy's on Esplanade, and as soon as the waitress heard my voice she got it right: "Hey, another Australian! Hi there, y'all." I'll save up the very yummy lunch for Tummy Time 7, but Li'l Dizzy's was a thriving, happy place bursting at the seams with (mostly African-American) customers.
When it comes to the choice of house colours around here, anything goes and it's a big part of the area's character.
Maybe repairing and rebuilding has made people extra house-proud, but some background research I did into Treme shows that the area is changing, with the strongly African-American character of the place being lessened by an influx of non-African-American residents attracted to the great location with lots of character, and the cheap, beaten-up houses. It seems that quite a few old Treme residents whose houses were ruined by Katrina simply cannot afford to return and renovate, and some are selling up just in order to survive.
Then, wandering back down to the French Quarter later in the afternoon, we passed a church in Treme with these striking plaques on the front wall. Pictured above is a list of "Murder Victims of 2007" and while it's not possible for you to read the details in this photo, the great majority – well over 90% – were shot. The rest were beaten or stabbed to death. There was a similar size plaque next to it for 2008 with the same grim story.
This hand-written plaque of 2011's murder victims in still being updated, as each new victim falls. There was no-one around to explain whether these were just residents of Treme, but we hope not. Maybe these are people in all of New Orleans. Even then that's frightening. We just don't know, but it's a powerful statement of the violent undercurrents in this society which by day seems pretty normal and ordinary to us. Obviously we don't go to the dangerous areas when the sun goes down, and that's probably when most of the violence occurs.
By the time we made it back down to the other end of the French Quarter, another sign of the foment beneath the surface of this city marched by. I am sure you have all been reading about the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in New York and other major US cities. Well, add New Orleans to the list.
This was a small, peaceful and noisy protest by about 500 people well organised by lead megaphones with chants such as "This is how democracy sounds". The local police stopped traffic, the protestors all marched by, then the tourists resumed shopping.
The protestors are absolutely right, though. The gap in wealth here, or perhaps I should say the extent of poverty in the USA, is something this country does need to deal with if it is to make peaceful progress in the next decade or two.
It's not just the beggars on the streets, it's the number of destitute towns seemingly without jobs or hope we have passed through, the number of utterly ramshackle, almost third-world standard houses on the edges of so many towns. For a wealthy country, there is far too much poverty here in the USA, far more than you'd ever see driving around Australia. It's their problem to deal with, not mine, but from the sidelines I can only cheer on the protestors and wish them success in changing politics here in America so fairness in the distribution of wealth becomes an issue once more. It'd probably save a lot of lives in the long run.