A documentarian, food historian, and television writer shows us a New Orleans neighborhood beyond the typical tourist stops.
I grew up in the Carrollton section of New Orleans, and when I left for college at the University of Pennsylvania, I thought I’d never return. I believed that my fortunes lay elsewhere. But after a few years away, I took a job as the road manager of Wynton Marsalis’s band—Wynton and I had gone to high school together—and it made more sense for me to make this city my home.
When I moved back, I considered living in a few neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, but it was the Tremé’s history and sense of community that drew me here. It’s the nation’s oldest African American residential area, and it has been the site of significant cultural, economic, and political events that over the past two centuries have shaped the course of history in black America and helped define New Orleans culture as we know it today. It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that the district’s importance was brought to national attention.
The Tremé is a close-knit community where residents have known each other for generations, and there are still vestiges of our history that have not been bulldozed over. The 19th-century mansions and Creole architecture along oak-lined streets are a walk back in time. They’re more akin to what you see in Caribbean towns in places like Haiti and Cuba, which makes sense because many of the Tremé’s immigrants came from that region. There aren’t huge front yards, and the porches are close to the street, so we’re very attached to sidewalk life. On nice days you’ll see people out and about talking to each other. Most of the city’s second-line parades—the local tradition of a brass band leading a group of dancers down the street—also pass through the Tremé, and living here offers a front-row seat.
Many people assume the civil rights movement began with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but we forget the struggles of black people in the previous century. The Tremé became the major neighborhood for free people of color in the early 1800s. During the Civil War, two newspapers were started by black activists in the Tremé: L’Union (in French), and its bilingual successor, La Tribune. Homer Plessy, who challenged segregation laws in the 1890s, was from the Tremé. The documentary film I wrote, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, attempted to show this part of history, which most Americans— and even many New Orleans natives—know nothing about.
The HBO series Treme, which I wrote for, took its name from the neighborhood, but it wasn’t exclusively about that part of the city; most of the plot didn’t even take place there. But it’s a place with the kind of spirit and heart that reveal New Orleans at its best. No matter how often my job takes me away to Los Angeles, home will always be the Tremé.
This appeared in the August/September 2015 issue.