There Was a House in New Orleans. Now There Isn't.
Treme creator David Simon's strange spat with Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Last year, on the eve of the premiere of his latest HBO drama, Treme, the acclaimed journalist-turned-television impresario David Simon published an open letter to the citizens of New Orleans in the pages of the Times-Picayune. In a pre-emptive mea culpa, Simon pleaded with the city's inhabitants to forgive him and his team for certain creative liberties they had taken. Simon had gone to great lengths to make the show accurate. But it wouldn't be completely true to life, he warned.
"Treme is drama, and therefore artifice," Simon reminded New Orleanians, who are famously protective of their cultural traditions and deeply skeptical of outsiders who claim to understand them or try to represent them. "It is not journalism. It is not documentary. It is a fictional representation set in a real time and place, replete with moments of inside humor, local celebrity and galloping, unrestrained meta."
But Simon had no idea just how "meta" things would get.
Just as the second season of Treme is about to begin airing, Simon has become entangled in a public feud with the mayor of New Orleans, the city's historic preservationists, and a host of community groups. It's a story line Simon himself might have dreamed up: something between urban tragedy and urban farce.
Last month, a group of preservationists approached Simon and asked him to write a letter to Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. The group was trying to prevent the planned demolition of a stretch of abandoned houses that appeared prominently in the posters and advertisements HBO had used to promote the first season of Treme. Simon agreed, and in a letter to Landrieu he wrote with two of the show's executive producers, he urged the mayor to find an alternative.
The homes, Simon wrote, have "attained something of an iconic status" on account of their association with Treme. "What a powerful message it would send about the resiliency and recovery of the city for this block to be restored and transformed into desirable homes for returning residents," he added.
Apparently, Landrieu wasn't made aware of Simon's letter until last Thursday, the very day the buildings were set to be demolished. It's not clear whether it would have made any difference if he had known earlier. At a press conference held in front of the homes—a block of dilapidated cottages, sadly unremarkable by New Orleans standards—Landrieu lashed out at Simon and the preservationists.
"People show up at the last minute and say, 'Please don't,' " said Landrieu, a talented, popular politician who nonetheless is prone to being defensive and a bit thin-skinned. "Well, we're moving on in the city of New Orleans." Dismissing his critics as dilettantes, Landrieu became visibly agitated. "I'm calling upon the producers of Treme, I'm calling on anybody who has resources, who wants to partner with us and bring something other than suggestions to the table," he said. "Because talk is cheap."
It's true that Simon had not articulated a specific plan or made a concrete offer of funding. But Simon later said that if the mayor's office had responded to his letter, he would have worked with the preservationists to help finance an alternative. Landrieu said at the press conference that he had spoken on the phone with Simon about the buildings that morning. "I asked him, did you know they were in imminent danger of collapse? Did you know they were a danger to public safety?" Landrieu claimed. "He said 'No, I didn't know that.' "
Arrayed behind Landrieu at the press conference was a group of African-American neighborhood leaders who supported his decision, including two pastors from nearby churches. They wanted the houses torn down because they were used by drug dealers, making an already-dangerous neighborhood even more dangerous.
Justin Vogt is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans.
Ad for Treme courtesy HBO. Photograph of David Simon by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.