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.
It was a scene emblematic of the way New Orleans has changed since the immediate aftermath of Katrina—the time period Simon has recreated so faithfully in Treme. Back then, the leadership of the black community was fighting to defend the right of hundreds of thousands of displaced people to come home and rebuild. Many feared—with some justification—that efforts to re-develop and "reinvent" New Orleans were intended to make the city smaller, wealthier, and whiter. Five years on, those concerns have been overshadowed by the demands of people who did make it back, many of whom are now calling for the city to do the very things—inspections, seizures, demolitions—that had been anathema in the first few years after the flooding.
Last year, Mitch Landrieu benefited from this shift and won election in a landslide—garnering substantial majorities among black and white voters alike and becoming the first white mayor of New Orleans in more than 30 years. (Landrieu is the son of the last white mayor of the city, Moon Landrieu, whose progressive approach is credited with de-segregating political life and paving the way for black political power.) Since taking office, Landrieu has been mostly successful in holding together an unlikely coalition of black and white supporters and maintaining a consensus on his blight-reduction strategy.
"I'm here today because the people of New Orleans gave me permission to be here today, because they said, 'Mayor, today is the day.' You remember that?" Landrieu boasted at the press conference. "And we made the date, and here's the consequence of that decision—these houses are coming down, and these neighborhoods are gonna be made safe." Sure enough, after the press conference ended, the houses came down.
In the midst of this environment, David Simon's opinions—which he had expressed in a perfectly reasonable manner, ever-mindful of his outsider status—nevertheless seemed out of step to many in New Orleans. Suddenly, David Simon—an artist who had gone out of his way to avoid offending New Orleanian sensibilities (and vanities), who had asked forgiveness for any of his narrative transgressions, whose production had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charities in the city—was cast as just another Yankee outsider who didn't get it.
People from all over town were suddenly denouncing him. Many of the reliably vitriolic (and sometimes bigoted) commenters on the Times-Picayune's website took Landrieu's side. "Are you kidding me?" wrote one. "Yes, HBO, let's keep blighted houses that cause a public safety threat in order to 'restore and transform' the neighborhood. The stupidity in Hollywood knows no bounds." Wrote another: "I applaud Mitch. THANK YOU SIR! You gave the finger to the preservationist and you fended off the big budget movie folks."
Others defended Simon and lamented the city's insularity. "He is not from here. He is not our color. He is not from our ward. He is not from our church. And therefore he is an other, an interloper, and not one of us, easily discounted if not in fact an enemy," wrote Mark Folse, a popular New Orleans blogger. "We do this to ourselves. Over and over again."
Simon then waded into the comments section himself. "Amazing," he wrote. "Really." Simon launched into a detailed defense of his actions and positions, blasting the mayor's unresponsiveness and the preservationists' lack of initiative. He concluded this way:
"For years now, one of the fascinating questions for me is how progress in a city as vibrant and as essential as New Orleans always comes so slowly, or not at all. Why is it that consortiums and consensus-building and cooperation are all so elusive? Well, after being tossed between the mayor, preservationists, reporters and the generalized and absurd resentments and suspicions of many ordinary New Orleanians yesterday, I am beginning to see more of the light."
Perhaps something like this was bound to happen. Simon is, after all, doing something more ambitious than just making a TV show. He's positioned himself as a national advocate for New Orleans, a place he has described as "trying to find a way to endure while the political essence of the country doesn't give a fuck." Even though Treme dramatizes an era that most New Orleanians have put behind them, it was probably inevitable that Simon would be dragged into the less TV-friendly but equally high-stakes conflicts that are roiling the "new" New Orleans. What's surprising is that Simon seemed blindsided by the messy way things played out. After all, he is perhaps America's greatest living expert on just how badly things can go when good intentions meet urban realpolitik.