As it approaches New Orleans from the west, Interstate 10 dips southward, toward the Central Business District. At the fringe of downtown, it abruptly turns north and east, bisecting several residential communities before traversing Lake Pontchartrain.
One of those neighborhoods is Faubourg Treme, long a home to many of New Orleans’ great African-American musicians since free blacks lived there during slavery. The construction of an elevated I-10 spur through the Treme replaced Claiborne Avenue, where live oaks once framed a thriving commercial district. At best, New Orleanians see that stretch of the freeway as an eyesore and necessary evil; often, they resent how it fractured living history.
Early in the opening episode of the HBO series Treme, a parade-“the first second-line since the storm,” we’re told-stops under the I-10 overpass. As the highway looms, natural light is choked out by concrete. But the energy is irrepressible. A costumed social aid and pleasure club steps fancily, surrounded by dancers of all ages and skin colors. Umbrellas are rhythmically raised aloft. And actual members of the Rebirth Brass Band play an ardent, funky “It’s All Over Now.” They lower their horns to chant the chorus en masse-and the effect is arresting.
Welcome to the New Orleans of Treme, where the beautiful and the damned commingle. It’s a frequent theme in the show, a story packed with musical performances and set in the Crescent City following Hurricane Katrina. In fact, with an ensemble cast and no unifying plot line, it might be Treme‘s only constant. In the midst of destruction, corruption and criminal neglect-plagues that long pre-date Katrina-a unique culture still finds a way to thrive. “The city came back on the weight of culture,” said executive producer David Simon in a recent interview for NPR. “There was no political leadership that stood up; there was no socioeconomic reason that New Orleans had to return. I mean, this city came back over the last five years, one trombonist, one sous-chef, one Mardi Gras Indian, one social aid and pleasure club member at a time.”
Typical of David Simon’s television shows-the best known being HBO’s The Wire– his team is obsessed with authenticity. Flood levels were researched by neighborhood to get set designs correct. Actors playing instrumentalists learned hand positions of notes they were miming. All music was recorded while filming on location: The crew actually hung microphones from the I-10 overpass, according to co-creator Eric Overmyer, a part-time New Orleans resident.