By Dennis Persica
October 18, 2012
Thanks to the television series that bears its name, Tremé is probably the most-famous New Orleans neighborhood in the world other than the French Quarter. But not a lot of people outside the city know of its rich history.
Tremé — bounded by North Rampart, North Broad, Canal Street and St. Bernard Avenue — was annexed into New Orleans in 1812, and the 200th anniversary of that is being marked next week with the week-long Tremé 200 Bicentennial Celebration.
The neighborhood was home to the infamous Storyville red-light district that flourished in the early 20th century. But it’s also home to St. Augustine Church, whose congregation in the mid-19th century was made up of white people, free people of color and slaves — a diversity that was unique for its time.
As the influx of Europeans into New Orleans grew in the late 1800s, many Italian immigrants also moved into Tremé.
Homer Plessy, the man who sued to stop racial segregation on trains, lived there. The landmark “separate but equal” Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson became the legal basis for segregation until the 1950s.
Other famous residents included the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk and musician Louis Prima. But the area is most famous for its place in the history of jazz and the African-American musicians who hailed from there or played there regularly.
Jazz’s origin story says that the roots of the music sprouted from the dances that slaves held on Sundays in Congo Square in Tremé. Even if that story is not literally true, there is no doubt that Tremé was an incubator for jazz, nurturing it in its formative years. The area still is a magnet for musicians.
The old community of Creole cottages, shotgun houses and corner bars has been battered, however. New Orleanians of a certain age — including me — remember the glorious, tree-lined neutral ground on North Claiborne Avenue. Tremé families would spend their free time there, and Mardi Gras Indians, musicians and other maskers gathered there to celebrate Fat Tuesday.
But the trees were removed in the 1960s to make room for Interstate 10. The elevated highway forms a concrete canopy over Claiborne now; under it, pavement replaced the grass. It cuts through Tremé like a large knife wound that festers even today.
Meanwhile, white flight to the suburbs robbed the area of its cultural diversity.
In the 1970s, several square blocks of homes were knocked down to make room for a planned cultural center despite neighborhood opposition. In the end, only a performing arts theater was built.
St. Augustine, a beacon for the city’s African-American Catholics virtually since its founding, was almost closed by the archdiocese after Hurricane Katrina. The Rev. Jerome LeDoux, who was pastor during that controversy and authored a book about the church, will return to New Orleans for one of the panel discussions at the celebration, which runs Tuesday through Oct. 20 at several locations in town.
Filmmaker Dawn Logsdon and New Orleans writer Lolis Eric Elie, who collaborated on the film “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” also will take part. Freddi Williams Evans, the author of a book about Congo Square, will lead a panel discussion entitled “How a neighborhood changed the world.”
A complete schedule is available at http://www.treme2012.com. The event, sponsored by the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, also includes a jazz Mass at St. Augustine, several concerts and a second line.
Mass, music and a parade — you couldn’t ask for a more typical New Orleans experience.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans journalist who, until recently, worked for The Times-Picayune. He is now contributing to The Advocate a weekly column in which he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.