Lolis Eric Elie is a well-dressed dude. The first time I met him, at a charity reading at the Bridge Lounge, he was wearing matching saffron shorts and shirt and looked like a chilled-out New Orleans monk. He has that innate sense of manners and charm a lot of New Orleanians seem to have, and comports himself in a low-key way, although he would have every right to be pissed off.
“If you’re not from New Orleans, you probably never heard of it,” begins the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. It’s Elie talking. The statement now seems ironic; after the French Quarter and the Garden District, Treme is one of the city’s most instantly recognizable neighborhoods, but much of its heritage hasn’t been preserved. “The local government has done so much to destroy the neighborhood,” says Elie, who, along with director Dawn Logsdon, made Faubourg Treme and is now one of the writers of HBO’s Treme. His list of “ravages” inflicted on the neighborhood by the city government include “the abandonment of our architectural heritage, Armstrong Park, the overpass.”
Huge cement pillars support the I-10 overpass that cuts through Treme at precisely the point where an alley of live oaks once stood. This is where the neighborhood would gather for picnics and outdoor barbecues. To honor and acknowledge that history, elaborate paintings of trees and vines snake up the base of the cement pillars. It makes what was torn up, if not visible, then palpable. The first second-line parade after Katrina took place there, and was re-created for an episode of Treme. Neighborhood residents still commune among these painted trees, to the accompanying roar of the interstate above.
“New Orleans politicians treat New Orleans like it’s an average American city,” Elie says. “We’ve had average politicians running an extraordinary place they don’t understand.”