The New Ninth Ward

If you’re one of the folks that stopped watching Treme after its first season (“Too boring! Too slow!”), or if you just never bothered to check it out, you might want to check back in. Now in its third season, Treme is proving itself adept at mirroring what creator David Simon’s more celebrated predecessor, The Wire, did better than any show before or since: depict characters struggling and surviving amidst the dysfunctional, intractable, and dialectical systems holding them – and us – prisoner.

In The Wire, the city was Baltimore, and the systems were the drug trade, the public schools, the municipal government, the press, and the police. In Treme, the city is New Orleans, and several of the systems – the schools, the police and the elected officials – make a return appearance. This time, however, Simon adds some new storylines and characters, all of which ride in on the destructive current of Hurricane Katrina, and all of who exist to tell a different story. Indeed, if The Wire was about the older, less visible systems that are holding us prisoner, Treme is about the newer, more visible ones that are being created in the name of progress. The genius of both shows is they refuse to craft a story about something so complicated by oversimplifying the myriad forces at play. As in life, systems and people are more nuanced than mere two-dimensional caricatures – even the ones that hold us prisoner, and even the ones who are up to no good.

I say this because lately I feel like the conversations about school reform in New Orleans are taking on an unhelpful and increasingly entrenched two-dimensional tone: you’re either for the locals, who are being preyed upon by profit-seeking charter schools and carpet-bagging businessmen who see in the chaos of Katrina their last, best chance to remake the city into something new; or you’re for the engines of progress, which recognize that the city’s schools were an embarrassment, its housing projects a blight, and its local traditions best preserved via tangible, lasting monuments, not intangible, romanticized dysfunction.

I say this as someone who knows well-meaning people that have gone to New Orleans as “engines of progress” and who see in its schools the greatest chance to reimagine urban public education for the better. And I say this as someone who feels that much of what they have created is, in effect, perfecting our ability to succeed in an old (Industrial-era) system that no longer serves our interests.

We do ourselves a disservice when we describe school reform in New Orleans in the overly simplistic “privatization of public education” storyline (which is so appealing precisely because it has such clearly defined good people and bad people – and which, like all storylines, is at least partially grounded in the truth). And we are kidding ourselves if we continue to believe that what poor communities need most are outsiders coming in and helping their children raise test scores via a grab bag of teaching methods that not a single “outsider” I know has actually chosen for their own children.

What we have at play in modern New Orleans, in other words, are a few bad people, a lot of bad decisions, and a lot of good (or at least decent) people struggling to succeed amidst larger systemic ways of seeing and thinking that are still holding them – and us – prisoner.

The most recent episode of Treme captures this spirit perfectly in the lyrics of a new song one of the characters has penned in an effort to tell the story of what has happened there since Katrina. Sung by the legendary Irma Thomas, its opening stanza tells you what’s coming:

I’ll meet you on the corner of Dick Cheney Street

And Rumsfeld Boulevard,

Right next to the statue of Michael Brown,

In the new Ninth Ward.

As the song progresses, it’s clear its author is not a fan of the changes underway (nor should he be).

Folks are living so easy there,

Times used to be so hard,

A chicken in every pot,

Oh they dance a lot,

In the new Ninth Ward.

The song’s final stanza sums up the unique tragedy of modern New Orleans – a city with as much cultural heritage as any place in the United States, and a city with as much need of civic improvement.

We kicked out all the criminals,

Got rid of the blight,

Put a little camera on the traffic light,

The kids that come to school

They come to learn and not fight,

This time around we’re making it right,

In the new Ninth Ward.

What makes Treme so redeeming is its refusal to give the chief architects of the post-Katrina clusterfuck a free pass, and its insistence that we not delude ourselves into seeing those architects as being separate from the rest of us. We have met the enemy, and it is us. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may actually figure out a way to be free. Until that happens, get ready – a new Ninth Ward is coming your way soon.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

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