“You girls shouldn’t be here. You know this is a bad neighborhood, don’t you?” said the elderly, white male to the college-aged white women, as he leaned out of his shiny car on Treme Street, New Orleans.
Both in and outside of New Orleans, there is a debate: Which districts are safe? Certain stigmas associated with districts like Treme discourage outside visitors, said Ronald Lewis, founder of the House of Dance and Feathers heritage museum.
People who still believe districts like Treme are dangerous haven’t been in these areas in the past 10 years, according to John Deveney, president of Deveney, an engagement agency that served an important role in communication before, during and after Hurricane Katrina by volunteering their media center.
“Just look at crime stats. Should you wander looking aimless and lost in a neighborhood that doesn’t host tourists? I don’t know why you would, but probably not,” Deveney said.
Nonetheless, Deveney said he does not discourage visiting these areas when there is a purpose.
“I don’t think you should feel uncomfortable,” said Deveney.
Jeniece Black, division chief of the City of New Orleans Parks and Parkways, said there is a difference between Treme being a dangerous place and tourists putting themselves in risky situations. Black said she once found a young woman passed out alone on the steps of the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Treme.
“I mean she was just gone,” Black said.
Black said the girl was not safe because she was incapacitated from alcohol and possibly on drugs, making her unaware of her surroundings. If the young lady had not been incapacitated, though, Black said that the woman would have been safe walking through Treme.
Treme is a black community, formally referred to as the 6th Ward, according to Benny Jones Sr., leader of the Treme Brass Band.
Wards are an important part of New Orleans natives’ identities, according to Black..
“People identify with what ward they live in. That’s just part of the culture of New Orleans,” Black said.
Treme’s name transition distinguishes the neighborhood’s rich history, according to Luther Gray, president of the Congo Square Preservation Society. Originally a slave plantation, the land was purchased by Claude Treme, Gray said.
“Claude Treme was a Creole man of color, and he had a successful business, so he bought the land,” Gray said. “Then black folks were able to build houses on the land. In the early 1800s, 20 percent of the population of homeowners in New Orleans were free people of color because he purchased that land.”
Today, Treme is recognized as the first African-American neighborhood in America, according to the Faubourg Treme historical landmark sign on Esplanade Avenue.
The United States Census Bureau reported more than 60 percent of New Orleans residents are black or African-American, as of 2010.
Like Treme, other black neighborhoods in New Orleans face stigmas. Tourists are also discouraged from visiting the 9th Ward because it is stereotyped as dangerous, Lewis said.
“That is changing. The world is not built on the French Quarters, so coming down here just makes sense,” Lewis said.
Spending five hours walking through Treme was one of the most enriching parts of my time spent in the New Orleans. The food, the music and the people of Treme are part of New Orleans culture. If you visit New Orleans, I encourage you to challenge stereotypes and support the community of Treme.
Five things you need to experience in Treme, New Orleans:
- Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe
Located on 1500 Esplanade Ave., in the heart of Treme, Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe is a quaint, Creole eatery. Li’l Dizzy’s originally opened in 2004, and was the first restaurant in New Orleans to reopen following Hurricane Katrina. Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe is so famous for its fried chicken, even Barack Obama tried it during one of his visits to New Orleans.
- Candlelight Lounge
Candlelight Lounge has been a local bar and music venue on N. Robertson Street since 1982. The lounge is a great place to meet locals and learn about Treme culture. Over the years, the Candlelight Lounge has become the stomping grounds of Treme Brass Band, which leads me to my next suggested experience.
- Treme Brass Band
Every Wednesday, the Candlelight Lounge hosts Treme Brass Band. By 10 p.m., locals and tourists alike reveal their boogie moves as the horns howl, blowing the roof off. Treme Brass Band celebrates and captures the energy of New Orleans jazz heritage for the community and tourists to enjoy.
- Louis Armstrong Park
Located on N. Rampart Street, Louis Armstrong Park serves as a historical landmark as well as a gathering place for musicians and public events. Throughout the park, the city designated more than $1 million to design beautiful sculptures that pay tribute to music legends like Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
- Congo Square
Walk a block down Rampart Street, and you will find Congo Square, one of the most historically rich locations in New Orleans. Congo Square served as a gathering place for African slaves to play drums, dance and worship on Sundays. Every Sunday, The Wild Bamboulas, a New Orleans world jazz band, meet at Congo Square with drums in hand, ready to rumble.