“I’d rather work on an old building than a new building,” says carpenter Irving Trevigne. “Anybody can build a house, but anybody can’t come in these old buildings and bring ’em back.” Trevigne lives and works in New Orleans, where he is surrounded by old buildings, many in need of repair. As framed in Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, 76-year-old Trevigne’s will to preserve the past is admirable but also set against a series of challenges — from the ravages of time and weather to the callous indifference of contemporary institutions.
Conceived and shot mostly before Hurricane Katrina and edited afterwards, Lolis Eric Elie’s documentary has a similar project in mind, to recover and preserve histories forgotten or actively repressed. His case in point is his own home, on which he has Trevigne working. That home is located in Faubourg Tremé, “the oldest black neighborhood in America.” A columnist for the Times Picayune, Elie extols the area’s longtime progressive politics and cultural innovations: “Long before Rosa Parks,” he says, “People in my neighborhood led a civil rights movement that changed the course of American history.” After Katrina, he adds, he felt a new urgency to gather together and retell this and other stories. Mulling over the population’s dispersion after the storm, he says, “It’s not the first time my community has been devastated and abandoned by its government. In the past, we survived and came out stronger, but what I’m wondering is, how our past can help us survive and come out stronger this time.”
His effort takes a conventional form — consultations with experts, images of local art (including the Tremé Sidewalk Steppers Club), and tracking shots of storm-wrecked streets — but the stories are anything but typical. Even during slavery, slaves in Faubourg Tremé could earn money and purchase their freedom, then take up residence and work. Tremé was “different from other places in America,” says poet Brenda Marie Osbey. “There were all kinds of Africans walking around loose in the streets.” This challenges the traditional view of “the black experience,” that is, Osbey says, “Black people were slaves. Period. Okay then came The Freedom. Period. Then came The Civil Rights Movement. Period.” Tremé, she says, showed that American history is a “more dynamic process.” This process is embodied in eth film by the performances of Lenwood Sloan’s Louisiana Living History Project, in which actors don vintage clothing and walk Tremé streets, offering mini-history lessons to children and other passers-by. (“Is that just costumes?” a boy asks, “No,” insists an man in morning coat and top hat, “We dress like this all the time.”)
Historian Eric Foner describes the existence of this free black community as a challenge to the status quo. “They carved out a world for themselves,” he says, “between the world of the slaves and the world of the free white planters.” As these individuals blurred boundaries in their daily lives, they incarnated essential political, economic, and cultural risks. “The very existence of a free black population,” observes John Hope Franklin, “was a threat to the institution of slavery.” And so, many nearby slave owners endeavored to keep activities in Tremé out of sight, if not to shut down those activities altogether. Writer Kalamu ya Salaam reports that when a number of slaves escaped a plantation and initiated a march in New Orleans, the U.S. military put down the rebellion — and to ensure the point was made, executed the rebels’ leaders and put their heads on spikes in Congo Square, at the city’s center.
Photos of these and other atrocities (lynchings, beatings) are set alongside images of celebration and defiance dancing and music-making in the same urban streets, forms of self-expression that look forward to jazz. Over 100 years before the Harlem Renaissance, such acts of resistance helped to conjure and maintain a sense of community against horrific odds. The next historical steps — through Reconstruction, Plessy v Ferguson, and community-destroying “urban planning” in the 1960s — were equally traumatic, and yet, Faubourg Tremé reveals, this community supported the nation’s first black daily newspaper, published by Irving Trevigne’s great great uncle Paul. The paper agitated for multiple causes, including integrated public transportation in New Orleans and the election of black representatives to the legislature.
If these stories have been lost to mainstream history, Elie’s film brings them back into focus. His house, and Trevigne’s work on it, provides an apt metaphor for this process. “Every broken thing we fixed,” Elie says, “Every room we finished, was my way of honoring the people who lived here before me.” Though Katrina and the Bush Administration’s abuses surely augmented the challenges ahead, they also helped to fortify the spirit of Tremé.