In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was concern that New Orleans' distinctive culture might not return:
Mardi Gras Indian chiefs moved to places like Austin, threatening to relocate their tradition beyond the city limits of their hometown for the first time. (Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux stays with his kids in Houston and NYC.)
High school marching bands weren't able to march in Mardi Gras Parades because many students hadn't come home, and those that did had to replace uniforms and instruments. (Treme: Antoine and Keith Hart direct the band at the Kipp school.)
Second line parades - which Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs had led through their neighborhoods for more than a century - were nowhere to be found. The streets of New Orleans were silent for perhaps the first time in the city's history.
There were some hopeful early signs. When famed Creole chef Austin Leslie passed away after evacuating to Atlanta, his body was transported to New Orleans, where a jazz funeral led by the Hot 8 Brass Band proceeded through devastated neighborhoods piled high with debris. Soon after, the Prince of Wales Social Aid & Pleasure Club organized the first post-K second line parade through their unflooded Uptown neighborhood. By January 2006, five months after the flood, a massive "Allstar" parade was organized by dozens of marching clubs, sending a signal that local culture continued to be a priority for New Orleanians rebuilding their lives.
Though the parade was meant to be a display of unity, at the end, as the crowd was dispersing, shots broke out along the perimeter of the crowd and three people were injured. (You'll remember this from the first season of Treme.) Then two months later, a shooting took place near a jazz funeral, and a 19-year old man was killed.
As you know from this season of Treme, if the return of culture to New Orleans was something to celebrate, the return of violent crime was harrowing. Somehow the NOPD conflated the two. Police chief Warren Reily tripled the permit fees required for parading, from $1250 to $3760, and clubs like the Pigeontown Steppers that parade on holidays (Easter) were hit with a whopping $7560 bill.
This is the moment we've arrived at in Treme, when ACLU lawyer Mary Howell (the basis for the Toni Bernette character) partnered with the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and sued the city for discrimination. They argued that predicting where shootings would happen was impossible, that no one participating in a parade had ever been involved in the shootings, and that shootings occurred consistently at Mardi Gras parades and the elite krewes had never been 'taxed' for the police detail.
The result? The NOPD settled the case, agreed to a reduced parade fee of $1985, and the parade season resumed.
The return of local culture in New Orleans preceded the return of infrastructure. It sent a signal that the city was rebuilding, and it helped to lure tourists back to visit and spend their almighty dollars. And as far as their role in the community, an LSU study found that Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs were models for community participation. Many musicians and marching club members think the city should PAY them for their efforts in perpetuating local culture rather than TAX them as misdirected punishment. I would advise the optimists not to hold their breath.