Our Treme tour (pronounced Tre-may), like most great events in New Orleans, began in a bar. We were encouraged to buy a drink, put it into a plastic cup, and go on the tour with our booze in hand.
“The police will care if you’re carrying glass but don’t worry about street drinking. No one around here cares about that,” our guide told us.
New Orleans was my kind of place.
A different kind of laundromat
Our first stop was a non-de-script laundromat called The Clothes Spin. Dave and I had passed it numerous times before as we walked around the fringes of the French Quarter, but we hadn’t given it much thought.
It turns out that this isn’t an ordinary laundromat.
It was the first recording studio for Cosimo Matassa.
Cosimo’s father owned the laundromat back in 1944, and Cosimo convinced his dad to refurbish part of the building into a recording studio.
Begrudgingly, his dad gave him a tiny space – no bigger than a janitor’s closet – and Cosimo began recording music from some of the musicians who are now known as the greats of their time.
The list includes Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis.
So we have a laundromat to thank for some of the first records of these music legends!
You know the song Tutti Frutti by Little Richard? That was recorded at The Clothes Spin. And it aint no ordinary record either…
Little Richard was mortified when, years after he recorded this tune, he noticed it playing on a cartoon show on TV.
Why? Because his lyrics are actually describing homosexuals having sex.
Probably not appropriate for a children’s cartoon!
Have you seen the film Ray? If you haven’t, watch it, it’s a great movie.
However, our guide told us the locals in New Orleans were disappointed the film didn’t show the time Ray Charles lived in New Orleans – which was for most of 1953.
The reason this wasn’t highlighted in the film was probably because Ray spent most of the time walking around high on heroin.
The locals used to call him the ‘ice-cream man’ becaue he’d walk around holding an ice-cream in each hand. Turns out he did this to cool himself down from his heroin highs.
Louis Armstrong Park
Louis Armstrong Park is situated on the edge of the Treme district and Congo Square inside the park has a rich music history.
Back during the slave era, the slaves’ masters gave them one day off a week – most likely a Sunday. While this sounds like a kind thing to do, the masters only did it because it meant that would be one day where they didn’t have to pay for their slaves’ food or board, and it also meant the slaves would be happier meaning there was less of a chance they would revolt.
The slaves used to swap goods, dance and make music in Congo Square. The music they made revolved around drums and was mostly African in heritage. After the War of 1812, many soldiers left New Orleans, leaving their instruments behind.
These musicians formed the beginnings of the brass band and after emancipation began to play at public events and funerals.
Louis Armstrong himself is possibly one of the most famous musicians to come out of New Orleans and a script-writer couldn’t even make up his background.
Born into a very poor family as the grandson of former slaves, Armstrong’s mother was a prostitute. First exposed to music at school, it was in prison where his talent developed. (He was sent to jail for shooting a pistol in the air on New Year’s Eve.)
It’s thought that Armstrong got his nickname ‘Satchmo’ because when he was little he kept getting mugged on his way to school. The thieves were stealing Armstrong’s lunch money and he was going hungry each day.
And then he came up with a plan. Armstrong sewed a little satchel and hid the coins in there before placing it in the back of his mouth.
When his friends found out about his plans, they began to call him ‘satchel mouth’. This was later shortened to ‘Satchmo’.
The Treme neighbourhood
Walking deeper into the Treme neighbourhood, we were told that it’s the oldest black neighbourhood in the USA. It became a black neighbourhood after 1900 when segregation laws meant black people had to stay in their ‘area’ which became the Treme.
These days, our guide told us, the area is becoming gentrified as young couples buy up the houses and refurbish them. The popular TV show Treme is also filmed in this area.
Today the houses in the Treme are quite expensive, but after Hurricane Katrina people with money bought as many of the houses as they could for a steal.
Many of the people whose homes were flooded in this area had to leave and they needed the money from any sale they could get.
It’s a sad story. Even today, the Treme neighbourhood is only 86% of the population size it was pre-Katrina.
Some of the houses of the people who stayed are still marked with an X. The search and rescue teams after Katrina would mark the houses after looking inside for any dead bodies, telling fellow team members that the house had been searched.
Locals fought back against Hurricane Katrina in other ways too. The City of New Orleans planned to close St Augustine Church even though the parish had been providing extensive community support.
St Augustine Church has a rich history, having been built ‘for people of colour’ in 1841 where slaves were allowed to have their own pews.
St Augustine Church also has a rich music history and is one of the few Catholic churches that has live music during its services.
Musicians would come here after staying up all night performing on the streets and in the clubs of New Orleans. After service they would have Sunday lunch before crashing for a well deserved rest – by this time they’d probably been awake for nearly two days straight!
So to close the church would mean an end to one of the greatest symbols in the Treme district. After a demonstration against its closure, the church was allowed to remain open but would be under review for 18 months. Fortunately, in May 2008 it received a US$75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express and is still open to this day.
The Interstate 10
Hurricane Katrina isn’t the only challenge the Treme neighbourhood has faced. In the 1950s, the Treme was one of the wealthiest African-American communities but this was destroyed when the City of New Orleans decided to build a highway running straight through the heart of the district.
The highway was built directly on top of the main shopping and trade area of the Treme, devastating local businesses and severing connections between residential neighbourhoods.
Our Airbnb host advised us not to go to the Treme district because it was ‘dangerous’ but I felt completely safe walking around the neighbourhood. And learning about its rich history via the Treme tour made the jaunt all the more worthwhile.
We received two complimentary tour tickets from French Quarter Phantoms. But as always, our opinions are our own.
What you need to know:
Cost – Tickets for the Treme tour with French Quarter Phantoms cost US$22 but if you buy it online it’s only US$18.
When to go – From May 1st through October 31st the tour begins at 10am. All other times of the year the tour is on at 1pm. The tour lasts around two hours.
How to get there – The Treme tour starts at a bar called Mike’s At the Park, which is at 834 N. Rampart Street (at the top of the French Quarter, near Dumaine & North Rampart Streets). There’s paid street parking out the front, but parking can be difficult so arrive by public transport if you can.