Ms. Marion Colbert, 86, has been easy to find in the Treme neighborhood for nearly 50 years. She and her family have lived the entire time in the same block of Henriette Delille Street, formerly St. Claude Street. For decades, she walked in her white uniform to the nearby French Quarter, where she worked as a powder-room attendant at Brennan’s Restaurant until it closed last year. In the evenings, Colbert has long presided from either her stoop or a shadier spot across the street. “They call me queen of the banana tree,” she said, pointing at the tall patch of greenery across from her house.

In general, Colbert favors downtown New Orleans, downriver from Canal Street, because it’s “more lively” than Uptown. But her passion is for the Treme section of town, because it’s a hub for people of all races and backgrounds. “This is where everywhere meets,” Colbert said, describing the dancing, laughing and second lining that happens outside her door.

When she wasn’t working Brennan’s brunches, Colbert walked across the street on Sundays to attend Mass at one of Treme’s landmarks, the venerable St. Augustine Catholic Church, which opened in 1842 and is said to be the oldest African American Catholic parish in the nation. Before it opened, free people of color and whites competed to buy pews for themselves and for enslaved people in the church’s so-called war of the pews.

It’s part of a long legacy of mixing and competition among neighbors in the area formally known as Faubourg Treme, which is often called America’s oldest black neighborhood and is considered a foundation stone of the city’s prized culture. Many of the most storied New Orleans jazz musicians, social aid and pleasure clubs, baby dolls, skull and bone gangs, and Mardi Gras Indians are inextricably rooted in the Treme. “New Orleans music is largely based off of things that happened in this area, the Treme area,” said musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, who also leads walking tours as part of his work with the National Parks Service.

Barnes finds that tourists are often eager to walk into Louis Armstrong Park to see another Treme landmark, Congo Square, where slaves and free people of color gathered on Sundays. “They want to put their feet on hallowed ground,” he said.

The changing, hidden corners of a neighborhood
Colbert knows the history backwards and forwards but doesn’t always feel the need to recite it for the visitors that wander with increasing frequency into the neighborhood since it became well-known nationally through its namesake HBO show, Davis Simon’s Treme.

So, instead of delivering a lecture, Colbert points up at the steeple. “This is an old, old church – go read the plaque,” she instructs Sashko Stubako and Angela Zhang, a young tourist couple that stop in front of her stoop after visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum down the street.

Ask longtime Treme neighbors about their neighborhood and they’ll tell you is that it’s changing. Though it had been largely black for the past generation, it’s now much more racially mixed and its streets are considerably more quiet, because of new residents who rarely come outside except to walk their dogs, they say. On some days, it feels like a shell of its former self, said Treme native Patricia McDonald, 62, as she sat with Donald Neapollioun, 61, a fix-it whiz who often repairs bicycles and toys for neighborhood kids, a role that’s earned him the nickname Fred Sanford.

Yet somehow, despite all of the changes, the spirit of Treme prevails, neighbors say, describing the Sunday social aid and pleasure club parades that still come out of the Treme Community Center and the New Creation Brass Band, which practices every day in Armstrong Park.

“It’s not the same Treme I grew up in. But it’s still Treme,” said Dwayne Chapman, 51. “The people are totally new.”

Native and transplants sharing the soil
Older neighborhood natives like Benny Jones, Sr., leader of the Treme Brass Band, recall an area that was known only as the 6th Ward until the 1960s and a place where music was king. “There were a bunch of bars and clubs with music at all times,” said Jones, whose household also echoed with music, because of his father, drummer Chester Jones, who played with the Onward, Tuxedo, Eureka and Preservation Hall bands.

Jones and his lifelong neighbor and bass drummer, the late Uncle Lionel Batiste – Jones’ actual uncle – have helped to perpetuate the culture they grew up with. In 1976, they helped to form the Moneywasters Social Aid and Pleasure Club. And, as the two rode to Treme Brass Band gigs together, they often stopped en route to pick up neighborhood children who showed musical talent, to let them sit in on the gigs. Jones still does his part, through the Treme Brass Band’s standing Wednesday-night gig, which attracts full houses at the Candlelight Lounge on North Robertson Street.

Thirty years ago, Chapman’s family helped to form another Treme club, the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Sudan still makes an annual stop at the family’s porch on Ursulines Street, where Chapman grew up under the watchful eye of his mother, the late Gloria Chapman, who monitored her children either from the porch or her “peep-out spot” at the back kitchen window.

But in recent years, as property values rose in Treme, the Chapman family got behind on their taxes and would have likely lost the house if they hadn’t turned to their neighbors and friends for help, by hosting fish and chicken suppers, card games and waist-line parties, where each person pays 50 cents an inch for all you can eat and drink.

His family isn’t the only one struggling, Chapman said. Most people he knew growing up worked in the French Quarter, as musicians, waiters, bartenders, porters, and hotel handymen. Wages for those jobs couldn’t keep up as rents rose, pricing many out of the neighborhood, he said.

Ever since Chapman can remember, the day that the Sudan club parades has been his “favoritest day.” But these days, it’s also because of the familiar faces the parade draws back to Treme. “In a way, it’s like bringing the neighborhood back, bringing all the old traditions back,” he said.

But Chapman is clear that there is a certain Treme spirit that continues these days, largely through the Treme tradition of neighborliness, which has been embraced by newcomers like Amy Conner, 58, who moved down the street from Chapman several years ago, despite warnings from friends who told her the neighborhood was dangerous.

“I’ve only been here five years – what I know about the cultural of Treme, you can put in my hat,” Conner said, as she picked weeds from a front flower bed and talked about passing musicians, parades, and bonemen. But above all, Conner loves her Treme neighbors. “Everybody knows everybody and they make it their point to know you,” she said.