"America's Oldest Black Neighborhood" May No Longer Be Majority Black

Tremé, located north of downtown New Orleans and immediately northwest of the tourist-filled French Quarter, is often considered the longest-established majority Black neighborhood in the United States. Platted from former plantation land at the beginning of the 1800s, it became a community of free Black New Orleanians interspersed with residents of other ethnicities.

Some of the earliest precursors of U.S. civil rights organizing tactics originated in Tremé and other majority Black neighborhoods that developed in New Orleans before and after the Civil War, and for a time the city was decades ahead of most of the country in legal rights and social practices related to race discrimination - during Reconstruction, New Orleans integrated its school system, its trade unions, and some of its residential neighborhoods and political organs. Much of that progress was reversed when the federal government terminated Reconstruction in 1877 and Dixiecrats retook control of state and local government, kicking off the cruel era of Jim Crow.

More than a century of subsequent history saw Tremé remain an influential Black neighborhood, with immense importance in the life of the city - at the epicenter of the development of jazz, preservation of Créole culture, and maintenance of some of New Orleans' oldest civic and religious institutions. Like many other majority Black neighborhoods around the country, though, systemic barriers kept Tremé economically and politically vulnerable - residents have often had limited say in large changes implemented in their community by the city or by outsiders. In the last two decades, that disempowerment has reached a breaking point.

In 2000, Tremé had a population of nearly 9,000 residents, more than 90% of whom were Black. At the time of the 2020 Census, the total population of the neighborhood had cratered to just over 4,500, and more than two thirds of the area's Black residents circa 2000 were gone. It is possible that sometime since 2020, Tremé crossed a threshold at which it can no longer be considered a majority Black neighborhood. If it hasn't happened yet, it's likely to happen soon.

This rapid shift was produced by four closely linked changes in the neighborhood. First, Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, an event that upended some neighborhood dynamics in the city while reinforcing and entrenching others. Tremé was not among the hardest hit sections of New Orleans, but many of its residents lived at ground level rather than in raised dwellings, and even relatively low flood levels caused enough damage to displace many families from their homes. A mostly working class community, many of Tremé's homeowning residents lacked funds to adequately repair their homes following the flooding, and left their former dwellings vacant in the sour real estate market that followed the storm. Many buildings sat empty in the years that followed, and a handful still do.

Hurricane Katrina also accelerated plans by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (then under control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to redevelop its Lafitte Projects, located on one edge of the neighborhood. Under the then-active HOPE VI federal funding program for affordable housing, local housing authorities were incentivized to turn dense public housing complexes into medium-density mixed-income communities in keeping with dominant planning philosophies of the turn of the millennium. HANO launched a multi-phase project to demolish the existing Lafitte projects, home to 3,000 people, and replace it with the new "Faubourg Lafitte", which would feature a mix of rentals at various price levels as well as for-sale homes.

The endeavor was lauded for its design aspects, restoring the city street grid that was interrupted by construction of the original Lafitte Projects in 1940, thoughtfully referencing local vernacular architecture, and filling in vacant lots outside the original footprint of the complex in order to enable unit count parity with the demolished buildings while building at a lower overall density. But to date, only 465 of the original 896 units have been reconstituted, and only 171 of those units have been reserved for public housing tenants. This mirrors a major failure of HOPE VI redevelopment projects in cities all over the country, which have often left previous tenants waiting decades for replacement housing that eventually doesn't come. Lafitte was supposed to be the only one of four major HOPE VI-funded redevelopments under HANO that would successfully replace each lost public housing unit one-to-one, but only a fraction of Lafitte Projects residents have been able to return to Tremé nearly two decades after their homes were demolished by the city. The completed phases of Faubourg Lafitte have resulted in fewer overall residents where the Lafitte Projects once stood, and far fewer public housing residents than lived there pre-Katrina.

The long tail of building vacancy following Katrina also set Tremé up to be particularly vulnerable to the rise of app-based short-term vacation rentals in the 2010s. New Orleans City Council passed a ban on such rentals covering most of the nearby French Quarter in 2016, responding to burgeoning concerns that an influx of out-of-town investment cash holding properties purely for lucrative income from Airbnb and other such services contributed to rapidly rising housing costs in some of the city's most recognizable neighborhoods. Tremé, adjacent to the Quarter, bore the brunt of the ban next door - suddenly, residents began receiving unsolicited offers on their homes, long-vacant buildings were snapped up by multi-state short term rental operators, and local real estate prices skyrocketed. By 2019, according to Guardian reporter Tom Perkins, short-term rental operators made up ownership of more than 40% of all property parcels in Tremé, pushing out long-term tenants and leaving a deep gash in the area's social and organizational fabric.

Efforts to rein in the deleterious impacts of short-term rentals citywide gained steam in the late 2010s, and led to municipal restrictions on such rentals in 2019 that required operator-owners to live on the property they rented out. That requirement had an effect, but it was challenging to enforce and was eventually struck down by a federal appeals court on grounds that it interfered with the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Earlier this year, the city passed revised legislation limiting the number of short-term rental licenses granted on any given block and requiring that a license holder must live on the property (but not necessarily own it, leaving room for long-term tenants to be license holders as a workaround to the Commerce Clause issue). Outside the scope of regulation, Airbnb fervor has died down somewhat in cities across the country, driven primarily by the end of an easy income gold rush that left many owners with few bookings in oversaturated vacation rental markets like New Orleans.

That slowdown in short-term rental activity has inadvertently helped produce some of Tremé's recent demographic shift. The Airbnb rush, Lafitte Projects redevelopment, and other nearby changes made Tremé more palatable to newcomers in the 2010s, and when short-term rentals stopped being lucrative (or allowable) for their owners, many owners pushed their properties back onto the sale market or the long-term rental market with inflated prices that reflected changes in the area's desirability to monied outsiders. Concurrently, New Orleans is in the midst of a wave of increased interest as a regional landing place, especially for young white collar workers who are either priced out of bigger cities like New York or are relocating from other parts of the deep south. The dynamic is similar to that in neighborhoods like Nashville's Chestnut Hill, where existing residents saw property values explode so rapidly that they were priced out seemingly overnight, unable to buy into the boom themselves. Between 2010 and 2020 Tremé gained long-term residents as some newcomers supplanted absentee vacation rentals, a trend that continues today as the vacation rental market faces more scrutiny in the city and those properties convert back to long-term housing, but in that same period the neighborhood lost an additional 17% of its remaining Black residents.

Monuments and museums about Tremé's most famous luminaries and its legacy as a center of Black life in New Orleans remain in the neighborhood, but the community that produced that legacy has rapidly eroded.