Cletus J. Liguori is a New Orleanian, and he is a very pious man.
But wait, wait, wait. Just for a minute, let’s back up a few centuries. Let us consider Mr. Liguori’s patron saint, his namesake, his (rumored? scandalous!) ancestor, St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787) of Naples. St. Alphonsus was the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), a missionary society who “strive to imitate the virtues and examples of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer consecrating themselves especially to the preaching of the word of God to the poor”. St. Alphonsus himself entered the priesthood after leaving behind a legal career that he felt threatened “the salvation of [his] soul.” He spent most of his early years in the priesthood living among and ministering to the homeless and destitute, founding the Redemptorist order to carry on this mission of preaching in the slums, first of Naples, later of the entire Christian world.
He was also, in his spare time, a musician, composer, painter, and a prolific writer of moral theology.
OK, so now flash forward to New Orleans, 2006. A city rich in opportunities to minister to the poor. A city hanging on by its fingernails, with its very survival sometimes in the hands of a working creative class of musicians, chefs, and artists who risk their livelihoods, their health, and sometimes their lives trying to rebuild a city. A prime ecology where the spiritual and possibly genetic heir of St. Alphonsus can carry on the mission, you would imagine.
And what does C.J. Liguori think of all this?
“This is a unique opportunity to put things right, to fix New Orleans. Crime, schools, infrastructure. We’ve been on the downhill slide for a very long time. This is a second chance for this city.”
“There’s no reason New Orleans can’t be a great city once again, why it can’t be a great modern 21st century city.”
So what does he do to put these noble ideals into action?
C.J. Liguori is one of the few characters on the show, and the only New Orleans native character, who is not a creator. Of anything. He doesn’t play, he doesn’t cook, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t build. He doesn’t even do demolition and removal. No, what C.J. Liguori does is buy and sell influence. He produces nothing of value, he neither imports nor exports. He’s like Mickey Rourke’s character from 9 1/2 Weeks, who when asked what he does for a living says “I buy and sell money.” C.J. makes his living by knowing ahead of time where the money is going to flow, and then making sure he inserts himself into the chain so he can take a cut of whatever flows by.
He’s a representation of everything that is wrong with the moneyed class in New Orleans. Because there is no carpetbagger like a local carpetbagger, and there is no place where they do localism better than in New Orleans.
There is an interesting series of articles about high tech hubs by this guy named Paul Graham, and a few of these came out right around 2006-2007. One in particular I used to pass around a lot was this one, “How To Be Silicon Valley”. If you read that, you might wonder, well, other than Tulane and UNO not being very impressive on the technology front, New Orleans seems to have everything you need for its tech industry to take off, right? It’s got nerds, and rich people, and universities, and youth, and it’s “interesting” in a lot of the same ways that Boston and San Francisco are. But if you dig around some more, you find articles like this one and this one and a bunch of others on Graham’s site, and after a while you start to realize something. New Orleans is full of rich people, full of money people, but they are the wrong kind of rich people.
New Orleans is run by a bunch of C.J. Liquoris.
They’re risk averse. C.J. says, “Oh, I never gamble.” Of course not. The musicians and chefs and writers and working people in this city are gambling like motherfuckers just by living here, putting everything on the line and sticking it out knowing it might get cut off, but C.J. only puts his money down for sure things. C.J. is a music lover, but his taste in music is firmly planted in the era right before jazz. Not only does he not like anything more modern than ragtime, he is very specific and conservative about what kind of ragtime he likes (it “must not be too brisk.”)
He gives this stirring speech of internal contradictions while sucking up a platter of Oysters Mosca:
“[Mosca's] has been this way since the 40′s. Damn near the same decor too. To me this is special. The thing of it is, what’s great about Mosca’s is the same thing New Orleans struggles with in a way. Change. Nobody wants the city to change. Not ever, not in any way. The French had it, Americans come down the river with cotton, they get called new money trash, gotta build their mansions upriver. Years later the Standard Oil guys come down here, cotton kings stick up their noses, they don’t invite ‘em to the Mardi Gras balls, so the oil money goes to Houston. Now, we’re a flooded-out wreck, trying to scratch it out with whatever tourist dollars are left, and still, if you wanna build anything down here, change anything, modernize anything, you get looked upon as the problem. It’s crazy…But we need to change, we have to.”
He wants change, but he doesn’t want change. Maybe he wants change, but only the kind of change that a C.J. Liguori could find palatable.
And this speech leads to, what? A new investment incentive to jolt the economy? A radical rebuilding proposal? A way to bring people home and get people jobs and actually, as he said back in Episode 1, fix “crime, schools, infrastructure, everything”? Hell no. What he proposes is to use his inside information about the still-secret plans to build a VA Hospital in Lower Mid-City, and use his relatively anonymous Texas buddy Hidalgo as a blind front to buy up property in the district, so that in a few years he can flip the property when the government has to buy it up to acquire land for the hospital district.
He creates nothing. He serves the good of no one. He just figures out where the money is going to flow, and plants himself downstream.
This is how money is made in New Orleans. This is how the rich here got rich, and this is how they stay rich.
Liguori has all the trappings of piety. He says all the right things that a forward-looking leader of the community and pillar of faith should say. But inside that shell, he is hollow. There is no soul, there is only vault space for accumulating wealth. He’s just like Clay Davis, only wrapped in a pearl rosary.
One really nice touch in the filming of this season: in Episode Three, Hidalgo goes to visit Robinette at one of the debris and demolition work sites. As portrayed on the show, this would be a neighborhood where storm-destroyed buildings are being knocked down and carted off, and indeed we see a large swath of empty lots stripped bare and flat and ready for rebuilding. But where to find such a set when filming in late 2010? You go to Lower Mid-City, where at the time of filming a neighborhood of struggling-to-return residents and businesses were being bulldozed to make room for a hospital that now may not even be built. That neighborhood bar Hidalgo parks next to with the red and white Budweiser sign? The Outer Banks Bar, which resisted the lawyers and bulldozers for a while but which was demolished to make way for the mythical hospital on January 12 of this year.
The block of properties that Liguori circles in red and tells Hidalgo “You put whatever you want into it. Beyond that, anyone I send, you get 2.5 points on whatever they bring…And we never had this conversation.” That block is the hospital district. Those properties that were used to film that 2006 scene are likely some of the properties that Hidalgo and Liguori and his friends will be flipping for a profit in the coming season.
[By the way, no way am I arguing for New Orleans to become some kind of Silicon Bayou. I've spent enough of my adult life living in cities that are high tech hipster Disneylands to know first hand what that much money and success can do to the soul of a place. But the larger point remains...despite what they may think of themselves, one of the biggest impediments to progress in this city are the inbred risk-averse old money stewards of power. And Liguori is their rep on the cast of Treme.]