Claiborne Overpass Construction That Obliterated Historic Black Business District May Get Restitution in Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

1938. View of Claiborne Avenue at Frenchmen Street, looking upriver Uncredited WPA photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1960s, the North Claiborne Avenue that ran through Treme was lined with 300-year-old oak trees. On either side of the avenue were bustling shops, storefronts, and other businesses. The original Circle Food Store, Ernie K. Doe’s Mother-in-law Lounge, and Charbonnet Funeral Home were among dozens of black-owned businesses on this section of Claiborne Avenue. This section of town was the heart and soul of Black New Orleans and easily rivaled the mainly white French Quarter in terms of economic activity. 

“My mother learned to ride a bike weaving between those trees on Claiborne,” state Senator JP Morrell stated, “then she woke up one day, and all of the trees were gone and only stumps remained.” The trees were cut down in preparation for the construction of the Clairborne overpass. This project would have devastating repercussions on the thriving Black community of Treme.  

In a study, Racial Bias and Interstate Highway Planning: A Mixed Methods Approach, by Bradford P. Sherman of the University of Pennsylvania, examined the “Second Battle of New Orleans,” which was ‘fought’ over the placement of the overpass.  Sherman states, “placement came after the initial idea to route the highway down the Vieux Carre was successfully resisted by a committed coalition of local residents of the French Quarter, largely enabled through widespread mobilization throughout the community.”  In response to this, it was decided that the project “would run directly down Claiborne Avenue, in the heart of the Black Business District.” Laine Kaplan-Levenson, author of The Monster’: Claiborne Avenue Before and After the Interstate, writes, “in 1950, there were 123 businesses in this section, and almost 50 years later, just 44.” The monster devoured Treme and left only a shell of its former vibrancy. Kaplan-Levenson adds, “within the system, there was essentially no one in government to defend the black community and communicate the cultural and economic necessity of keeping Claiborne intact. And outside the system, those who were active political organizers were busy with more pressing things.” 

Morrell believes that the result of the overpass not only led to the destruction of businesses but the rise in crime that has plagued the area. “The crime in Treme is a result of those businesses closing and people being left out of work,” Sen. Morrell says.  Morrell has been vocal on social media about the devastating effect that the overpass has had on Treme. But Morrell’s frustration may be soon coming to an end.

President Joe Biden recently announced an infrastructure plan called The Americans Jobs Plan. In the president’s plan, the Claiborne overpass is mentioned specifically. It is unclear whether Biden’s plan includes the deconstruction of the expressway, but  according to Paul Dudley of WWL, “The President’s plan includes $20 billion for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.” 

However, the news of the possible removal of the expressway was not well received by all. State Senator Conrad Appel wrote, “over the years it has become politically popular to blame the deleterious deterioration of the Claiborne Corridor as a racist effort to put the highway where poor black people live.” Appel’s words appear to dismiss the many studies that have concluded the erection of the highway had racist effects on the Black community of Treme.

Currently, there is no clear plan for the bridge, but many remain hopeful that soon the thriving community that once was may have a chance to reemerge. 

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