Long Since Gone, Can Black Residents Regain Thriving Community on Claiborne Without “Monster” Interstate?

Photo Credit: Cultural Innovation District. Before: Historic black community on Claiborne Avenue. After: I-10 completion

Today, Interstate-10 towers over Claiborne Avenue, cutting a path through the Treme and Seventh Ward. Some residents call it “The Monster,” its massive, concrete pillars lord the raised highway — as well as its accompanying noise and air pollution — over what remains of one of New Orleans’ most historic communities.

Raynard Sanders, executive director of the Claiborne Avenue History Project, remembers that community in its heyday. He was a child when Claiborne Avenue, particularly the stretch between Tulane Avenue upriver and St. Bernard Avenue downriver, was proudly referred to as “the Main Street of Black New Orleans.”

“Claiborne Avenue is where everything happened for us,” Sanders told Big Easy Magazine, referring to the city’s Black residents. “Back then, we weren’t welcome in other parts of New Orleans because of segregation, so this is where we lived, this is where we walked, this is where we shopped, and this is where we worked. It was home.”

It was a bustling neighborhood with a mix of shops, homes, markets, and even rows of iconic oak trees so lush some said it made the neutral ground feel like a forest. 

That is, until one infamous, February morning in 1966.

“I was looking out the window of the St. Bernard Avenue bus on my way to school and I saw a group of these yellow bulldozers,” Sanders remembered. “And they’re just tearing up the neutral ground and those iconic oak trees.”

“Most of us didn’t know what they were doing it for,” he added, “but it was devastating. Those were our oak trees and our community, and the damage they set in motion that day — it’s impossible to quantify.”

Before the bulldozers

Unquantifiable, but in recent years, the damage done to multiple generations of New Orleanians has attracted attention at the highest levels of power in an attempt to correct past wrongs.

“Too often,” President Joe Biden said in a July 2021 statement pushing the Reconnecting Communities initiative in his broader infrastructure plan, “past transportation investments divided communities – like the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or I-81 in Syracuse.”

Long before the neighborhood caught the eye of an American president, however, the Treme neighborhood was making history — largely credited for the modern brass band movement, and the home to some of the city’s most celebrated jazz musicians and restaurants. 

In fact, its history stretches back nearly two centuries, to when Rue Claiborne first showed up on a New Orleans map in 1826, named after William C.C. Claiborne, the United States’ first Louisiana governor.

At more than 165 feet wide, it didn’t take long before “Claiborne Street,” as it would soon be called, felt like a hub of business and life, in general, for the diverse residents who lived in the area — free people of color, enslaved African Americans, French-speaking Black Creoles, white Creoles, Haitian refugees, and immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean. 

“It was one of the — if not the — oldest, predominantly Black communities in America,” Sanders said. 

In addition to diversity of race, there was also economic diversity. The neighborhood was largely made up of working class residents, but pockets of poverty, as well as wealth, dotted the community, too. The iconic rows of oak trees unified them all, dominating the spacious neutral ground by the turn of the 20th century.

At the middle of the century, Amy Stelly, founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio, says Claiborne Avenue and the Treme neighborhood were in full bloom.

“There were cafes, music venues, restaurants, and grocers lining the street,” she told Big Easy Magazine. “My parents would let me walk to the butcher shop, or to Mr. Labranche’s drugstore where I’d drool over the candy. Kids played football on the neutral ground and learned to ride their bikes there. It’s where we watched Mardi Gras.”

“Claiborne Avenue was the center of our economic and cultural lives,” Stelly continued. “But today, the highway above it is causing pollution that’s poisoning us, and you’re more likely to find needles and prostitutes than a child riding their bicycle.”

Interstates, interstates everywhere

As an officer in the Army, future American President Dwight D. Eisenhower spent quite a bit of time crossing the United States and, later, the countries of Europe. The importance of an interstate highway system for national defense, traffic safety, economic efficiency, and quality of life was obvious to him.

It was within that context that President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate over a 10-year period. The budget for the nationwide project was $25 billion, or more than $276 billion in today. 

The Federal government incentivized local construction by covering 90% of the costs, triggering a wave of highway construction across America. In New Orleans, two projects were seriously considered: the Interstate-10 we know so well today; and a Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway championed by the polarizing transportation official, Robert Moses. 

“The Riverfront Expressway was going to link up with the I-10,” Sanders explained. “The proposal would allow cars to exit the interstate at Elysian Fields Avenue onto another expressway that would lead down to — and then travel along — the Mississippi River before linking up with the proposed bridge to the West Bank.”

That proposed bridge eventually became the Crescent City Connection, but the expressway along the riverfront never materialized.

“There was this growing group of preservationists in the French Quarter and they were mostly white,” Sanders said. “They battled hard against the Robert Moses plan and managed to stop it.”

Today, the French Quarter’s Moonwalk park and the nearby Riverwalk shopping mall are two of the amenities that wouldn’t be possible if the area had been consumed by an elevated highway along the river. 

But Sanders said one of the strategies those preservations used to stop the project was telling.

“They emphasized a rule that you couldn’t put a national highway next to a historic site, and the French Quarter is full of them,” he said. “But here’s the thing — Claiborne Avenue had historic sites, too. We just didn’t have the political power to stop them the way the French Quarter residents did.”

“Hell, most of us didn’t even know an interstate was going up until the day they started building it.”

Spiral of disinvestment

Today, projects even a fraction the size of interstate construction often go through hours upon hours of scrutiny by experts and community members in the form of public hearings and environmental impact statements. In 1966, however, this was not the case.

Sanders said that outside of the residents whose homes were in the direct path of the proposed highway, nobody in the neighborhood was notified, much less consulted for their opinion.

By the end of the 1960s, I-10 was operational. City leaders saw it as a necessity in order to keep downtown vibrant during an era of suburbanization. Adding to this vibrancy, revitalization projects could be found all over the city’s core during this period: the International Trade Mart building, the Rivergate Exhibition Hall, the Rivergate Mall, the Superdome, and more. 

The Claiborne Avenue corridor, however, received no such investment. In fact, left to suffer the consequences of a community destroyed by a towering highway and its on- and off-ramps, property values plummeted and businesses closed. 

“Records show there were once 118 businesses on Claiborne between Elysian Fields and Canal Street,” Sanders said. “Today, that number is in the 30s or 40s. So many businesses gone.”

Additionally, Stelly points to a LSU Health-New Orleans School of Public Health report showing the constant flow of heavy traffic over the neighborhood is damaging residents’ health.

“Our residents are breathing in contaminated air, suffering from noise pollution, and our children playing with lead-soaked soil in our parks,” she explained. “The study says these conditions can lead to respiratory disease, cardiovascular diseases, developmental challenges, immune system breakdowns, dementia, and more. This is our childrens’ lives we’re talking about. This highway needs to come down.”

Federal action

To Stelly and many others, the only solution is to take the entire section of interstate down, perhaps rerouting interstate traffic through the currently existing I-610.
“We’re not going to solve these issues by only removing a few traffic ramps,” she said. “The whole section of I-10 needs to be removed.”

On the other end of the spectrum, those in favor of keeping the highway system as it currently is argue for its economic benefits. 

“The reality is that the port is dependent upon this. The healthcare system is dependent on this,” said Shawn Wilson, the former head of Louisiana’s transportation department. “The name of the [President’s] program is Reconnecting Communities. It’s not necessarily removing infrastructure from communities.”

During New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina, momentum grew for total removal. A draft of the New Orleans Master Plan designed to engage residents in the city’s recovery called for the eventual dismantling of the overpass. When the plan was finalized in 2010, however, that language was gone.

Two years later, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development combined to award a $2 Million grant with the purpose of engaging residents to develop three alternative plans for the Claiborne Avenue corridor. The resulting suggestions ranged from the relatively modest proposal to remove only two ramps, all the way up to the more ambitious action of tearing down the I-10 expressway along with the entire associated downtown highway interchange system.

A lack of additional funding, however, made executing any of these plans impossible. 

That appeared to change in 2021 when President Biden specifically targeted Claiborne Avenue as part of his proposed infrastructure package, a plan that eventually passed with a $1 trillion budget. The “Reconnecting Communities” portion of that plan was originally slated to receive $20 billion, though that number has more recently dropped to $1 billion.

Competing plans

Stelly’s Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio submitted an application to the program to reimagine what Claiborne Avenue could be without the interstate. In late February, however, Stelly learned her group did not receive the funding. Rather, $500,000 was awarded to a State of Louisiana plan that would keep and upgrade the aging highway. 

But that $500,000 is just a sliver of the estimated $95 million needed to carry out even the state’s comparatively modest plan, which — in addition to maintenance work — would install a public market and performance spaces below the highway, and give consideration to removing certain on- and off-ramps that cut through the Treme.

Though Stelly’s nonprofit didn’t receive the funding, she sees at least one aspect of the grant as a victory.

“The government knocked the amount they were going to give the State down, and they made it a planning grant,” she said,” so clearly they’re giving validity to our side by saying, ‘Hey, before we do something, we need to really look into the damage this highway is causing.’ To me, that means they’re open to all solutions if we can show its importance.”

Sanders sees it differently, however. 

“Listen, we’re a poor city in a poor state,” he said. “Tell me, where — especially in this political climate — are we going to get all the money we need to knock this entire section of interstate down?”

“I don’t see it happening any time soon,” Sanders added. “So let’s take what we can get right now and maybe revisit it later if there’s more money. It’s not even clear residents in the neighborhood want total removal of the interstate anymore. It’s been several generations since they put the thing up. Maybe we’ve adjusted.”

Some, like Sanders, fear that if the highway is removed and the neighborhood revitalizes, it could open the area up to gentrification that will force longtime residents out. 

But Stelly isn’t convinced.

“Of course, when tax dollars come in we have to make sure it benefits and protects the people who live here,” she said. “But I’ve seen pictures of Zulu on Claiborne Avenue from the start of the 20th century. They survived when the interstate went up, they can survive when it comes down.”

This month, Stelly’s Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio will begin work with the City of New Orleans to measure air quality and noise levels at various points along the corridor.

“This is a big step,” she said, “because the City can’t have it both ways. They can’t say they’re all about equity on the one hand, and then — with the other hand — take this data which is going to show dangerous levels of air quality and noise pollution and do nothing about it. Do they care about this neighborhood or not? It’s finally time to decide.”

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