Demolishing This New Orleans Highway? Easier Said Than Done

Why plans to remove a downtown highway in New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood are easier said than done.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) recently posted its biennial agenda entitled “Freeways Without a Future.” It’s the CNU’s top ten list of inner city highways that the group believes are ripe for decommissioning. Topping this year’s list was the Claiborne Avenue stretch of I-10 in New Orleans, an elevated road that separates the historic neighborhoods of Treme and the French Quarter.

Outgoing CNU President and CEO John Norquist (who tore down a highway in downtown Milwaukee while serving as mayor), along with members of the local chapter in New Orleans, have been lobbying hard to tear down the Claiborne Avenue chunk of I-10 for past four years. This is something of a thankless task in oil-happy, freeway-friendly Louisiana, complicated by the unique racial, economic and cultural politics of the city.

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N. Claiborne and Esplanade in 1955.

Claiborne Avenue was, for decades, the main street New Orleans’s African American community. The historic photos of the tree lined boulevard will break your heart. It was every bit as majestic as St. Charles Avenue. In the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a highway was rammed through the neighborhood, against the will of its residents. (This happened of course in countless other African American communities in countless other cities; the interstate highway system rarely, if ever, bisected affluent communities.) The highway was a blunt and vicious sledge hammer. It killed off a lot of retail; gobbled up untold acres of land, resulting in numerous empty lots; and likely contributed to high rates of asthma in the neighborhood.

But, in the ensuing four or five decades, in typical New Orleans fashion, a vibrant street culture developed underneath the highway. Second line parade drummers love the acoustics underneath the road (lots of booming reverberation). The shade provided by the hulking structure creates ad hoc public space, improvised and informal.

Removing I-10 in Treme might, on paper, seem like textbook urban design. The highway is an unmistakable barrier, but it’s one that subsequent generations in the neighborhood adapted to and, to some extent, grew to embrace as their own. So, now, when good government types and urban planners and smart growth groups like the CNU, with the tacit backing of local real estate interests, envision a future for a “reconnected city,” without the highway, Treme residents with longer institutional memories are understandably suspicious. It was, after all, white people who built the highway fifty years ago, and now it’s white people who want to tear it down.

Rendering of the Claiborne Corridor (I-10) now.

Renderings courtesy CNU

Rendering of the same stretch of city, after the highway’s removal.

Mayor Landrieu has been tight lipped about the future of the highway. When pressed about the possibility of tearing it down, he’s been lukewarm on the idea at best. The city recently conducted a federally-funded study that looked at all of the various scenarios, including demolition of the highway, the results of which have not been made public. But the mayor’s indifference here does not bode well for the tear-down-the-highway faction. Because it involves state, city and federal authorities, no highway has ever been dismantled without the strong support of a mayor. It’s just too complicated to pull off without real muscle. Mayor Landrieu, who was recently overwhelmingly reelected, either isn’t interested in tearing down I-10, or doesn’t want to spend the political capital required to do it.

For most of the highways on the CNU list, there is a perverse sort of silver lining at work. America’s roads and bridges are falling apart. Eventually, the increasing cost of repairing these highways-without-a-future will easily outstrip the cost of tearing them down. Unfortunately, the I-10 connection in here New Orleans (the Crescent City, being contrary and other, as always) might face a somewhat hardier future. The lack of extreme cold and destabilizing ice means that I-10 in Treme is unusually robust structurally and likely to be around for years to come.

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