Ron Smith makes his living driving around New Orleans with his hat brim cocked over one eye like Humphrey Bogart. Smith’s impeccable style and debonair manner have earned him the title of Senior Chauffeur at American Luxury Limousines, which means that elite clientele often wind up in the back of his car. He has driven football players, oil executives, and Paul McCartney. With his signature attention to detail he chooses the roads he drives with care. And whenever he can help it, Ron avoids the I-10 Claiborne Overpass, or “The Monster,” as Claiborne community residents referred to it when it was first built.
Claiborne Avenue runs the length of the city, dominating the lakeside of New Orleans from the 9th Ward all the way to Broadmoor. Under the six lanes of elevated expressway that lacerate neighborhoods from the 7th Ward and through the Treme all the way to the CBD, the towering presence of Claiborne reaches dystopian proportions. The underpass is a sensory overload for blocks before you even reach it, from the continuous roar of speeding cars to the long shadow of a bridge covered with grime so pervasive that a fresh coat of paint gets covered within a month. Crossing Claiborne for a bicyclist is like running a gauntlet; for pedestrians it can be a suicide mission. On those Sundays when downtown second lines, Claiborne is the center stage. People throng under the interstate, some dancing on top of trucks, others hitting their feet hard on the cement neutral ground. For as long as the band is stopped, traffic goes nowhere.
“If I wanted to get to Metairie I would take Esplanade all the way through City Park. I’ll tell people that I’m driving that it’s the worst stretch of highway in the city, a terrible example of civil engineering,” says Smith. He points out that there’s always a traffic jam, a cattle-call of vehicles trapped by the highway’s constricted design. “It’s too narrow, people are always changing lanes because the on-ramps flow right into the lanes. The on-ramps are short, so you have to accelerate too fast, and then on the other end there’s not enough room to decelerate.”
Robert Moses, the infamous New York city planner and mastermind behind the American highway superstructure, anticipated these problems in the late ‘40s, proposing that the interstate run along the river to avoid the city center. It would have come off the interstate to go south on Elysian Fields before reaching the Mississippi, when it would have turned southwest until Lafayette Street. But in 1966, when Louisiana attempted to implement what was called the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway, the plan met with immediate resistance. Officials were booed and jeered at public hearings, largely by preservationists fighting to protect the historic French Quarter from the destructive path of the proposed interstate. Residents of Lakeview and Gentilly also showed strong opposition to a crosstown route.
Instead, the Claiborne Avenue Overpass was built in 1968, paving over the heart of Black life in downtown New Orleans. This time, the planning process did not include any community members. In 1970, in the wake of the annihilation-by-interstate of Black neighborhoods all over the country, legislation was passed requiring all future federal infrastructure projects to include the community in decision-making. But it came too late to save Claiborne’s hundreds of thriving Black businesses, family homes, and the longest line of contiguous oaks in the country, which shaded Treme residents as they worked and played along Claiborne Avenue.
“As a professional driver, I hardly ever use that part of the highway. I’ll come off before I get to that part of the interstate because I just don’t like being there,” Ron tells me as he reflects on the painful history of progress in his adopted city. “But I’ve never thought about why until now.” In day-to-day life the historical burden Claiborne carries rarely comes up; it is not always easy to think of infrastructure in terms of what it represents. The very materials, masses of concrete and steel, make structures like the Claiborne Overpass seem inalterable. Their towering, unyielding presence is enough to refute even the possibility of change. Utility serves as both explanation and defense. As Robert Moses put it, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?”
“When the interstate was put there, it devastated our community,” says Dr. Raynard Sanders, founder of the Claiborne Avenue History Project, which chronicles the community histories and major events that took place on each block of Claiborne between Elysian Fields and Canal. “The businesses left just died on the vine.” Dr. Sanders remembers playing as a child on Claiborne’s wide neutral ground under the watchful eye of friends and neighbors. “Everything in our lives centered on Claiborne,” Dr. Sanders recalls. “If you wanted groceries, a drug store, funeral homes, music, food—everything was based around that particular thoroughfare. It was a really special kind of place.” Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, to Big Mama Thornton could be found on any given night at one of Claiborne’s legendary clubs. The Victory Arena (also known as the Coliseum Auditorium)—the largest auditorium that African-Americans were allowed to attend during segregation—was two blocks lakeside of Claiborne Avenue on Conti Street. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in 1957.
When the Claiborne Overpass was built, New Orleans was living under a segregationist regime, as upper class white New Orleanians hoarded a tremendous amount of wealth and opportunity. This economic disparity denied the population of color, including some of the oldest and most powerful families in the city, their rights as citizens. But even when Black New Orleanians could not join the police force, swim in public pools, or do their shopping alongside whites on Canal Street, Claiborne was an economic and cultural ecosystem that covered the needs of Black New Orleans. Constructing the interstate was in effect an economic assassination. The consequences for the neighborhood are still evident in the high percentage of incarcerated Claiborne community members and a poverty rate that sits well above the city average, which in turn is among the highest in the country. How can we not see the Claiborne Overpass as a monument to systemic racial violence? Do we, as a city, owe it to Black New Orleans to take it down?
St. Bernard & Claiborne Ave.
The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.5138
Claiborne Ave. Uptown from St. Louis
The William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Clarisse Claiborne Grima Fund
Claiborne Overpass Construction from Canal
The William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Clarisse Claiborne Grima Fund, 92-48-L.45
For most of its lifespan, taking down the interstate was not considered an option for New Orleans. The Claiborne Avenue Overpass may be a scar from a deep historical wound, but it has also played a central role in the lives of New Orleanians since it was built. Drivers moving in and out of Greater New Orleans quickly grew to rely on it. The Claiborne community created a new world beneath the overpass, where the sounds of brass bands reverberated in testament to the bridge’s superlative acoustics. As Dr. Sanders puts it, “People had to adapt to the monstrosity.” To many, removing the overpass would be to take away the Claiborne they had grown up with. “We do need to realize that most of the community has no memory of that being anything but an interstate,” says Dr. Sanders.
But in a post-Katrina effort to bring back the Claiborne Corridor, the idea began to circulate that maybe the overpass could be taken down after all. As Dr. Sanders recalls, the proposal sparked immediate division within the Black Claiborne community. “During the master plan after Katrina, there was a recommendation that they should consider taking it down, and that began the whole argument.” The removal wouldn’t be without precedent. In 1989, an earthquake in San Francisco damaged parts of the Embarcadero Freeway, and its subsequent eradication acted as a catalyst for a national highway removal movement with broad community support. Since then, cities like Portland (Oregon), Boston, Milwaukee, and Seattle have successfully removed urban sections of the interstate system, making new boulevards out of old highways.
For the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an international urban planning advocacy group, highway removal offers opportunities to make cities more walkable and environmentally sustainable, and bring equity to neighborhoods that foundered in the wake of interstate construction projects. In their proposal “Freeways Without Futures” the CNU claims that the “pace of urban freeway removal is accelerating,” and Claiborne Avenue tops their list of highways ripe for removal. They argued that the Claiborne section of the I-10 was mostly being used for shorter trips, essentially functioning as a shortcut between neighborhoods, and that its conversion into a boulevard could be a relatively smooth transition. In 2011, the CNU, led by former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, held a forum on the viability of the project, where local leaders like Councilwoman Kristin Palmer spoke to the ways removing the overpass could benefit the city’s larger transportation goals. “This can be done in a manner that is thoughtful, and in a manner that we know is not going to negatively impact traffic flow,” Palmer said in her opening remarks. “Transportation is so important in bringing communities together, creating equity, and creating good, sustainable development on multiple levels.”
Rendering of a restored Claiborne Avenue without the expressway, from Freeways Without Futures 2019 (Congress for the New Urbanism and Mac Ball)
In 2010, the City of New Orleans received a $2 million federal planning grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a study on revitalizing the Claiborne Corridor. The process of creating the Liveable Claiborne Communities (LCC) study meant that for three years, the Mayor’s Office of Place Based Planning held public workshops and community meetings to come up with concrete, actionable directives for neighborhood revitalization. The LCC study proposed several possibilities for the future of the Claiborne Overpass, ranging from leaving the infrastructure as it is to removing the entire two mile stretch and all of the connecting onramps.
The results of the findings, published in 2014, left the Claiborne question open-ended. While the community resoundingly agreed that all revitalization efforts must protect and prioritize “cultural authenticity,” provide jobs and opportunities for desperately-needed economic advancement, and offer “aggressive efforts” to manage flooding and drainage, no decision could be reached on whether or not to remove the overpass. “Though the question about how to mitigate the detrimental impact [of] the I-10 ‘Claiborne Bridge’ was a central focus of meeting participants throughout the study process,” the LCC says, “there remains no general consensus within the LCC study area on which scenario best addresses I-10.”
While some Claiborne community members have spoken passionately for the highway’s removal, others have voiced serious reservations. This debate dominated the many meetings and interviews conducted for the LCC study, and the “potential consequences should any change be made in the future to the elevated portion over Claiborne Avenue.” Traffic was a major concern, including “the increase of travel time for Port of New Orleans trucking, potential increased travel time for commuters, especially those coming in from New Orleans East, the potential reciprocal negative impacts on traffic coming from the West Bank across the Crescent City Connection and at the I-10/610 split, as well as concern for the regional dependence upon 1-10 as a major emergency evacuation route.” Others balked at the initial estimate of $300 million that dismantling the interstate would cost.
However, there was also deep suspicion that removing the highway would accelerate gentrification in the neighborhood. Advocates for highway removal like the CNU argue that it is one way to address the harm done to Black communities by planning our national infrastructure around cars instead of people. As Lisa Schamass, the CNU’s communications manager, puts it, “The promise of escape that these cars originally offered translated into spatializing racism and classism. If we start to plan for people again, we will be able to plan for a softening of these rigid boundaries we’ve been living through.” But the protagonists of highway removal success stories are cities like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, which are also high-profile examples of urban centers with outrageous costs of living and full-blown housing crises. The central involvement of the CNU, a group of predominantly white urban planners from predominantly white cities, in advocating the overpass’ removal did not exactly allay the suspicions of the Claiborne community, who have been living under the constant threat of displacement since Katrina.
Tremé Sidewalk Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club under the Claiborne Bridge, February 2020 (photo by James Cullen)
Another vision has emerged as an alternative to taking the overpass down, spearheaded by the Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District (CID). The CID is, according to their website, “a community led effort in tandem with the City of New Orleans” which seeks to “reverse the negative impact of the freeway bridge” and to “turn this devastating situation into an asset and model for building healthy communities.” In practice, this means leaving up the overpass but turning it into a massive, multi-use public space through top-of-the-line engineering. The CID master plan is an ambitious design concept, with four to five distinct zones, each one with a different approach to green infrastructure and water management. It would integrate transportation with green spaces, and include a marketplace that would serve as a business incubator for Claiborne communities, as well as an urban arboretum for native cypress trees.
According to the 2018 article “A Divided Neighborhood Comes Together under an Elevated Expressway,” published in Next City (an urban policy magazine) by veteran local reporter Katy Reckdahl, the CID’s vision of Claiborne’s future won out against those who wanted to see the overpass taken down. “Cosmetic work on the corridor has already begun,” writes Reckdahl, “as part of a demonstration phase made possible thanks to an $820,000 construction grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, matched with operational support from Ford Foundation, Chase Global Philanthropy, Surdna Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Greater New Orleans Foundation.” The Ujamaa Economic Development Corporation was established to run operations and realize the vision of the CID through a contract with the city. “Construction on the public market is slated to begin early in 2019 and wrap up by that fall,” reported Reckdahl.
As of this writing, the CID’s development vision has yet to materialize, an indicator that the community did not in fact reach a consensus that the overpass should remain standing. One voice in stalling progress of the CID was an op-ed published by The Lens in 2017 by architectural and urban designer Amy Stelly, who argued forcefully that the CID’s plan is simply not viable. To begin with, she wrote, it does not account for the fact that the highway infrastructure, built over 50 years ago, will eventually need major repairs. Stelly argues that much of its steel has rusted and its drainage system is in disrepair. The LCC report claims that if it is maintained according to past practices, the service life of the overpass could exceed 30 years—but that does not account for the cost of maintaining it and making the upgrades required to keep it up to federal standards.
The op-ed further points out that the Claiborne Corridor is pieced together from 10 separate zoning districts, and as a result, elements of the CID plan—such as the outdoor amphitheater on St. Peter and the multi-use facility including a skating rink and skateboard park—would be prohibited by current zoning laws. The sites of some of these features are also subject to severe flooding. “To be clear, the proposed strategy will never right the social, economic and place-based injustices heaped upon the community by the construction of the Interstate monster in the first place,” Stelly writes. She is of the firm belief that a plan that does not start with the removal of the interstate will not be effective in restoring the prosperity of Claiborne Avenue and its community.
Sitting together at the Treme Coffeehouse, Stelly and I spoke for hours about the contested fate of this stretch of highway and the battle that has become her life’s work. Stelly is a Treme native living on Dumaine in the house she grew up in, and does advocacy work for the Claiborne Corridor through an organization called the Claiborne Avenue Alliance. For her, it doesn’t matter if you drive on it, walk underneath it, or live (as she does) in its colossal shadow: the Claiborne Overpass has got to go. “When I was young, probably under 10, I knew intuitively that the interstate was a bad thing, it was wrong,” she says. “I decided that when I became an adult and learned enough, I would try to take it down. It’s a promise a kid makes to herself and never forgets.”
For Stelly, taking down the Claiborne Overpass is an act of revolution. “We’ve got to change the economic structure of the country, particularly in the South. What makes it difficult is that America was not built on equality, it never has been. So we have a huge math problem to solve.” There are a number of reasons in her mind why Claiborne is a good place to start, and its emotional resonance is certainly one of them. However, the importance of the avenue is not merely symbolic. Claiborne Avenue has the widest neutral ground in the city, and removing the overpass would mean a lot of newly available land. “We can create a land trust, both residential and commercial, to buy down the development cost, and offer places that are affordable to people.”
Stelly has worked closely with the Congress for the New Urbanism for years; her first job in urban design was with Andrés Duany, CNU’s founder. Her vision is as meticulous as an architect’s; the revolution she is describing is not utopian. As a self-described urban design nerd, Stelly speaks pragmatically about ways to incorporate parking into the median and effectively manage flooding. But to see the future in such detail requires releasing all attachment to the status quo. For her, the idea of revitalizing the Claiborne Corridor without removing the thing that damaged it in the first place is fundamentally flawed. The fact that the I-10 is literally toxic to the community clearly illustrates her point. An LSU study conducted in April of 2019 found that between the sound pollution and car emissions, Claiborne community members struggle with a slew of resulting health issues. Further developing the underpass, the study found, would only exacerbate these problems: “Policies which increase car, bike, and foot traffic in the area, or locate markets, vegetable gardens, or parks under or proximal to the I-10 pose a further threat to health, due to potential increases in pollution as the economy grows, and more widespread and longer exposures due to increased use of the underpass.”
On January 29, Amy Stelly presented the study’s findings at a meeting of the City Council’s Transportation Committee led by Councilwoman Palmer, the argument for taking down the overpass growing stronger with every slide. The cardiovascular diseases, asthma, birth defects, compromised immune systems, and neurological disorders that plague those living within the first three to five blocks of the I-10’s perimeter often come as a direct result of exposure to the interstate. Children and unhoused people living under the bridge are most vulnerable to pollutants, but every day the overpass remains standing, the health of all those who live and work around it is put at risk.
Stelly then pointed to a way forward. Both the U.S. House and Senate are currently pushing bills to reconnect communities divided by interstate construction, offering substantial grants and technical assistance for just such projects as the removal of the Claiborne Overpass. As soon as 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives Bill 4101 could make between $5 million and $150 million available to eligible applicants. The Senate bill could offer another $5 million in construction grants. Both have broad bipartisan support.
After Stelly spoke, board members from the Ujamaa Economic Development Corporation, who were there to present the CID’s design plan to the Transportation Committee, made some surprising comments showing that the Claiborne community is perhaps not so divided after all. Joan Rhodes, whose family has owned Treme businesses since before the construction of the interstate, said that taking it down was their first choice. “This morning was the first time I heard the full presentation of the ladies who spoke,” said Rhodes. “I would love to see the interstate come down. Unquestionably. Now we live under it, and we have learned to live with it. This plan is a way to coexist with a terrible situation.” “But,” she went on to say to the council, “if you all can make it go away we would be very happy.”
If the window opens for cities to apply to these programs, it will not stay open forever, which means that very soon New Orleans will have to come to a decision about what to do for the Claiborne Corridor. For Councilwoman Palmer, the potential federal funding for highway removal makes it a real possibility. In an interview a few weeks after the Transportation Committee meeting, she expressed to me a sincere desire to see the Claiborne community made whole again. “What happened to that community was unconscionable. [The overpass] is not a healthy environment any way you look at it.” She sees an opportunity to bring green infrastructure to the area, a necessity at a time when places like the Treme and the French Quarter, which never flooded while she was growing up, are beginning to get inundated by heavy rains. But she also states firmly that under no circumstances should this come at the expense of the African-American community. “I’ll be quite frank,” she said, “[the question] first and foremost is how to help existing businesses and affordable housing along the corridor.” As Palmer points out, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has invested in affordable housing on St. Bernard and along the Claiborne Corridor. With enough public support it is possible to turn this into an opportunity to address the community’s broader needs. “If we start having this conversation now we can be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “My main concern is that the communities that were affected are at the table to decide what this would look like.”
To those who are not forced to live in its shadow, its pollution, and the deafening sound, the idea of removing the overpass may be a jarring prospect. Considering how slow and hard change comes in New Orleans, it’s tempting to conclude that removal is simply not a realistic option. I catch Ron Smith at a quiet moment, in the eye of the storm that is chauffeuring Uptown royalty to an onslaught of Mardi Gras balls, and ask him what he would say if someone told him the Claiborne Overpass were actually getting taken down. “It would be a nightmare for a long while,” he says with a grimace. “Even if it’s a good thing, like taking down the statues, that kind of change is met with a lot of criticism. It would end the career of that mayor, or governor even. Even though the sun would finally shine on Claiborne, the people wouldn’t see it.”
“The city has to want to fundamentally change the things that make the city unequal. People that have must be willing to give something up to those that don’t,” says Amy Stelly. Due to the nature of segregation, it is conceivable that when the overpass was constructed, many white New Orleanians hardly noticed what was happening to their Black neighbors. But this time around, there is a chance to see things differently. Without question, what is good for Black New Orleans is good for New Orleans; conversely, if Black New Orleans is sick no one else will be healthy. Adjusting to a city without the I-10 Overpass would require real effort from every New Orleanian—we would literally have to reroute our lives. But at the conclusion of that long process, Claiborne Avenue would be a boulevard once more, and we might all know the feeling of being fully conscious of the historical crimes upon which our inherited world was built, and choosing a different way forward.
Top photo, photo of Ron Smith, and “Bring Claiborne Back!” photo by Adrienne Battistella