A manifesto for Claiborne Avenue: It’s time to tear the highway down

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Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans had all the elements of an attractive place before it became home to a monstrous urban highway. It was a place where the joy of living was palpable. It was a place of visible beauty. There was: 

Variety and order.

Visible life.

Compactness.

Mystery and enclosure.

Scale; and

Localism.

Claiborne was an appealing gathering place, another measure of its beauty. But when I step onto the second story porch of my New Orleans home, I don’t see beauty. I see cars on a time-worn elevated highway deck and a concrete ramp that happily points visitors to the French Quarter. Its underside serves as a seedy shooting gallery for IV drug users, an encampment for forgotten humans. None of this pays homage to the neighborhood that the interstate destroyed.

Treme has endured a century of racist planning. The Claiborne Expressway was only one piece in the grand scheme to destabilize the neighborhood. The City of New Orleans began executing its master plan for transformation as far back as the 1920s. 

Treme was declared a slum to make way for an entertainment district. 

Property was taken.

Black people were removed.

The land was cleared.

The Municipal Auditorium rose in place of demolished homes.

Then came the 1940’s plan to build a highway system for America. The action of declaring Treme a slum paired with the tools of redlining and eminent domain made it the perfect target for destruction. The spaciousness of North Claiborne’s median offered the perfect site for the ugly infrastructure. In 1945, the highway plan was unveiled. 

On Ash Wednesday of 1966, 

after the revelry of Mardi Gras,

hundreds of oak trees were bulldozed,

clearing the land for the construction of the elevated expressway.

The “Monster” opened in 1968. The destruction of Treme was a near fait accompli. 

Taking an additional eight blocks to build Armstrong Park and a performing arts center was the final blow. More homes were demolished; more families displaced; and more land was cleared for the good of a wealthier order. And then the unthinkable happened: the park was fenced off from the neighborhood. 

We were banished.

The fence continues to surround the park and stands as a constant reminder of the city’s disdain for the people of Treme. The city’s current plan to turn the now beloved Municipal Auditorium into a piece of a fractionated City Hall pours salt into the wounds of those who have lived with the disinvestment and intended consequences of biased planning for a century.

Claiborne is communal space. In New Orleans, everyone upholds the tradition of gathering on the neutral ground. 

We live in the streets.

We parade for Mardi Gras

Dance at funerals

Walk to the bus stop

Ride bikes

Sit on the porch, and

Door-pop so we can see everything that’s going on.

Throngs have attended rollicking second lines on Claiborne that have commanded the grimy, asphalted area under the bridge which may, at once, serve as parking lot and parade grounds – all in the midst of invisible showers of particulate matter and toxic emissions. It’s a way to reclaim sacred space that was violently ripped from the community and transformed.

But the area under “the bridge” struggles to fulfill its role as open space.

Our sacred space has been poisoned.

Only our occupancy has given it a noble meaning.

It rains hot, dirty water through the highway’s deck. Pollutants flood the streets and drain into Lake Pontchartrain, the place where the freshwater of the Mississippi River meets the salty Gulf of Mexico. Heat from cars and concrete increase the ambient air temperature, growing the heat island. The existential threat of climate change is heightened by the presence of the highway. What’s worse is that we’re forced to breathe toxic emissions every day. The constant din increases the stress. Removing the highway and restoring the sanctity of the boulevard would begin to pay respect to a community that has been deeply harmed.

We have been denied the enjoyment of our homes.

We have been denied economic parity.

It’s time for a change.

Treme must be made whole.

Tear I-10 down!

 The Claiborne Expressway is a monument to racism.

The Claiborne Expressway is a crime! 

 WE DEMAND REPARATIONS!

WE DEMAND…

I. BEAUTY

Beauty is equity. Black people have a right to live in a beautiful place.

Therefore:

We want our trees replaced — all of them, in the median. 

We want an elegant restoration of the public open space.

We want beautifully re-connected streets. 

We want the restoration of the St. Bernard Traffic Circle. 

We want beautiful and thoughtfully considered buildings.

We want compatible new structures that respect our historic building stock and urban fabric.  

We will no longer allow our built environment to be designed and crafted as a weapon. 

II. ECONOMIC PARITY

Consider the restoration of Claiborne as downpayment on restitution for the crime.

Therefore:

We must end redlining and provide access to capital for Black and Brown People. We deserve the opportunity to build wealth. 

We must rebuild North Claiborne Avenue as an economic engine for New Orleans by creating great assets and economic drivers for the neighborhood. 

We must rebuild the economic base of the community with small businesses that serve the neighborhood

We must develop small, affordable commercial spaces to encourage entrepreneurship. 

We must incentivize the development of Black-owned businesses.

We must bring financial institutions back to the neighborhood to help revive the boulevard as a bustling corridor. 

We must incentivize culturally-inspired businesses. 

We must develop Claiborne as a unique and culturally appealing place with small stores and minority-owned support services that speak to community needs and desires. 

We must develop Claiborne as an authentic, prosperous, homogeneous space determined by Black people for Black people. 

We must dictate our own future.

III. CULTURAL PRESERVATION.                                                    

We must strive for cultural imperishability. We bring a unique flavor to New Orleans.                                         

Therefore: 

We must restore Claiborne in a manner that honors and continues our cultural narrative.

We must restore Claiborne as sacred and unique community space that speaks with a reverent voice.

We must construct a place where Black people enjoy spatial freedom.  There must be freedom to, not freedom from

We must feel free to occupy.

Our traditions must be honored and respected. 

Our skills must be nurtured.

Our talents must be valued.

Our masterpieces must be preserved. Enslaved people built New Orleans. Our sacred symbols are embedded here.

We must preserve our music, our traditions and our institutions: churches, schools, restaurants, bars,  burial traditions, social aid and pleasure clubs, the baby dolls, brass bands, marching bands, singers, writers, artists, and everything that makes New Orleans New Orleans. 

We must restore the boulevard in a way that activates new thinking about history and community.

We must provide incentives to restore the historic building stock. Those buildings tell the story of how we live.

We must require new architecture to respect the history and scale of the corridor to ensure that the character of Claiborne is preserved. 

We must restore Claiborne in a manner that heals.

We must transform.

IV. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

We demand a clean, healthy environment. We have a right to breathe clean air.

Therefore:

We must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

We must reduce car dependency and increase transit to improve transportation options in the city. 

We must mitigate flooding through the use of green infrastructure.

We must allow equal access to high quality utilities.

We must build in a way that respects our climate and our environment.

V. HOUSING AND FOOD JUSTICE

We have the right to remain in our neighborhoods. Indigenous people have a right to return.

Therefore:

We demand affordable housing. The removal of the interstate will release land that can be used to develop housing. 500 houses were taken. 500 houses must be returned.

We respectfully ask that our civic leaders work with the community to stay gentrification. We want our friends and families to return. We want to stay in our homes. 

We must eliminate food deserts by increasing access to fresh foods. This is a critical step in turning the Claiborne Corridor into a food mecca and blue zone, a place that supports a long and healthy life.

We demand to be made whole. 

STAND WITH US!

REMOVE THE CLAIBORNE EXPRESSWAY.

Urban highways destroy neighborhoods.

Show the world that you are willing to push for systemic change to a system of misbeliefs.

Show the world that you do believe that Black spaces, neighborhoods, economies and lives matter. 

We have supported your lives for centuries. We ask that you support ours.

ELIMINATE RACISM IN PLACE-MAKING.

CREATE CONDITIONS FOR CHANGE.

TEAR DOWN I-10!

This column was originally published on April 18, 2021 in Common Edge.

Amy Stelly is the opinions editor for The Lens. She is an urbanist who lives in Treme and advocates for the removal of the Claiborne Expressway.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.