One Historic Black Neighborhood’s Stake in the Infrastructure Bill
More than two generations after the Claiborne Expressway was built in New Orleans, the economic, environmental and cultural costs of its development are being reconsidered.Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times
NEW ORLEANS — In the days after the House passed a $1.2 trillion spending package that promises to pour money into America’s aging infrastructure, several residents of a storied New Orleans neighborhood turned to the highway that divides their streets and pondered a common question: What does this mean for us?
For decades, that highway — an elevated stretch of Interstate 10 that runs above North Claiborne Avenue in the Treme neighborhood — has been cast as a villain that robbed the historic African American community, taking many of its homes, businesses and a glorious strand of oak trees when it was built more than a half-century ago.
Since then, generations have envisioned a day when it might be removed — or at least closed off to traffic — and the neighborhood restored to its former vibrancy. Now, the infrastructure bill sets aside federal funding to help neighborhoods like Treme.
“Finally. Finally. Finally,” said Amy Stelly, co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a community organization working to dismantle the highway, which was singled out by President Biden this year. “We have been talking about what to do with the highway for as long as I can remember.”
But with just $1 billion — 5 percent of the $20 billion the Biden administration originally proposed — allocated to reconnecting neighborhoods that suffered after highways divided them, it could be considerably longer before Ms. Stelly and other Treme residents witness the removal of the Claiborne Expressway, which one early study estimated would cost more than $500 million.
The infrastructure bill, signed by Mr. Biden on Monday, earmarks $250 million in planning grants and another $750 million in capital construction grants to reconnect neighborhoods bisected by highways. But that money is just a small fraction of what it would cost to address aging highways in New Orleans and dozens of other cities across America, from Tampa, Fla., to Rochester, N.Y.
Today, more than three dozen citizen-led campaigns are underway, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism, all focused on grappling with the consequences of the highways that were carved through their communities.
Removing or retrofitting any one of those highways — which were built as a way to modernize regional transportation and meet the demands of postwar progress — will be neither inexpensive nor quick.
A plan to remove a section of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, N.Y., and rebuild a portion of Interstate 690 carries a price tag of at least $2 billion — about twice the amount of funding approved by Congress for the entire country. The project to fill in a portion of the Inner Loop East highway in Rochester cost about $25 million.
“It’s an important step, but a small step,” Ben Crowther, program manager for the C.N.U.’s Highways to Boulevards and Freeways Without Futures initiatives, said of the congressional funding. “I am looking at this as a down payment.”
Some residents believe that urban highways, despite the disruptions they may have created when they were built, should remain. They cite the cost of removal or modification and the impact to traffic, particularly if there are no easy alternative routes.
But the national conversation about the impact of highways in urban communities gained fresh traction as the country confronted its history of racism and racist policies after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. Those campaigns took on new urgency as Mr. Biden made racial justice and climate change part of his domestic agenda.
“There’s the recognition that driving these highways through the communities in the first place was wrong,” said Chris McCahill, managing director of State Smart Transportation Initiative, a transportation think tank based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And so now the question becomes, what to do about it now?”
While Louisiana leaders could see about $6 billion from the larger $1.2 trillion package steered to the state’s aging roads and bridges, they said it was too early to know how much might go to New Orleans or whether removal of the Claiborne Expressway would even be among the top priorities.
In New Orleans, city officials had not yet decided whether to pursue federal grants and were in the “early stages of reviewing the legislation and the opportunities it creates,” said a city spokesman, Beau Tidwell.
Still, Representative Troy Carter said he hoped the city might be a model in both removing the highway and in reinvesting in the neighborhood and protecting its “heritage.” In various scenarios that state and local leaders have explored, a number of ramps would be taken out or the highway itself would be removed from downtown, with traffic diverted around the area.
“I would love to be able to restore that beautiful corridor to its original luster. But the devil’s in the details,” he said, adding that community input was critical to “make sure we don’t swap one evil for another.”
The highway’s age means it would need to be rebuilt if it were not torn down, said Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation and Development. “So that gives us an opportunity to re-envision what the corridor looks like, in terms of housing, green space and economic opportunity, and in terms of transit, safely connecting the neighborhood.”
In Treme, century-old oak trees, towering and lush, once lined the wide median along North Claiborne Avenue. As far as the eye could see, they formed a protective green canopy above children playing after Sunday Mass, couples holding picnics and families celebrating the parades and pageantry of Mardi Gras.
“If you talk to anybody in Treme, they can tell you about the day the trees came down or when the highway was built,” said Lynette Boutte, a hair salon owner whose family’s roots in the neighborhood extend back generations. She wants to see the highway, nicknamed “the bridge” or “the monster” by residents, closed and retrofitted as a green space.
In announcing the infrastructure plan this past spring, Mr. Biden acknowledged the damage that highway systems had done to some communities across the United States. He specifically pointed to Claiborne Avenue as an example of how transportation projects had severed neighborhoods and helped drive racial inequities.
Claiborne Avenue, once referred to as the “Main Street” of Black New Orleans with more than 100 businesses, wilted under ill-fated urban renewal policies. Only a few dozen businesses stand today.
Formally named Faubourg Treme, the neighborhood is imbued with a rich cultural and musical history. Dating back to the early 19th century, the neighborhood was racially diverse, made up of free people of color, enslaved African Americans and Caribbean and European immigrants. Claiborne Avenue was both walkable and affordable, what Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane, called “urbanism at its best.”
For a long time, the avenue was bustling with work and play. It was lined with insurance businesses, hardware stores, pharmacies and tailors, along with jazz halls and social clubs. Much of that changed with the highway project, which was pitched as an efficient way to shuffle cars downtown and keep it thriving. About 500 homes were cleared to make room, according to C.N.U., a disruption that led shops to shutter and property values to fall.
Advocates for the highway’s removal contend that the stretch of Interstate 10 should never have been built through such a vibrant neighborhood, and that race played a role. They point, too, to an elevated highway that was slated to run along the edge of the famous French Quarter. That plan was stopped by preservationists in the late 1960s while the Claiborne project proceeded.
“Here is this neighborhood rich with so much history and contributions to music and culture,” said Raynard Sanders, executive director of the Claiborne Avenue History Project. “But it’s also a place that has felt like it was attacked over and over.”
With about 4,600 residents, Treme is still an intimate, mostly working-class neighborhood with enduring ties to its history and culture, where people can spend an afternoon talking about Mardi Gras and jazz — and just as passionately trace their roots back to that first relative who moved into the neighborhood a century ago.
Some Treme residents, already fighting for civil rights, objected to the Claiborne Expressway when it was first proposed. But they were not heard.
“They didn’t have the political clout, the get-your-representative-on-the-phone political access to stop it,” said Mr. Campanella, a geographer at the Tulane University School of Architecture who has written several books about the history, culture and geography of New Orleans. “Some people didn’t even realize it was happening until the backhoes showed up.”
Barbara Briscoe remembers the day in February 1966 when the soaring oak trees, under which she played with friends and rode her bike, were suddenly uprooted. “It was devastating,” Ms. Briscoe, now 80 years old, said. “Can you imagine growing up around all those beautiful trees, and then they were gone? Claiborne was never the same after that.”
Over the years, neighbors said the highway settled in as a kind of unwanted and loud neighbor. It spewed thunderous roars and thick grime, and its entrance and exit ramps facilitated all manner of crime. But something else happened, too: a new culture, one with its own traditions, developed beneath the highway.
It is not uncommon to see funerals spill from the doors of nearby churches, with mourners and brass bands marching along Claiborne, the spirited notes from the trombones and trumpets rising above the rumbling of trucks overhead. On weekends, the grounds are often full with music, dancing and vendors selling cups of fruit.
Some fear that a complete removal of the highway will further destroy the neighborhood — or usher in a wave of gentrification that would push out longtime residents who directly experienced the highway’s ills. Others believe that the money might be better spent on other priorities in the neighborhood.
“With the size of the ramps, how can you move all that concrete without tearing the neighborhood up even more? When it was built it was disruptive,” Ms. Boutte said. “I do not like it, but I am not sure you can take it down without causing even more damage. We might just have to live with it.”
But there also remain those like Ms. Stelly, who has longed since childhood to see the highway completely gone and Claiborne Avenue restored to its former glory. As an architectural designer, she believes that the highway — about a block from the home where four generations of her family have lived — crushed much of Treme’s promise.
“I was just a kid,” she said, “but I knew that monstrosity should not have been in the middle of our neighborhood. It is a monument to racism.”
Nadja Popovich contributed reporting.