Aftermath of Expressway Fights Fifty Years Ago


The front page of a 1968 issue of the French Quarter publication the Vieux Carre Courier, showing a rendering of the I-10 interstate to be.
Credit Joseph Makkos

New Orleans        A front page article in the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate noted that days over fifty years ago then Transportation Secretary John Volpe pulled the plug on plans to build an expressway that would have run along the Mississippi River and through the historic Vieux Carre, transforming and destroying parts of the famous New Orleans French Quarter.  This is a victorious fight long celebrated by preservationists in New Orleans, and honored daily somewhere in the city by the hospitality industry for its contribution to their profits and by the city for the employment they generate.

The  40-foot high and 108 foot wide Vieux Carre riverfront expressway would have run along Elysian Fields Avenue, linking the Interstate System about two-and-a-half miles from the Mississippi River, then turned up river for a mile running near the levee to Canal Street, which bisects uptown from the Quarter and downtown, down a tunnel there and through the Warehouse District until linked up with the Mississippi River bridge.  The expressway was designed by Robert Moses, famed power broker, bridge-and-highway and public works czar of New York City and subject of the classic, award-winning book of that name by Robert Caro.

Elysian Fields Avenue has been the home of ACORN offices for decades, first at 1024 and now at 2221 St. Claude Avenue at the intersection of Elysian Fields, catty-corner to that old address.  The neighborhoods on either side of the Avenue are in the midst of huge gentrification, and the Quarter itself is hardly a neighborhood anymore, but certainly is high-end real estate.  Condos have come to the Warehouse District making the value per square foot more than $500, highest in this dead-broke city.

Often credited for leading the fight against the expressway were two young lawyers from New Orleans, William Borah and Richard Baumbach.  The progressive Stern Family Fund and its donors, especially Edgar Stern, Jr. and director, David Hunter, funded the fight and recruited them to lead the effort.  There’s was a legal strategy and a publicity strategy.  This was a campaign not an organization. Anne Bartley, the Arkansas philanthropist and activist, brought Borah and Baumbach, up to Little Rock to meet with me and ACORN in 1972 when we were fighting the construction of the Wilbur Mills Expressway, now known more often as I-630.  They largely counseled a legal strategy, but were helpful in encouraging us to make the fight and pursue it.

The I-630 divided Little Rock racially and in many ways by income.  The expressway that was completed in New Orleans above Claiborne Avenue, then the major commercial district for the African-American community in New Orleans, obliterated houses and businesses, and changed the area to this day.  Borah and Baumbach argue that the Claiborne expressway that bisected the famous Treme neighborhood was not a substitute for the Vieux Carre highway, since it was already in progress, but so were some parts of the New Orleans road, including a tunnel that still remains under Harrah’s Casino between Canal and Poydras.  There just wasn’t the same fight over Claiborne and Treme perhaps because it was the 1960s with so much energy going into desegregating the city and supporting civil rights advances generally that their voices could not be heard and heeded, but also because the same investments were not made to resource that fight.  There are few in New Orleans today, outside of the French Quarter and business community, who do not believe that Treme and Claiborne were the price of protecting the Quarter.

Beating a bad highway is cause for celebration and worthy of commemoration.  Living with a bad highway also should teach lessons as important and permanent, not only in New Orleans, but also in Little Rock, and other cities around the country, that still seem not completely willing to learn the devastating impacts of these projects.


Snapshot view of Claiborne Ave. neutral ground before the construction of the I-10 overpass. Live oak trees shade a wide foot-worn path through the grass.
Credit The William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Clarisse Claiborne Grima Fund, [92-48-L.47]
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Organizing through the Shelters in Delhi

ITO shelter today

Bengaluru   The Commonwealth Games are the old British Empire’s continued footprint in the former colonies every several years as athletes’ troop in between the Olympics, and when India hosted the games for the first time in Delhi in the fall of 2010, this was to be a star turn for the city on the world stage.  The results can be seen in a number of newly built flyovers (expressways) and other capital improvements particularly in the Metro and the airport.  In the wake of other problems tourism did not reach expected heights and what turns out to have been significant corruption marred the construction and the media’s spin on the games.

For ACORN and our work in Delhi it also meant still dealing with the forced slum removal around the Income Tax Office (ITO) and the 70,000 people that lived in the ITO slums.   In the wake of the disastrous Commonwealth Games we ended up agreeing to manage a “night shelter” across from where the athletes’ housing had been built in the path of the old slums for many of our members who were bicycle rickshaw pullers pushed out of work and off the streets during the games with little livelihood and no income.  When I visited in 2011 we were still waiting for the urban department to reimburse us for the staffing cost for maintaining the tent and tarp structure over that winter after the Games.  Now a year later, the winter has turned into the a year round shelter, the tents have become corrugated, hard walls with solar power, water, and portable toilets, and the one shelter has become four with two on either side of the expressway around the old ITO and the huge Akshardham Temple and the Metro station of the same name in East Delhi.

Akshardham Temple and the flyover

The other two shelters are also in areas where we have a large concentration of members in central Delhi one, a permanent building is near the Delhi Gate in the warren of narrow streets and slender alleys between the buildings of Old Delhi only feet away from the walled city and the Red Fort.  The other temporary structure is hardly a kilometer down the highway from the new civic center that houses the Delhi government and is near the old Azmeri Gate to the old city.   Added together the centers we manage have a theoretical capacity of 250 men, but when the weather is cool, that number is always over 300 and sometimes close to 400 packed in every night.

Permanent shelter in Old Delhi

At first blush an organizer might think that this is a “captive audience” and the organizing could be layered casually across the time, but practically our centers in most locations go from empty to full up and force the work to be done “on the run.”  Informal work is hard work at exceedingly low pay stretched over many hours.  Our rickshaw pullers for example tend to not come into the shelter until after 11 PM when the last loads are driven from the Metro stops to homes.  At 6 AM many are back up on the rickshaw pulling people to work and trying to string their money together for the day and pay the rent on the rickshaw to the owner.  Every morning there is a time in each of the centers where our organizers read the daily paper to the men.  The allotment of staffing on the contracts has allowed us to divide some of the hours into more people doing our community organizing work so that there is one organizer per shelter.  Many of the men join the organization and are able to stay active and each center is a mini-office of sorts.   Capacity has increased for ACORN Delhi, but unfortunately there are only so many hours in the day.

Years ago had we planned to run such shelters?  No, absolutely not, but in organizing, you do what has to be done, and adapt the tools to the construction of the organization as they come to your hand, and that’s what Dharmendra Kumar and his team with ACORN Delhi have taken to task to move their mission.

Here I am with Dharmendra Kumar (left) and some of our organizing staff at the shelters

 

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