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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Volunteer Host “Army” Gathers at KABF

35th anniversary cake

Little Rock       As the hosts of KABF’s radio shows gathered at the New Millennium Church in western Little Rock near the University of Little Rock campus, long time DJs went back and forth trying to remember when we had convened our last all hands meeting of the hosts.  I would venture three or four years, and others would swear it might have been five.  No one was certain, but it had definitely been a while.  Memory plays tricks, calendars speak facts, unless it’s coming from Justice Kavanagh or something.  In truth, it was January, 2016, a bit more than three years ago at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Darragh Room.  There were individual genre meetings with groups of hosts before then, but the all-host meeting before that was March 2013, six months or so after I began managing the station.

When I asked the thirty-five hosts in the room how many had been to a all-DJs meeting before, perhaps a half-dozen raised their hands, which said two things:  first, that many of the long time hosts, of which there are plenty, did not bother to come, and, secondly, that it was time to orient the new hosts, so it was good that we had convened everyone.  We began the meeting with a round of introductions which were heartening.  We had hosts from Sacred Gospel, from SpeakUp, from Union Station, from World Music and Banonauts with its African emphasis, from the rock and new music shows like Shoog Radio and Nevermind the Morning Show, from Gray Matter and the Workplace and Community Voice.  What a diverse and exciting team!

hosts for various shows getting to know each other after the meeting from Sacred Gospel to Banonauts

The meat and potatoes of the meeting was the station’s ongoing drive to be sustainable.  Hosts shared tips on how to improve their performance on pledge drives which are a steady source of a noncommercial station’s revenue, but never enough.  There was discussion about how to build underwriting partnerships, and why they were important.  The special item on the menu though, and not surprisingly, was membership.  Whether the shows pledged well or not, I wanted to deliver a message that everyone could recruit members to the station who would pay their dues and donations monthly.  I announced a twenty-member quota and heads nodded, which isn’t the same as agreement, but we’ll work to make it so.  Even at $5 a month with twenty members paying monthly the resources created would be huge for the station, and everyone has twenty friends, relatives, and neighbors, and that’s not even counting their listeners who should be their bread and butter.  The trick is always the same:  you have to ask!

The other main item was actually an even more bitter pill.  Finally, a long-delayed conversion to new programming and broadcasting software is going to happen.  Our other stations did the changeover lickety-split, but change is hard when day to day you are used to the same ol’, same ol’.  My announcement that I would pull the plug on the old software at the end of the year, come hell or high water, went over with a bit of a thud and only two or three raised their hands to admit they had already gone to the new programming.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the hosts want more of these meetings or fewer.  As the station manager, I loved the opportunity to meet everyone in one place and have a shot at trying to get the volunteer army to march together towards the same battle station, rather than continuing to fire blindly or in a circle.

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