Calm Before the Storm

empty streets

New Orleans    We checked the storm reports on Tropical Storm, wannabe hurricane, Barry, constantly as we prepared to leave Milwaukee.  We were confident that we could get to Houston, but the last leg into New Orleans, scheduled to land at 9PM, might be a different matter, if winds were rising before landfall.  Everything seemed to be “go” though.  The lines were forming by their numbers to board the flight.  The United agent took the mike, and announced there would be a delay.  Our hearts skipped, and then hopes rose again when he said it was expected to be brief.  Seems President Trump and Air Force One were on the runway with the same scheduled 4pm departure time from MKE as ours.  We have all read that he likes to go home, so we had hope, and, frankly, Milwaukee is not really his kind of town, so we crossed our fingers that he wouldn’t be lingering but instead would be ready for the bright lights.  Luckily, we were out by 430pm.

Landing in Houston, the flight board read “On Time,” so we hustled.  All standbys were cleared.  I could overhear the crew talking about whether they would be stuck in the city and whether this might be the last flight out.  We landed in some wind, but less than the 40 mph that shuts down runways.  An airport official was clearing the airport.  He asked me if I had a taxi, and I answered, no, my truck was in the lot.  When I inquired about the deal, he said they were closing the airport after the last flights landed and wanted to make sure no one was caught overnight.  We had the conversation near a young soldier spread out on the floor in camo with his gear everywhere and his orders lying near his leg.

The predawn found the city dry as I hustled to get gas, cash, and check on all the family properties since my son was still in route home and my daughter was temporarily exiled.  There was a car somehow parked in the Fair Grinds patio on St. Claude.  Both coffeehouses were closed.

It was eerie driving the streets.  They were almost totally empty.  Cars were parked in the neutral grounds everywhere.  Cars were parked on sidewalks.  Mostly cars were gone, as if there were an evacuation notice that we missed somehow.  City buses were lined up in a parking lot at the University of New Orleans near Elysian Fields as I left my parents’ house.  As I stopped to take a picture, the campus cops were blocking the street into the campus.  Some gas stations were open, but Loews looked closed, but it was still before 7AM, so who knows?  Our radio station was still broadcasting.

buses parked

This is a post-Katrina experience for so many, for too many.  People have lost trust.  In the city, this is a water-event with rain expected to get up to two feet in some areas.  Pumps can clear five or six inches in the beginning and then one inch and hour or so afterwards.  Landfall is expected to the southwest around Morgan City, a working-class oil town.  The Mississippi River is high, but in most areas should be no problem, and certainly is secure in New Orleans.

We may not be able to fly to France for our organizers meeting as scheduled, but we’ll be fine.  Will this new scare, change the government’s policies on climate?  We can wish, but trust is gone there as well.

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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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