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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One Woman Against AirBnb is a Hollow Victory in New Orleans

New Orleans   I wanted to share what I hoped was a simple story of one woman’s persistence prevailing over a giant, rogue company and the ineffectual enforcement by a city of its regulations governing the company.

That story had as its activist, community hero a woman named Ada Phleger, a young attorney in the Federal Public Defender’s office in New Orleans.  Phleger had lived in the St. Claude neighborhood, where Fair Grinds Coffeehouse second location sits on the border.  She had lived in the area for eight years and moved into her current house recently.  When she moved there recently there were two whole-home short-term rentals on the block.  Then there were three.  She drew a line to fight when the fourth emerged, so began to try to beat the permit before there were guests.

The company is both on AirBnb and managed by Boston outfit, called Heirloom or Stayloom, owned by Frank and Dan Glaser, for some owners and on its own account.  They claim 100 properties in New Orleans, Boston, and New York according to research by The Lens, the local on-line news service.  Sixty-seven of the properties are in New Orleans.  The Lens, following up on Phleger’s fight, found the addresses on 34 with 19 having either no permits or expired permits.

Phleger’s fight was Biblical.  She kept reporting them to the city for violations and then having to get videos when photos of guests were not enough, the months drug on, and guests piled in with no enforcement action.  Finally, in frustration she used her mother’s AirBnb account and hosted a dinner party there for a family birthday party to prove it was being rented and to photograph the inside, establishing that no owner lived there.  Finally, the city canceled their permit since none of the requirements were being met.  There were stories in the local papers and on television one woman’s victory over corporate and governmental ineptness.  She was interviewed by NPR.

All good, but…

Reading more deeply in the stories and the Lens reporting, there’s no question that Phleger was a freedom fighter here.  That piece of the puzzle remains in place.   Some of the other pieces though don’t fit as well.

The city was not as inept and unresponsive as it seemed.  The initial regulations appear to have been Swiss cheese with as many gaping holes and, even worse, they were written so vaguely that the information AirBnb and other operators were supposed to provide was opaque and didn’t allow real enforcement.

AirBnb had touted the deal with the former administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu as a pacesetter in the industry, attempting to establish that they could work with a city and play by the rules.  They did eliminate 3000 listings, but after that it seems they drove a truck through the holes in the regulations, which also allowed outfits like Stayloom doing mass-rentals to exploit the language as well.  All of which made the city look like chumps, re-enforcing the conservative narrative of ineffectual local government, when a closer look tells the old story about the devil being in the details, regardless of the headlines.

The local councilwoman claims that regulations close some of the loopholes.  Now, the question might be whether or not New Orleans – or any city really – can keep up with a floating crap game, supported by visiting consumers and some homeowners trying to make their own mortgages, and exploited by rapacious companies with money to gain and little to lose.

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