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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Real Estate Developers Play and Never Seem to Have to Pay

Greenville   Our union signed a contract with the Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans or rather its management company, TransDev, yesterday. They handle the business end of routes, accounts, and schedules for bus and trolley lines in the city. Reading the paper before triangulating a trip between Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, I read an article about the burden of lower income workers and their commutes to work in New York City. This is all grist for our mill.

One takeaway from the article was pretty plainly presented. In summary, the New York Times reported on a 2013 study in New York City found that almost 800,000 residents commute more than an hour each way to work, most of them earning less than $35,000 per year. Black New Yorkers’ trips are 25% longer than whites and Hispanics travel 12% longer than whites. I was reminded of a quote from the Greek historian Thucydides writing about Athens hundreds of years ago: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The reporter quoted a President of the New York City Council speaking over 100 years ago about the building of the subway system in the city. The main driver on the routes was the huge expected increase in property values along the lines. He argued that since real estate interests had lobbied for the project and were the ones benefiting, they, not just the public, should bear the costs. Obviously it didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened since. Another bunch of billions was recently spent extending a subway line there, and once again developers promoted, and the public paid. Meanwhile workers schlep to their lower paying jobs from farther distances because they can’t afford rents closer to work any longer, and they do so on buses in the slowest transportation system in the country for the most workers.

I wish the story were only about New York City, but increasingly the real estate interests and their supporters from the President on down, fueled by campaign contributions, push for more public expenditures that skew transportation towards tourism and away from workers, gentrify and jack up rents and eviction rates, forcing zombie work schedules, slow rolls, and hoopty rides to be thin ribbon holding people together between work and home all over the country. Developers dream and then sell out and run as fast as they can once the sticks are built so that some other sucker works the field, while property taxes rise, rents soar, and the public pays the bills.

How about that for a depressing cycle that we seem unable to break in city after city? We’re all prisoners to a national policy that no one owns or seems able to change, while we are all forced to pay for it, as Thucydides said because they can and, it seems, because we must.

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