by Lyndon Jones
In an effort to implement a more systematic and integrated approach to large-scale change, the city of New Orleans held the first of several community meetings geared around its Livable Claiborne Communities initiative – a comprehensive and strategic study that focuses on the economic development and community revitalization of the Claiborne Avenue Corridor, specifically the elevated section of Interstate 10 between Napoleon and Elysian Fields.
Several sheets of large maps and black markers covered tables strategically situated throughout Dillard University’s Dent Hall on a recent Saturday in early December. Along one wall was a line of easels displaying planning maps highlighting areas that would be affected by plans to mitigate the impact of the elevated I-10 expressway along Claiborne Avenue, including one option that would call for the removal of the high-rise.
Additional meetings, designed to provide an opportunity and platform for community input into this joint initiative, were held throughout the city during the second week of December, targeting specific communities that might be impacted by the study and any changes along the corridor.
Residents of Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes have been invited to take part in this more than $2.7 million study.
“A big part of this process is making sure we get the depth and breadth of input from people throughout this region so that we can utilize that information as we move the process forward, and come up with plans for what happens to that stretch along Claiborne Avenue,” said meeting moderator Bill Rouselle.
A long-standing topic of controversy, the elevated expressway over Claiborne Avenue has taken its fair share of criticism during its 50 plus years of existence.
As one audience member at the first meeting held at Dillard University passionately put it, “It shouldn’t have been built in the first place,” she said.
To be sure, talk of possibly removing the elevated 1-10 along Claiborne to achieve economic and social revitalization of the area strikes some as odd, if not disingenuous, considering the elevated expressway was erected decades ago despite the protest of mostly Black residents and business owners who foretold that the plan would signal destruction of their communities. Many believe that the construction of the Claiborne overpass shares at least part of the blame for the decline of the Tremé neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the Claiborne corridor was once a thriving area before planners decided that tearing down houses, majestic oak trees and largely African-American businesses, particularly along the stretch of Claiborne that lines Tremé, to make way for the elevated, inner-city expressway was a better idea than building it along the river in the French Quarter—the original proposed location of the high rise that faced opposition from French Quarter business owners and residents who were likely more moneyed and politically connected than those who stood against the Claiborne site.
There is also unease that any talk of lessening the impact of the Claiborne overpass in order to revitalize the area is only calculated to amplify what some perceive as gentrification efforts already underway to push out historical residents from the city’s center. The conjecture is not a far stretch when one considers that the proposed redevelopment of the Iberville/Treme area (including the redevelopment of the Iberville Housing Development) under the Choice Nieghborhoods project (a joint effort that involves HANO, the city, and HRI properties) seems to intersect with the Livable Communities study along the stretch of the overpass between Tulane and St. Bernard avenues.
Still, the promoted vision of the study is “to improve transit, connect housing to jobs, schools and health care, manage soil and water; and promote livable communities as economic development.” Following Hurricane Katrina, Mitch Landrieu, who was serving as lieutenant governor at the time, established The Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation (LCEF) to improve the economic health of the cultural economy. Since then, the organization has moved to building a platform for regional vitality; and the Livable Communities study is one such program.
As areas like Hollygrove and the Ninth Ward still battle with infrastructure issues such as drainage, access to jobs and housing, the study seeks to gain a significant amount of input to satisfy the needs of all areas.
“We’re looking at developing livable neighborhoods along a major transportation corridor,” said Rouselle.
Overseeing one of the largest infrastructure programs in the country, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant acknowledged the historical significance. “This is the first time two federal agencies have provided joint funding to do a study on a common area,” said Grant, adding “We’re only one of two cities in America with the chance to do this.”
Before moving forward to another phase, Grant stressed that such groundbreaking quality of life analyses must be inclusive of local and regional communities with equal attention paid to each aspect of the study: transportation, economic development, housing, jobs, schools and healthcare.
“The outcome is the ultimate partnership between the local, state and federal government,” he said. “I want a product that we could implement to serve our community so that we can grow together.”
Immediate plans target both affluent and poorer neighborhoods along the elevated I-10 expressway. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the LCEF have reached out to dozens of organizations to conduct the study in the Lower Ninth Ward at the eastern edge of the City, and Hollygrove on the western edge, all the way into Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes.
Director of Place-Based Planning and mayoral appointee Bill Gilchrist, who has an extensive portfolio in community planning and urban design, said “I can’t think of any project that’s more significant and transformational.”
“What we have here, in truth, is a city within a city that we’re looking at as part of this study,” said Gilchrist, referring to an area roughly defined by Napoleon Avenue, Broad Street, Elysian Fields and Rampart and Oretha Castle Haley “as they tie back towards Napoleon.”
Under the study, team members are seeking a sustainability plan to ensure that systems of transportation, infrastructure and education are still intact in the future. And they seem to be looking to the community to define how this will happen.
When turned over for audience participation, attendees were assigned two facilitators to field questions, prompting some leery residents to express their misgivings about the study.
“This ain’t about feelings, it’s about justice and fairness,” said one impassioned attendee who resides in the Tremé neighborhood.
Another 7th Ward resident, leery of the entire process, pulled a newspaper clipping from his pocket and placed it on the table. He then asked, “Where is this money,” pointing to a headline that detailed New Orleans receiving more than $200 million for infrastructure post-Katrina. Once his questions went unresolved, he promptly stood and left the meeting.
Muskoghee Alibaamuu of Tremé addressed facilitators directly, “You’re gonna come down here with your degrees, do what you want to do then go back where you came from. How do we know this is no different?”
The Livable Claiborne Communities study will be complete in August 2013. For more details on the study, visit http://livableclaiborne.com.