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Fixing Claiborne — the highway that split a Black neighborhood — could come down to 2 proposals

Carly Berlin
Louis Charbonnet III, outside the Charbonnet Funeral Home, with the Claiborne Expressway in view.

Louis Charbonnet III’s family prides themselves on having one of the biggest Black-owned funeral homes in New Orleans – and the prettiest.

They’ve had their business in the Tremé for over a hundred years, and the building is elegant: The chapel has tall ceilings, and families meet in rooms with ornate furniture and polished wood mantels to discuss plans for their lost loved ones.

Carly Berlin
Inside the Charbonnet Funeral Home.

But just a few feet from the door of the North Claiborne Avenue business is a massive, concrete eyesore. The Claiborne Expressway – an elevated section of Interstate 10 – towers over the Charbonnet Funeral Home. Traffic roars past, and soot hangs in the air.

Before the highway was built in the 1960s, this stretch of Claiborne was “the Black economic engine of the city,” said Charbonnet, who’s 83. He remembers the insurance companies, doctor’s offices and restaurants that were once the funeral home’s neighbors – and the wide neutral ground that spanned the center of the road, lined with oak trees and azalea bushes. His family’s business managed to hang on, but many others couldn’t.

“Anything that you would think of that a community needed was here,” Charbonnet said. “When the interstate came along, it just destroyed all of that.”

The Claiborne Expressway has been called out – even by the White House – as a textbook example of America’s racist highway history. Interstates all over the country slice through historically Black neighborhoods, constructed at a time when Black residents often had little say over political decisions. In cities like Miami, St. Paul and Detroit, homes and businesses were bulldozed. Neighborhoods suffered from decades of disinvestment.

But now, for the first time, the federal government wants to help right those wrongs. The Reconnecting Communities program is a new federal initiative – established through the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – that aims to stitch together neighborhoods that were divided by highways, railroads or other transportation infrastructure in generations past. Communities across the country are now vying for a cut of the federal funds. And in New Orleans, there are competing ideas over how to best use the money.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and the City of New Orleans have put together a nearly $95 million proposal for Claiborne. If the U.S. Department of Transportation approves the application, the Reconnecting Communities program will cover half of the cost. WWNO obtained the joint city-state proposal through a public records request.

Much of the city and state’s vision revolves around sprucing up the area underneath the highway. The largest portion of their proposed budget, about $60 million, would go toward fixing up the expressway: replacing joints in the elevated deck, improving drainage, and putting in new lighting. Another $11 million would build out a public market and performance spaces under the highway, funding an existing 2018 plan called the “Claiborne Innovation District.”

Another $23 million would go toward potentially removing some of the highway on- and off-ramps that slice through the Tremé, like one that swoops down in front of the funeral home. That step would only happen after input is gathered from residents and a study is done to see how the changes would impact traffic, a city official said, but the proposal includes funding to actually demolish the ramps.

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Historic New Orleans Collection / Carly Berlin
Left: Circle Food Store, at the intersection of St. Bernard and Claiborne Avenues, in 1954. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Right: Circle Food Store today, with the Claiborne Expressway in view.

What’s not on the table – at least not yet – is removing the expressway completely. But some Tremé residents see that as the only way to really do justice to the neighborhood.

Amy Stelly lives a block and a half away from the highway, in her childhood home on Dumaine Street. She’s an architectural and urban designer, and for years, she’s called for the expressway to come down, at times garnering attention from national news outlets.

Walking underneath the expressway, Stelly noted the loud thrum of cars passing overhead, and the exhaust filtering down to the ground – noise and air pollution that won’t go away as long as the highway remains, she said. She pointed out abandoned shipping containers, vestiges of what she considers failed efforts by the city to foster small businesses under the highway in years past.

“We’re going to budget $95 million to fix a decrepit piece of infrastructure and decorate under it?” Stelly said of the city and state proposal. “I don’t see the wisdom in spending the money that way – when we can do other things with that money.”

Carly Berlin
Amy Stelly, on Dumaine Street, in front of two expressway ramps. She lives in her childhood home a block and a half away.

Stelly’s nonprofit – called the Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio — submitted a separate proposal to the Reconnecting Communities program. They have applied for $2 million to do a feasibility study to redevelop the Claiborne corridor in the Tremé and the neighboring 7th Ward.

The Alliance’s vision is to analyze the many proposed plans for Claiborne that have emerged over the last decade, like the various scenarios outlined for keeping or removing portions of the interstate in a federally-funded study from 2014

They hope to judge those options against a set of criteria that consider reducing noise and pollution, opening up real estate for businesses and affordable housing, and the overall cost of the project.

Through that process, the Alliance is confident that removing the highway will win out.

Once an option is chosen, the Alliance wants to further advance it by collecting fresh data about traffic through the Claiborne corridor, along with gathering input from residents. Then they hope to deliver a shovel-ready plan back to the city and state.

For Stelly, the point is getting people to imagine what life without the highway could be like.

“Most people who live here can only see the highway. They can’t hark back to that vision of a beautiful Claiborne,” Stelly said. “We want to give you that new vision of Claiborne that harks back to its former glory.”

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Historic New Orleans Collection / Carly Berlin
Left: The intersection of Claiborne and Ursulines Avenues in 1947, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Right: Claiborne and Ursulines today. A series of highway ramps disrupts the historic street grid.

Part of the Alliance’s line of thinking, Stelly said, is that the expressway is old. Federal funding shouldn’t be used to invest in it – and a public space underneath it – if the end of the structure’s useful life is coming up, she added.

The expressway was originally built to last fifty years; it was completed in 1968, 54 years ago. Shawn Wilson, the secretary for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, did not provide a clear timeline for when the Claiborne Expressway will be unsuitable for people to use as is.

“I don’t have a date certain that we can tell you, ‘That bridge is going to have to come down, or else,’” he said.

That’s because every time maintenance is done on it – as the city and state hopes to do with the Reconnecting Communities funding – its life extends a little longer, Wilson said.

The city-state proposal makes little mention of working toward removing the highway in the future. But Wilson said fully removing it isn’t necessarily out of the cards, down the road. He sees the ramp removal piece of the city-state proposal as a sort of experiment toward potentially taking down segments of the highway in phases.

“If I remove one interchange, one on- and off-ramp, what does that do to traffic? What does that do for the community that’s locally there?” Wilson said.

Carly Berlin
The ramp outside the Charbonnet Funeral Home.

He added that the city-state proposal focuses on steps it can achieve in the short-term, with relatively limited resources. The Reconnecting Communities program only has $1 billion to go around for projects across the country during its first year. That’s down from $20 billion that the White House had initially envisioned in the infrastructure bill.

A 2014 analysis estimated that removing the elevated expressway from Tulane Avenue to St. Bernard Avenue would cost around $500 million.

City and state officials, and Stelly, said they expect the U.S. Department of Transportation to make a decision about the Reconnecting Communities applications in early 2023.

Some consider the two applications to be potentially complementary. Troy Carter, the U.S. Rep. for much of New Orleans – and a member of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee – has submitted letters of support for both the city-state proposal and the Alliance’s.

Dan Jatres, the infrastructure projects administrator for the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability, said it’s possible that the U.S. DOT could decide to fund both the city-state proposal and implement those changes over the next few years – while also funding the Alliance’s effort to do longer-range planning.

“I don’t think anything that we’re building would stop someone from being able to propose, plan or implement a removal of the structure – either parts of or in its entirety in the future,” Jatres said.

Louis Charbonnet knows there’s no going back to the Claiborne of his youth. But he holds out hope that someday, the street will thrive again. And to this funeral home director, that means the death of the highway.

“You can’t begin to recreate what was there – you could never do that,” he said. “The thing would be to tear it down.”

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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