Claiborne Avenue at Frenchmen Street, looking upriver in 1938

I normally don’t do these First Person stories but this one fits into what we believe.

Amy Stelly hears the noise and breathes the air – and knows that it wasn’t always this way. She has long pushed for the removal of the Claiborne Avenue Interstate 10 overpass cutting through Treme and other predominantly African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans. It’s a far cry from the oak-lined Claiborne Avenue that once existed, and the White House has cited it as an example of the country’s shameful racial history when it comes to such projects. The state, city and organizations such as Stelly’s Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio have been seeking funding for proposals ranging from removing ramps to tearing down the overpass completely. Stelly says the entire structure needs to come down, and her organization is sharing in a nearly $500,000 EPA grant to finance further research into pollution.

The 65-year-old activist, who lives a block and a half from the overpass, spoke to The Times-Picayune | The Advocate about her vision. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of your memories of the neighborhood?

My memory of the neighborhood has always been with the interstate in place, although there are a lot of folks who are still in the neighborhood, in the city, who do have those very fond memories of Claiborne. I can tell you as a kid I loved growing up in this neighborhood. I went to school at St. Peter Claver, around the corner from my house. And by the way, I live in the house that I grew up in. So I’m back in the neighborhood.

How do you describe the effect the overpass has had on the neighborhood?

Debilitating, in a word. Over the years, we have seen the disappearance of many businesses that were here while I was growing up. They’re now vacant lots. So there are, in terms of the urban fabric, several holes now. And over the years, we’ve gone from having access to fresh food to corner stores. So they don’t really serve the same purpose as the corner stores did when I was growing up. It was absolutely nothing for me to walk to the corner of Roman and Dumaine and to be able to get fresh seafood on one side of the street, or other types of provisions on the other side of the street. We had a fishmonger on one side and a grocer on the other. So those things have really disappeared from the neighborhood.

There’s been a debate over how to move forward and whether to tear it down completely. In your view, it should be torn down?

Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Because to only remove the ramps means that the deck stays and that is the primary polluter. So the traffic will still be there. In fact, we may have more truck traffic because there will be fewer passenger cars because folks in the neighborhood won’t even be able to use the facility. We’ll have the facility without the benefit of it. We’ll still have the pollution, we’ll still have the noise, which is incredibly disturbing. There are many nights when the decibel value of the noise is really high. I’ve measured it during quiet times in my house, a block away, and it’s been a minimum of 50 decibels except during COVID, when it was very quiet. So leaving the highway up does not do us any good. The removal of the ramps does nothing for the 7th Ward behind Hunter’s Field, where I-10 just decimated that neighborhood.

Would you say it was a result of racist policies, if not so much in intent but in effect? Or how do you describe the mentality or mindset that led to it?

Well, many people who do freeway fighting see that these urban highways are the result of racist policies, because they very, very closely follow redline neighborhoods. And redlining gave government the wherewithal to declare neighborhoods slums, and actually come in and do interstate building. So yes, it is a direct result of racist policies, because we know redlining is a racist policy, and we can see the results today.

In your vision, the I-610 would become the main stem?

610 would become the main. And then (traveling) across the lake, you could actually bypass (central) New Orleans altogether. I’m sure there’s a lot of traffic that doesn’t want to come through here – for instance truckers – so that would become the main stem. But what we’re not talking about is how the street grid will open once the interstate is gone. When you drive down Claiborne, you see blocks like Ursulines or places where you’re unable to pass. But when you go back into the 7th Ward, it’s a bit of a maze. The streets already change angles because of the curve in the river, and we know New Orleans streets do that. But also, there are many more impassable intersections back there because the highway blocks it. So we’ve got to look holistically at what’s going on, but 610 would handle interstate traffic, the grid could handle local traffic. The other thing we have to do is really take a very, very serious look at transit because that is a key component in getting people out of their cars.

Claiborne Overpass need to be gone
Tagged on: