APPEL: Race-Based Economic Suicide In New Orleans

There is an interesting story developing out of New Orleans. The politics are all local, but as usual reality defies emotion.

Back when the I-10 system was built there was a lot of anguish from those affected. In New Orleans, the east bound main artery of I-10 was construction above the median (Neutral Ground to us) on Claiborne Ave. The construction, like all highway projects was ugly and resulted in the loss of the green space that was the median.

The routing of the highway was chosen because the only other alternative at that time was a much fought over Riverfront route that would have cut the French Quarter off from the River.

Were there other possible routes to move massive amounts of traffic and cargo from the east into the City? Was it chosen because it was the neighborhood of increasing numbers of poor black residents? Who knows what was the thinking 60 years ago? But no matter whether this path or some other was chosen without a doubt the construction would have been through an existing residential area or, in the case of the Riverfront, would have destroyed the one thing that made New Orleans a viable tourist attraction.

After it was built the predominately black Claiborne neighborhood seriously declined. But so too did the rest of the geographic area. The Seventh Ward, St. Roch, St. Claude, Florida, Gentilly Terrace and so on, the neighborhoods and commercial areas that have not been affected by a highway running through them, have like Claiborne also declined, as the whole City’s economy has declined.

Over the years it has become politically popular to blame the deleterious deterioration of the Claiborne Corridor as a racist effort to put the highway where poor black people live. But that does not explain the attrition in those other surrounding areas, a decline that has been largely ignored by the same politicians. They have made a cause celebre’ out of victimhood, even as they have ignored the fundamental causes of the problem. In the political world it always works best to blame the man behind the tree for their own failings.

At about the same time that the Claiborne highway built so too was the I-10 in East Jefferson Parish. Unlike in New Orleans where the roadway is elevated, in East Jefferson the roadway was built generally at grade with a few crossings. Along Claiborne there can be and is access underneath from either side and the overhead roadway is used as an outdoor community gathering place. The I-10 in Jefferson totally bifurcates residential and commercial areas. But unlike the Claiborne Corridor, and even though its north/south access is all but impossible, the surrounding areas of East Jefferson are still vibrant residential neighborhoods and commercial zones.

There is no doubt that highways are not something anyone wants to be near, but there is the issue of what is good for the whole of society versus what is good for a small number of citizens. So, I suppose one should ask if then the route chosen in Orleans Parish was done so out of some racist injustice, how does the location of the equally disconcerting route through Jefferson not deserve equal scrutiny? Especially considering that at least as many and perhaps more Jefferson citizens were affected, as were Orleans residents?

The biggest question is, even though there is still a free flow of people and traffic between both sides along Claiborne, did building the highway on Claiborne actually cause the area’s economic demise? If so, why did it not happen in East Jefferson where no such communication exists? For that matter one needs to ask, why has the at grade railroad that runs through the wealthiest area of East Jefferson not caused its economic demise?

I suggest that even though highways are distasteful, there is more devilment at play in the decline of the Claiborne Corridor than can just be attributed to the highway. The reason is obvious, East Jefferson has a stable economy that overcomes such obstacles, New Orleans does not. It is not racism, it is the fundamental laws of economics that makes one area succeed even as another fails.

This whole debate has been rekindled because President Biden cited the Claiborne corridor as an example of racial inequity and has indicated that under his supposed Infrastructure Bill the Interstate would be dismantled and Claiborne Ave restored. I suppose having Cedric Richmond on the House staff has something to do with this.

The President’s proposal is problematic on many levels. First, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to demolish a perfectly good highway through a neighborhood that will likely never rejuvenate be a worthy taxpayer investment? If so, why wouldn’t it be just as worthwhile to remove I-10 through East Jefferson, or is this whole idea just a palliative to racial politics?

Though not acknowledged by a feckless President, but without a doubt the main issue, has to be how would the City of New Orleans be connected to the east if there was no I-10 through Claiborne? How would intercontinental traffic flow from the Port of New Orleans? How would the City ever have commercial viability if its main artery were to be yanked out? Could this be the biggest example of cancel culture of all time?

Oh, there has been chatter that once I-10 east is removed the traffic could be re-routed through the I-610 bypass. For those who have taken this route just imagine the traffic nightmare that that would be. And at what cost? Does anyone really believe removing the Claiborne Ave elevated roadway would do anything to revive a section of the city that has fallen on hard times, hard times frankly caused because the City has done little to create a vibrant economy.

I feel sorry for the people of the Claiborne Corridor, even as I do for the people along the East Jefferson Corridor. Highways are a messy thing, messing up the Claiborne Neutral Ground was ugly, but to any city that has any hope of economic viability, not having effective highway connectivity is insanity. The potential economic damage to the City and state of eliminating I-10 to the east is pure folly.

Racial politics may play well for Democrats but spending hundreds of millions destroying a major element of the City’s and state’s economy just to satisfy a few is something hard to swallow.

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