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Biden Infrastructure Plan Could Determine Fate of Claiborne Overpass

North Claiborne Avenue in 1954. (Courtesy of Amy Stelly)

(By Peter O’Dowd and Chris Bentley for WBUR) New Orleans residents living in the shadow of “the monster” could get some relief from President Biden’s infrastructure plan.

That’s one name for an elevated expressway in New Orleans that the White House calls a prime example of how transportation projects have exacerbated historic inequities in cities across the country.

Biden’s plan calls for a $20 billion fund to “reconnect” urban neighborhoods blighted by interstate highways that were planned without consideration for the people living along these routes. If it becomes a reality, the fund could spur reinvestment in communities that have been overlooked for decades.

Many of the neighborhoods are predominantly Black. That’s the case in New Orleans’ Tremé, where in 1968 an elevated extension of Interstate 10 erased a vibrant business corridor along Claiborne Avenue.

Amy Stelly can see — and smell — the expressway from her balcony.

“It’s ugly and it’s dirty,” she says. “My home vibrates from heavy truck traffic on the highway.”

It bothered her so much that Stelly, a designer and board member of New Orleans’ Urban Conservancy, co-founded the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a group dedicated to removing the expressway. Their website describes the overpass as a “monument to racism.”

Stelly says the expressway is also an environmental hazard.

“When we have torrential rains here, the water just comes off of the highway in sheets and that water is very hot and dirty,” she says. “The interstate has not been maintained. The waterproofing is gone and the dirty water comes through the deck, so you can get rained on as you walk under ‘the bridge,’ as we love to call it. So it’s a real menace.”

Before it was bulldozed to make way for the expressway, North Claiborne Avenue was a boulevard lined with live oak trees and azalea bushes.

“I was a very young child when the interstate was rammed through the neighborhood,” Stelly says. “There are people who are older than me who have very fond memories of the vibrancy of the neighborhood. It was the commercial center for Black New Orleans, and it was our commercial center at a time when Black people could not shop on Canal Street because New Orleans, like the rest of the South, was segregated. So Claiborne was the place to go.” Read more here.

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