Charity and the Expressway June 24, 2009Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Charity Hospital, Claiborne Avenue, Clairborn Expressway, Riverfront Expressway, Second Battle of New Orleans
Driving up Tulane Avenue to work I pass the Charity Hospital complex regularly. But first I pass under the Claiborne Avenue Expressway. Seeing these two great masses of concrete in the same frame sets my thoughts going about preservation and unintended consequences.
In 1960, the Chamber of Commerce proposed a riverfront expressway as part of New Orleans Interstate highway system, and approved as I-310 in 1964. The suggestion that a six-lane freeway would run along the river in front of Jackson Square.
Preservationists immediately rose up to object, and the famous Second Battle of New Orleans was joined. There’s a bit of family history here. My father was president of the New Orleans Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and was among the preservationists. He famously challenged the head of the downtown business group to a debate on WWL-TV.
In the end, the preservationists won. The riverfront expressway was blocked and the French Quarter was saved.
And Treme was nearly destroyed.
The compromise solution was to build the connection from the Pontchartrain Expressway to Interstate 10 down the Claiborne Avenue corridor. Prior to the construction of the expressway Claiborne Avenue was a thriving commercial corridor serving the Black community who was not, during Jim Crow, welcome on Canal Street. Lined with oak trees and a neutral ground promenade, it was the sort of picturesque street the city is famous for.
Today, this is the view of North Claiborne Avenue.
As I eyeball the great art deco monument of Charity, standing on a corner in the footprint of the 73 acres of demolition in lower Mid-City proposed for it’s replacement and looking at the Claiborne Expressway in the same frame, I have to wonder if we are going down the same path my father’s generation did, one of unintended consequences.
I don’t disagree that the Charity complex should be saved. I don’t disagree that we need a hospital. I don’t disagree that vernacular architecture should be preserved in lower Mid-City. I only wonder how long will the working people of New Orleans have to wait while both sides dig in their heels and refuse to compromise, how long the children and grandchildren of those who once shopped on Claiborne or strolled beneath it’s oak trees will be left without a hospital.
Somewhere in this problem is a compromise that saves the Charity buildings and builds a hospital and preserves a neighborhood. I just wonder if the failure to compromise, or worse the ultimate nature of the compromise, will leave the people most in need of that hospital standing under that ugly, rumbling expressway waiting for the bus that takes them far away to see a doctor.