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THE PRESERVATIONISTS WHO SAVED NEW ORLEANS Turning Back ‘The Highwaymen’ Saving the Vieux Carré from the Riverfront Expressway BY Sandra L. Stokes INCONCEIVABLE AS IT MAY SEEM TODAY, New Orleans’ political and business elite fought long and hard to build an expressway through the French Quarter some 20 years after World War II. It was a fight fraught with paradox and irony. Preservationists led the ultimately successful battle to save the cherished historic district, and in doing so, broke new ground. They put New Orleans at the head of a pack of cities creating more sophisticated ways in which transportation issues shape the urban experience. By fending off the high- way, they laid the groundwork for the kind of revival that today has made inner-city neighborhoods more vigorous, both culturally and economi- cally, than the suburbs to which an earlier generation had fled. In hindsight, it’s sobering to realize how close New Orleans came to destroying itself. THE HISTORY IN 1946, in a quest for ideas to “modernize” New Orleans’ transporta- tion grid, The Louisiana Highway Department hired New York’s almighty transportation czar, Robert Moses, as a consultant. Moses was already be- coming notorious; his enthusiasm for cars and highways was as boundless as his indifference to the virtues of public transit. His New Orleans’ blue- print called for a Riverfront Expressway — an elevated six-lane express- way, 40-feet high and 108-feet wide — separating the French Quarter from its frontage on the Mississippi River. Fast-forward 10 years. By 1956, the federal government had unveiled a program to spend $41 billion to build 41,000 miles of “defense highways” to connect cities with a population of 50,000 or more. By 1969, the price tag had jumped to $104 billion, making it the largest public works project in U.S. history. With the federal government picking up 90 percent of the cost, New Orleans — like every other city — was salivating for its piece of the pie. Freeways would be the “life blood” of the city, proponents argued. They promised deliverance from increasingly congested downtowns. Civic pride was at stake. Give up the money, and it would just go to Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, cities that were preparing to wrap themselves in ribbons of ele- vated highway. New Orleans needed to keep up in the name of progress. THE PROPONENTS ENTER THE CENTRAL AREA COMMITTEE (CAC). Formed in 1957 under the aegis of the local Chamber of Commerce, the CAC’s prima- ry concern was the automobile congestion that seemed to be choking the Central Business Dis- trict (CBD), weakening the magnetism of the big department stores and irritating commuters. The argument was that expressways would jolt a fad- 10 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • www.prcno.org ing downtown back to its former vitality and stanch the worrisome flow of people moving out to suburbia. Leaning heavily on Moses’ blueprint, the CAC produced a “study,” a one- sided thesis titled “A Prospectus for Revitalizing New Orleans Central Business District.” It recommended an expressway along the Vieux Carré riverfront fed by six-lane thoroughfares down Elysian Fields Avenue, and a later addition to the plan had it continuing Uptown to a new river bridge at Napoleon Avenue. It included topping Claiborne Avenue with the elevated Interstate that actually got built, bisecting and causing irrevocable harm to Tremé, the city’s oldest black neighborhood. The Claiborne Avenue elevated expressway, often mis- construed as the default after the riverfront portion was defeated, was in fact Interstate 10’s primary route through New Orleans and was under construc- tion while the riverfront route was still embattled. Incredibly, the city’s business and political elite spent years fighting doggedly for this highway plan. The high-powered proponents included The Times-Picayune, the Chamber of Commerce, WWL-TV, the Bureau of Governmental Research, the New Orleans Levee Board, the City Plan- ning Commission, business titan Richard Freeman, Mayor Victor Schiro and Councilman Moon Landrieu. THE OPPONENTS A “FREEWAY WAR” was heating up across the nation by the 1960s. The first noteworthy opposition had cropped up when historically significant sites became at risk: Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Beacon Hill in Boston, to name just two. In New York City, the visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs had begun her battle, organizing fellow citizens to block Moses’ plan to bulldoze the West Village, and later to plow a crosstown Interstate through the East Village, Little Italy and what would become SoHo. Preservationists also were a significant force in New Orleans. They had saved the Vieux Carré from extinction by pioneering the tout ensemble concept as an alternative to fighting building-by-building for neighbor- Model of the Riverfront Expressway. JUNE 2018