An underpass in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood could become less about the chunk of freeway overhead and more about neighborhood entrepreneurship and community-building.
In August, New Orleans City Council approved the city leasing underpass space along Claiborne Avenue from the Louisiana Department of Transportation. The move kicks off a project to convert the area, deadened by a 1960s-era freeway, into the “Cultural Innovation District” (CID).
Prior to the overpass’ construction, Claiborne Avenue was a lively commercial corridor in the historically African-American Treme. Hundreds of oak trees lined the sidewalks. Azalea bushes bloomed. Businesses ranging from coffee shops to doctor’s offices to funeral parlors dotted the street. It was a mainstay for social aid and pleasure clubs’ Sunday parade routes.
When I-10 was extended over the neighborhood, the effects were catastrophic — as they were with freeway building in black neighborhoods across the U.S. As many as 326 black-owned businesses were lost. And while Second Lines, Mardi Gras Indians and other social gatherings still happen under the overpass, Claiborne’s role as a site for booming commerce and cultural activity fell into a literal shadow.
Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there have been may community discussions debating the viability of removing the overpass, as cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Portland have done. Ultimately, a cocktail of federal grant programs funded a $2.7 million 2013 Livable Claiborne Communities study conducted by Baltimore-based design firm Kittelson & Associates. The study laid out three options for revitalizing the area under the overpass that amounted to essentially: Keep it up; take it down; do something in between. After analyzing the choices, the city decided that the cost of removing the overpass or its on/off-ramps would be prohibitively expensive.
So a coalition of designers, architects, philanthropic groups and city agencies is focusing on leaving the overpass in place, and below it, developing a cultural marketplace. The vision for the Cultural Innovation District is to transform all 19 blocks beneath the elevated expressway along Claiborne Avenue with new green infrastructure, a market with food and art vendors, and exhibit and community event space.
The unanimous August City Council vote enabled the first phase of the project to get underway. The city has been promised $840,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to kick-start the project, which according to NOLA.com, Council Member Nadine Ramsey said the city could only get if they controlled the land.
Phase one will focus on six blocks, from Orleans Avenue to Esplanade. According to the Foundation for Louisiana, a philanthropy involved in the project, it will create “retail space and infrastructure for 30 micro-enterprises, 20 small businesses, and 10 nonprofit or public sector organizations, in addition to a plethora of open spaces, art installations, exhibits, and demonstrations.”
Bryan Lee is the lead design strategist on the project, and he says his team has been working extensively with community stakeholders over the past four months to hold meetings and conduct workshops, gathering input and collecting feedback for the project. (Lee is a Next City Vanguard.) He says the main question, in terms of the marketplace, is how to make it accessible for entrepreneurs who live in the neighborhood.
“How do you create incubation spaces for businesses that don’t have a high threshold for entry?” Lee says. “Spaces that people can actually test out without losing their shirt to do so.”
Indeed, New Orleans has experimented with so-called incubation spaces before. To make ends meet at nearby multivendor food hall St. Roch Market, applicants for spaces had to have substantial capital to be considered. Lee says he’s working to make sure the CID market can support more of the cottage industries and small businesses that residents in the neighborhood might already be used to.
“Often, in communities of color, there are smaller-scale opportunities that allow for survival, without imposing the larger construct of creating a giant business,” he says. Lee offers the example of artists in the French Quarter who buy a permit to sell their work in Jackson Square without necessarily aiming at loftier goals, like a gallery.
“It’s a different calculus,” he says.
St. Roch Market also came under fire as a catalyst for gentrification, and real estate website Redfin in 2017 ranked Treme as the hottest New Orleans neighborhood to buy in. Lee concedes that with any development, rising home values are a challenge. A new attractive community asset, while great for longtime residents, could serve to drive up prices and displace people. But, he says, that shouldn’t put an end to development altogether.
“Do we never ever do anything in communities that have been historically disinherited out of fear of any movement at all?” Lee asks.
While he believes the answer should be no, unbridled development isn’t the right approach, either. He encourages a nuanced understanding of gentrification in each set of circumstances and worries that using the term as a catch-all for any impact caused by development isn’t particularly helpful.
“We’ve dug into this word ‘gentrification’ as if it’s the be-all and end-all of displacement,” he cautions. “Saying ‘gentrification’ is like saying someone died from old age — it doesn’t actually tell us what the process is — it just tells us that there is a process.”
For Lee, the process is everything. He plans to hire a team of community liaisons whose job it will be to work with the community throughout the design process to make sure plans are meeting their needs, and he points to the 50-plus hours of community meetings his group has conducted thus far. He says he hopes to roll out a beta version of phase one by spring 2018.
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.