I don’t think it’s too presumptive to say that most Americans don’t give much thought to interstate highways, besides in how they factor into their commute or a family vacation. Everything about highways suggests a type of benign universality, from the appearance to sound barriers and exit signs, to the fast food chains that populate rest stops. On the surface, a highway in Maine differs little from a highway in Tennessee. But the landscape that sits around or, often, rests below these massive stretches of concrete do vary, though even here there is a trend. Highways tend to built on land that is either empty, and when empty land is not available, land that is deemed the least important by those in power.
But before we get into that, a short overview on the history of highways in America. By 1973 no country in the world had a larger highway system than America. This was in no small part due to the clear attractiveness of highway construction to local politicians. Thanks to the Interstate Highway Bill of 1956 under Eisenhower’s administration, the federal government agreed to pay 90% of the costs of any interstate project.. Add to that the fact that construction lead to job creation, and that interstates facilitated business and trade across state lines, and the choice to build was clear.
Yet if the interstate highway system connected cities with other cities, within cities it split neighborhoods apart. Though most cities started with highways that circled the city limits, once that was accomplished many ambitious governments went further, building interstate routes directly into the heart of the urban fabric of downtown. And like most urban planning that took place in the 50s – 70s, the construction of urban freeways was intrinsically woven with racial politics. While was particularly true in Southern cities, where politicians still campaigned on platforms of segregation. Not only did the freeway routes require the use eminent domain to bulldoze predominately black urban neighborhoods, but these new freeways further aided the phenomenon of white flight, moving both financial capital and voters out from the city and into the suburbs. A perfect example of this is the I-10 elevated expressway that runs above Claiborne Avenue in the middle of New Orleans.
In 1946, Robert Moses envisioned the highway running along the Mississippi River, which would take it along The French Quarter. Once known as a working class slum, The French Quarter began to gentrify as early as the 1920s, when writers and bohemians in general were drawn by cheap rent and a lively culture. By 1946 the neighborhood was primarily white and wealthy.
Even though the highway was raised over 40 years ago across this stretch of Claiborne, which mostly crosses both the Treme and creole 7th Ward, longtime local residents still relish recalling the time before the skyline was dominated by this mass of concrete and blaring car horns. The clarity and specificity in the language of their memory, which seems more apt to be attached to a recent time rather than decades ago, only emphasizes the degree to which the freeway complete uprooted not only the longest stretch of oak trees in America, but an entire community.
Today, the I-10 is again a controversial topic. The current Master Plan developed after Katrina to rebuild New Orleans, advocates for the removal of I-10. The logic behind the plan is that it would actually cost more money to do the necessary repairs on the highway than it would to just tear it down. That, and the argument follows that by ridding the neighborhood of what is largely considered to be a cause of blight, the the area will be allowed to again flourish. Yet many longtime residents of the affected area worry that "urban renewal" is just a euphemism for gentrification. Perhaps at first surprising to an outsider, many of the same people who bemoan the original construction of I-10 are the same people who are against the proposed removal.
These photographs attempt to investigate both the destructive nature of I-10 as well as the vibrant and culturally rich community that transverses beneath it. The highway cuts right through commercial and residential space alike, as well as one of the oldest graveyards in the city. Yet many of the traditions that used the stretch of live oaks as their main thoroughfare, from the Mardi Gras Indians to the Second Lines, continue to parade down Claiborne, highway or no highway.