May 4, 2021

Amy Stelly vs. the Claiborne Expressway: The Ills of Highways

Post By: Paul-Matthew Zamsky

Let’s put President Biden’s American Jobs Plan into some context. It is the first major US infrastructure bill since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956 – almost 65 years ago. That bill created the US interstate highway system, which took over 50 years to fully complete.

Since that day in 1956, the US has fallen far behind in its infrastructure, today ranking only 13th in the world, well behind Singapore, Netherlands, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Japan, and even the United Arab Emirates. US public investment as a share of the economy has fallen by over 40 percent since the 1960’s.   

But infrastructure is not primarily about statistics or ranks. It is about people. And it is far more than crumbling bridges and roads that need fixing. It is also the racial inequality that highways brought. To understand this, we need to listen to Amy Stelly. Here is her story.

“I live with the ills of the highway every day!” 

These are the words of Amy Stelly, an architectural designer, who lives in Tremé, a neighborhood in New Orleans. She is waging an uphill fight, to rid herself and her neighbors of the noisy, smelly Claiborne Expressway, which cuts through her place of residence like a scalpel.

I took this photo at the Under the Bridges Arts and Culture Festival, a two-day festival in New Orleans located under the Claiborne Expressway.

Tremé, also known as Faubourg Tremé, has about 4,200 residents, and houses America’s oldest African-American Catholic parish.

Amy is now famous. She was mentioned by President Biden, in announcing his American Jobs Plan, who called the Claiborne a “racist highway.” She is quoted at length in Ian Duncan’s Washington Post article.

What indeed is a racist highway, why is the Claiborne racist, and in general why do many highways have neglected ‘ills’ – as well as major benefits for travelers?

The Claiborne Highway was built in a predominantly Black neighborhood in New Orleans, atop the old Claiborne Avenue. The avenue is still there, but it is moribund, crushed by the highway atop it. And the Claiborne, built in 1968, is not alone; there are many such highways slashing through Black neighborhoods – for example Highway 81 slashing through black communities in Syracuse.

“It’s the same in many Black communities…” Stelly observed. But a movement has begun, to take down highways that slash through neighborhoods populated primarily by people of color.  This occurs, as 50-year-old highways need replacement and renewal, and as the Biden infrastructure bill begins its tough journey through Congress. 

Claiborne Highway, New Orleans – Image sourced from Congress for the New Urbanism

“This is something that must be corrected,” Stelly told Duncan, “if we are to be fair and just in America.”

Highways are noisy. Typically, heavy traffic makes 80–89 decibels of noise. This is roughly the noise made by a food blender or a vacuum cleaner. But unlike those appliances, highway noise is incessant and for those close by, it is nerve-wracking.

Klyde Warren Park, built atop the Woodall Rogers Freeway (Image sourced from FHWA)  

A lot can be done to correct the planning fiasco of building busy highways through neighborhoods. First, better planning – screens and land buffers next to roads; road barriers, tunnels, depressed highways.  Cities can even get creative. Take Dallas for example. In 2021, the city opened Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre park built atop the recessed Woodall Rodgers Freeway. 

Help for Amy and her neighbors may be on the way. The Biden plan includes $20 billion for “reconnecting” neighborhoods cut off by old highways. Interestingly, under President Eisenhower, the program for building nationwide federal highways began in the 1950’s. Under Biden, a major spending program may focus on a national highway removal program.

The conversation of highways historically encroaching on Black and low-income communities is becoming more commonplace, and with it, increased public awareness. For example in Houston, an effort to widen I-45 in Houston, TX is the subject of a request by the Federal Highway Administration to halt it, while civil rights concerns are addressed. 

“We can’t remove highways in neighborhoods that would otherwise have been very desirable and leave it to the real estate market to govern,” she said to Duncan. “The people of Tremé should have the right to return when it’s beautiful.”

And again, we need some context. For a decade after the Federal Highways Act was enacted and partially implemented, many racial minorities in the US were deprived of the right to vote – especially in the South. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Gradually minorities gained political power as a result. Simultaneously,, highways like the Claiborne in New Orleans slashed through Black neighborhoods. Minorities lacked the political power, at the ballot box, to resist. They were ignored. 

Today, with increased awareness of racial inequality and renewed energy to reduce and eliminate it, fixing not only potholes but highways’ unfair locations has moved front and center.

Intelligence, compassion and planning can mitigate the injustices of the past, when new roads were routed through Black neighborhoods simply because it was politically expedient.

Waycare supports the new infrastructure bill, long overdue, and applauds these efforts to make highways not only smooth arteries for mobility, but also powerful vehicles of justice for minorities.

Amy Stelly wants her neighborhood back. She should be given it.

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