When New Orleans Said “No” to an Expressway

The battle to save the French Quarter

Fifty years ago, New Orleans saved its historic district, and in doing so, set an example for other American cities. Though some did not heed.

Salvation came from an unlikely source, but the one that counted the most. On August 22, 1969, John Volpe, the nation’s Secretary of Transportation under Richard Nixon, concurred that the Federal Government would no longer support building an expressway along New Orleans’ riverfront paralleling the French Quarter.

There was jubilation among preservationists, but disappointment among community leaders who for years had been supporting the expressway by arguing that it would provide a quick path for commercial traffic into the heart of the city, and would make the port more vital by creating easy access.

Imagine, however, the view from Jackson Square facing the river and instead of seeing the upper decks of passing ships, there is an elevated roadway cluttered with hurried trucks. Imagine the clopping sound of the mule-drawn carriages being drowned out by expressway noise; imagine the café au lait and beignets being overwhelmed by diesel fumes.

What might have happened in New Orleans was influenced by Robert Moses, a developer turned tyrant who redid Manhattan in his quest to develop a modern city adapted to the age of the automobile. Old neighborhoods were demolished to make way for thoroughfares and elevated trains. Some of the changes were perhaps necessary, but in the process many parts of town were torn down. Take that away and a city loses its soul.

As the interstate system expanded throughout the country, there would be more examples of cities that succumbed to planners. A classic example is Mobile, Alabama, where I-10 rolls across the old town to connect the Gulf Coast. In Philadelphia, an interstate parallels the historic Delaware River area.

Not to be naïve, interstates had to go somewhere near urban downtowns. In New Orleans, a section of N. Claiborne Avenue near the French Quarter was sacrificed to save the riverfront. The area, which bordered the Treme neighborhood, was important in black culture, so some would say that the location was racially motivated. The fact is that in practically any city, the neighborhoods bordering the old parts of town tend to be more minority populated. Some had to go in the name of progress. (The site of New York’s Kennedy Center was once a Puerto Rican neighborhood as depicted in “West Side Story.”) What is saved and what is not becomes a question of historic significance, plus cultural and architectural importance. When it came to preservation, no neighborhood was more important than the French Quarter.

Two of the key players in fighting the expressway were lawyers Richard Baumbach and William Borah. Because they wrote a book about the episode, “The Second Battle of New Orleans,” they are best remembered, and deservedly so. (A reprint is being released this year.) But there were many others who fought the battle at the grass roots level. Ultimately there was victory because of passionate activism and because stopping the expressway was the right thing to do.

Rather than from behind a steering wheel, a waterfront is best enjoyed from the perspective of a stroll.