Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One city, many voices

The so-called  "Second Battle of New Orleans" fight to defeat the riverfront expressway has passed into mythology. It has become a fable with two distinct morals depending on who is telling the story.

For preservationists, it is their finest hour; their most unambiguous victory over the most demonstrably evil (in their minds, anyway) machinations of short-sighted development. And they allow this moment of righteousness, their big win in the Good War, to inform an almost reactionary revulsion to every and any big project that comes along.

But the Good War wasn't all that great if you happened to be on the wrong side of the atom bomb. And that's still how they feel in 7th Ward where Claiborne Avenue was eventually sacrificed to the interstate once the French Quarter was made off limits.

Long gone oaks memoralized with Faux Oaks (Foaux?)

There the elevated expressway has settled into the mythology as the primary cause of every symptom of urban decline to befall the area ever since.  Never mind that crime, under-employment,  and general disinvestment in education and social services have plagued the entire city, and every city in the nation, for half a century. In the 7th Ward, everything begins and ends with that damn highway.

This is not to say that they don't have a right to complain.  The expressway may not be the root of all evil, but its placement sure didn't helped matters. But regardless of its actual impact, to the people who live in its wake, it's a constant reminder to them that big decisions aren't made with them in mind.

Interestingly, both of these not-entirely-true narratives come into play as we start to hear rumblings about the expressway being torn down and the "Claiborne Corridor"  queued for "revitalization." The preservationist crowd will see it as an opportunity to make reparations for the collateral damage they inflicted in the course of their holy war to save the French Quarter. And, no doubt, there will be support from residents eager to finally slay the dragon expressway that trampled over their neighborhood.

Hopefully, though, enough of us will be able to view the next "battle" in its own context rather than through the obfuscating fog of the last war. Lovell Beaulieu (imperfectly) pokes through some of it in a recent Tribune column about the planning process.
Another similar streetcar line is now being planned for North Rampart and St. Claude avenues. That line, which has now journeyed from the planning stages to an imminent reality, will take riders from the city’s downtown theaters and shops all the way into the Bywater, Marigny and Holy Cross neighborhoods. 

The new Rampart line did not go unnoticed by key people in attendance.

“This is just another thrill ride for tourists,” stated Jacques Morial, who lives a block from the interstate and who is determined to make sure that the communities that bore the brunt of urban decay with the highway construction in the 1960s aren’t left holding more broken promises after its planned demolition.

Morial pointed out how the Interstate that was built in the 1960s devastated the 6th and 7th wards from a cultural standpoint, as well as having a spillover effect on the 8th. When those decisions were made, African Americans had little if any political clout, and even less economic sway. Now, the conversation continues to happen behind closed doors, and it all adds to the negative perception and reality of the Livable Claiborne Communities conversation.

Nothing without us is for us,” said Morial.
Our current Mayor is fond of catchy slogans.  One of his favorites, and probably the most pernicious, goes, "One Team One Fight One Voice One City,"  as if civic governance is something we should liken to a football game where all the residents are always on the same "team."  There are many lies in this condescending little chant. The most obvious question it always raises in my mind is, how can we have a "fight" with only one "team" participating?

Of course a city contains many different voices, many opposing teams participating in many fights and the outcomes have real winners and real losers. That's just politics.  To pretend otherwise is to deny the losing side of these every day struggles, not only the material spoils, but also the recognition due anyone with a valid but opposing argument. In other words, the Mayor is telling you that when you  are priced out of your neighborhood by "revitalization" or an expressway is built on top of your house, it isn't because you lost an argument to a different "team." It's because, you actually never existed at all.

But there are winners and loser in every "Battle of New Orleans."  If the life and times of the Claiborne Expressway serve as an object lesson in anything, certainly this should be it.

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