The Claiborne Neutral Grounds has never been a neutral place, so to speak. Stretching fifteen some-odd blocks from St. Bernard Avenue in the east to Canal Street in the west the Claiborne Neutral Grounds consist of the extra wide median that separates traffic bound in opposite directions. It’s called a “Neutral Grounds” just like every other broad avenue’s patch of land between lanes. In the 19th century many of these strips had canals dug down their centers providing a means of drainage for the city into Lake Pontchartrain. What makes the Claiborne Neutral Grounds different from those running down the city’s other grand boulevards – St. Charles, Esplanade, Elysian Fields, Nashville, Broadway, Carrollton, and Napoleon – is that instead grass and elderly oaks with yawning branches draped in Spanish moss and ferns, the Claiborne Neutral Grounds has no grass and is shaded only by eight lanes of interstate traffic on the elevated I-10 freeway running above it.
Claiborne used to have oaks and grass. The Avenue also used to be a thriving business district lined with tailors and tuxedo shops, delis and restaurants, cobblers, music halls, barbers, beauticians, and grocers. Prior to the 1960s (Mardi Gras celebrations were slowly integrated during this decade) black New Orleanians would celebrate and parade along Claiborne. It used to be a vibrant neighborhood. So what happened?
In 1966 the federal government was hard set on linking the entire nation with highways. A major reason for building the interstate highway system was to link the expanding suburbs with their metropolitan cores. In Southern Louisiana this meant connecting Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany Parish with New Orleans. Another reason involved a fundamental shift in the volume and velocity of interstate trade. New technologies like containerized shipping – which was being adopted by the Port of New Orleans meant increased tonnage. Much of this would soon be transported into and out of the city via truck on the new freeway system to the suburbs and the suburbs of other distant cities. The feds along with state and local authorities decided to route the I-10 freeway through New Orleans by running it right along Claiborne Avenue. In part this was a logical choice. There were few other routes wide enough to put up the mega eight-lane thoroughfare without tearing down many more homes and businesses. In part the decision was also facilitated by the needs and desires of the downtown growth machine and tourist industry. And it was in no small part facilitated by the fact that Claiborne Avenue was a working class district inhabited predominantly by blacks (many highways in many cities were built along similarly defined routes).
Businesses, hotels, and landlords in the Vieux Carre along with the growing corporate employers (mostly in the oil and gas industry, finance, and commerce) along Poydras street needed a freeway that could dump suburban commuters and tourist straight into the downtown. Tourist would exit the ramps and find themselves guided to hotel parking garages, the convention center, French Quarter, Riverwalk, Aquarium of the Americas, and other attractions. Commuters would exit into the CBD. The freeway would increase land values downtown by making the land more accessible and it would ensure the port and tourist industries a steady flow of goods and customers. In short it was the ticket to making some very powerful and wealthy people even more powerful and wealthy.
So the I-10 went up. Elderly folks in the Treme and 7th Ward, in the Lafitte and Iberville projects, in the French Quarter, and other surrounding communities will tell you about the struggle against the I-10 if you ask them about it. But the federal highway-building program was just too irresistible at the time for Claiborne Avenue residents to successfully fight back. According to some locals many of the business owners and homeowners along Claiborne who would have been displaced by the project were bought off until there was too little opposition left to make authorities think twice. The oaks were cut and the grass was paved over. No longer would children play on grass or would men and women gather under the shade of oaks to mingle. The Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and second lines would never have quite the same sylvan parade route.
But the memories of what the Claiborne Avenue Neutral Grounds was remains. And it’s important to point out that although the area was irrevocably changed, as a cityscape it is not entirely dominated by the architectural and aesthetic needs of the downtown businesses, tourist industry, and predominantly white suburbs that the I-10 was built to serve. Over the years the Neutral Grounds have been reclaimed in a way that has stubbornly transformed the kind of place it is. One part of this reclamation is simply the fact that locals refuse to avoid the neutral grounds and accept it as a hard and undesirable place. Men still gather to sit and drink, play a game of cards, or just chat beneath the concrete piers. Teens walk up and down the neutral grounds socializing. The displacement caused by hurricane Katrina has reduced the neighborhood’s general population by quite a lot, but even so today there is still a social life along the grounds.
Over the past few years muralists have painted the concrete piers of the I-10 creating scenes from the Neutral Ground’s past, but also scenes relevant to the history and culture of Southern Louisiana. These works of art and the general way that the whole space has been struggled over and reclaimed is similar to many other nether-regions under freeways and in the shadows of other “urban renewal” type projects put in place from the 1940s through to today. San Diego, Oakland, and Miami, among many other cities, have similar spaces. Neutral in no meaningful since of the word, they have always been sites of struggle over the meaning and power of place.
There’s a few other good essays and articles on the net about the Clainorne Neutral Grounds worth checking out.