A New Orleans Neighborhood Confronts the Racist Legacy of a Toxic Stretch of Highway

Aside from a few discarded hypodermic needles on the ground, the Hunter’s Field Playground in New Orleans looks almost untouched. It’s been open more than nine years, but the brightly painted red and yellow slides and monkey bars are still sleek and shiny, and the padded rubber tiles feel springy underfoot.

For people who live nearby, it’s no mystery why the equipment is in relatively pristine shape: Children don’t come here to play.

“Because kids are smart,” explained Amy Stelly, an artist and urban designer who lives about a block away on Dumaine Street. “It’s the adults who aren’t. It’s the adults who built the playground under the interstate.”

Hunter’s Field is wedged directly beneath the elevated roadbeds of the Claiborne Expressway section of Interstate 10 in the city’s 7th Ward.

There are no sounds of laughter or children playing. The constant cuh-clunk, cuh-clunk of the traffic passing overhead makes it difficult to hold a conversation with someone standing next to you. An average of 115,000 vehicles a day use the overpass, according to a 2012 study.

“I have never seen a child play here,” Stelly said.

Amy Stelly stands beneath the Claiborne Expressway on July 18, 2023. A playground is visible between the two highways in the distance behind her.
Amy Stelly, an artist, urban designer, and community activist, stands beneath the Claiborne Expressway on July 18. Stelly, who lives nearby, is working with Louisiana State University on an Environmental Protection Agency study of the noise and air pollution from the highway, and still supports moving this stretch of Interstate 10 away from the historically Black community.(Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

Stelly keeps a sharp eye on this area as part of her advocacy work with the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a group of residents and business owners dedicated to revitalizing the predominantly African American community on either side of the looming expressway.

For as long as she can remember, Stelly has been fighting to dismantle that section of the highway. She’s lived in the neighborhood her entire life and said the noise is oftentimes unbearable. “You can sustain hearing damage,” she said. Now, she’s helping collect new noise and air pollution data to show it needs to be taken down.

The Claiborne Expressway was built in the 1960s, when the construction of interstates and highways was a symbol of progress and economic development in the U.S.

But that supposed progress often came at a great cost for marginalized communities — especially predominantly Black neighborhoods.

When it was built, the “Claiborne Corridor,” as it’s still sometimes known, tore through the heart of Tremé, one of the nation’s oldest Black neighborhoods.

For more than a century before the construction of the expressway, bustling Claiborne Avenue constituted the backbone of economic and cultural life for Black New Orleans. Back then, the oak-lined avenue was home to more than 120 businesses. Today, only a few dozen remain.

What happened to Claiborne Avenue isn’t unique. Federal planners often routed highways directly through low-income minority neighborhoods, dividing communities and polluting the air.

In Montgomery, Alabama, I-85 cut through the city’s only middle-class Black neighborhood and was “designed to displace and punish the organizers of the civil rights movement,” according to Rebecca Retzlaff, a community planning professor at Auburn University. In Nashville, planners intentionally looped I-40 around a white community, and sent it plowing through a prominent Black neighborhood, knocking down hundreds of homes and businesses. Examples like this exist in major cities across the country.

The federal government has started working on ways to confront the damage highway construction continues to do to low-income and minority communities. An initiative established in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act called the Reconnecting Communities Pilot seeks to do just that: reconnect neighborhoods and communities that were divided by infrastructure.

But there’s wide disagreement on the best way to do that, and some strategies are likely to do little to limit the health effects of living near these highways. What’s unfolding in New Orleans shows how challenging it is to pick and fund projects that will help.

Competing Visions for the Claiborne Expressway

Stelly’s group, the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, submitted a proposal for Reconnecting Communities Pilot money. It wanted $1.6 million in federal funds primarily for public engagement, data collection, and feasibility planning to work to assess whether it would be possible to remove the expressway altogether, with a plan to raise $400,000 more to cover costs.

And it seemed possible its grant proposal would succeed, since even the White House cited the Claiborne Expressway as a textbook example of the biased planning history in a published statement about the Reconnecting Communities Pilot. Ultimately, though, the federal Department of Transportation, the agency charged with allocating the program’s money, denied the Claiborne Avenue Alliance’s grant request.

Instead, the Department of Transportation offered a small fraction of the money requested in a competing joint proposal made by the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. That plan called for a $47 million grant from Reconnecting Communities to do overpass improvements, remove some on- and off-ramps, and, most significantly, create the “Claiborne Innovation District” to promote public life and cultural activities under the highway. DOT granted just $500,000 for the project.

Stelly said she likes a few aspects of the city-state proposal, notably the plan to remove on- and off-ramps to improve pedestrian safety beneath the expressway and other public safety projects, like better lighting and dedicated pedestrian and bicycle lanes.

But, notably, Stelly called the idea of creating an entertainment space and market beneath the highway misguided and ridiculous. Would it be a waste of scarce government funds?

“It’s a foolish idea because you’re going to be exposed to the same thing” as the neglected playground, Stelly said. “You’re going to be exposed to the same levels of noise. It’s not a wise decision to build anything under here.”

Graduate student researcher Jacquelynn Mornay shows a noise reading taken beneath the Claiborne Expressway on July 18, 2023, in New Orleans.
Graduate student researcher Jacquelynn Mornay, with the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Public Health, shows a noise reading taken beneath the Claiborne Expressway on July 18 in New Orleans. The decibel level is similar to that of a motorcycle engine and could cause permanent hearing damage after prolonged exposure.(Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

Using Science to Inform Policy

Since her group’s proposal was denied, Stelly and her organization are turning to a new strategy: helping with a new study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency on the expressway’s health impacts. They hope the data will support them in their efforts to remove the highway from their neighborhood.

In addition to noise impacts, the EPA-funded study is looking at the health impacts of pollution under the Claiborne Expressway — especially harmful pollutants like particulate matter 2.5, or PM 2.5.

These microscopic particles, measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter, are released from the tailpipes of passing vehicles, said Adrienne Katner, an associate professor at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, who is the principal investigator on the EPA study. They’re so small that, when inhaled, they lodge deep in the lungs. From there, they can migrate to the circulatory system, and then spread and potentially affect every system in the body.

“So the heart, the brain,” said Katner. “If a woman is pregnant, it can cross the placental barrier. So it has a lot of impacts.”

Katner and her team of researchers are beginning the study by taking preliminary readings with monitors at different points along the expressway. Completing the research and publishing the data will likely take two to three years.

One of Katner’s monitoring sites is Hunter’s Field Playground. Graduate researcher Jacquelynn Mornay said the noise levels registered there could cause permanent hearing damage after an hour or so of exposure. The pollution levels recorded hover around 18 micrograms per cubic meter.

“It should be at most — at most — 12,” said Beatrice Duah, another graduate student researcher. “So it is way over the limits.”

Residents and workers occupying the homes and businesses lining the area under the expressway are exposed daily to these levels of noise and pollution. When complete, this EPA study will join a decades-long body of research about how traffic pollution affects the human body.

“We’re not inventing the science here,” Katner said. “All I’m doing is showing them what we already know and then documenting it, giving them the data to then inform and influence policy. That’s all I can do.”

Hunter’s Field Playground sits beneath the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, pictured here on July 18. Opened over nine years ago, the playground is one of the monitoring sites of a new study by the Environmental Protection Agency on the health impacts of the highway. (Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

‘Removal Is the Only Cure’

Eventually, the study’s findings could help other communities divided by infrastructure across the country, Katner said.

“A lot of cities are going through this right now and they’re looking back at their highway systems,” she said. “They’re looking back at the impacts that it’s had on a community and they’re trying to figure out what to do next. I’m hoping that this project will inform them.”

Amy Stelly said she’s always known the air she and her neighbors breathe isn’t safe, but she’s hopeful that having concrete data to support her efforts will do more to persuade policymakers to address the problem. That could mean taking down the dangerous on- and off-ramps — or scrapping what she considers to be the wasteful plan of putting a market and event space under the highway overpass.

Stelly sees only one true solution to the problems posed by the Claiborne Expressway, only one way to really right the wrongs done to her community.

“Removal is the only cure,” Stelly said. “I’m insisting on it because I’m a resident of the neighborhood and I live with this every day.” And, she said, “the science tells us there’s no other way.”

This article is from a partnership that includes WWNO, NPR, and KFF Health News.

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