The Resilience of Tremé: The Fight to Reclaim Claiborne Avenue

By Grace Blankenhorn

Image of N Claiborne Avenue and Ursuline Ave before the interstate in 1947. Courtesy of Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection. (left)

Image of street art on the interstate pillars. (right)

Picture azalea bushes and long stretches of oak trees on a neutral ground, young families and citizens of all ages gathering under the shade, taking walks, and playing football. All surrounded by the neighborhood’s most beloved businesses, restaurants, theaters, insurance companies and drug stores. Claiborne Avenue is located in the heart of the Tremé, the first African American neighborhood in Louisiana. Claiborne was the cornerstone of the neighborhood 50 years ago, until 1968 when the US government implemented an aggressive US interstate highway plan that turned Tremé’s neutral ground into a large, elevated expressway. 

Tremé is the first neighborhood where African American citizens could freely congregate, play music, sell goods, and create a home. Throughout the years, the neighborhood grew to become an epicenter for African American owned businesses and communities. Tremé was where the African American community flourished and felt a sense of belonging, especially 60 years ago when they weren’t welcome in the French Quarter and other predominantly white spaces.

The area was known for its beautiful portion of land on North Claiborne Avenue that held a large green space that divided traffic lined with hundreds of oak trees. This all changed in 1968 after the expressway was built. The expressway project cleared almost 200 oak trees and acquired 155 individual properties. In 1950, there were 123 businesses in the area, and almost fifty years later, there were only 44. When residents of the Tremé protested a highway running through Claiborne avenue they were not heard and instead were met with hostility and disregard for their feelings and needs. 

“Once you have decided as a transportation planner or engineer or local elected official that you’re putting a highway through a neighborhood, you have decided that you are investing no more public money in that neighborhood. When public money disappears from that neighborhood, private money then dries up in that neighborhood as well. So the businesses pull out, you’re left with food deserts, you’re left with places where you have to drive elsewhere because there’s not much left in your neighborhood, and we see this with the highway system we have now,” explains Ben Crowther, referencing Claiborne Avenue. Crowther is the current Advocacy Manager from America Walks, where he works with state and local advocates to promote efficient mobility for all people. Prior to joining America Walks, he worked as the manager for Congress for New Urbanism (CNU’s) Highways to Boulevards Initiatives where he first became involved in the Claiborne expressway project following President Biden’s infrastructure plan. 

It wasn’t until 2019, that the Claiborne expressway was nationally recognized as a threat to the Tremé community. In the spring of 2019, President Biden announced his transformative infrastructure plan to remake the American economy on a huge scale. In a White House document, New Orleans was one of a few cities mentioned and the Claiborne expressway was one of two highways to be referenced in Biden plans to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments”. This was a huge win, not only for the community of Tremé, but also for Amy Stelly, who is an artist, activist, urban planner, New Orleans native and co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance. The Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio began with the advocacy work of Stelly and a coalition of residents in Tremé in 2017, and was officially founded as a community-based not for profit architectural and urban design firm in 2022. Stelly and the Claiborne Avenue Alliance dream of taking down the Claiborne bridge and reclaiming Tremé with the goal of restoring the community to the epicenter it once was for African Americans. 

Crowther reveals that he and Stelly first met in 2018 at a meeting between the Congress for New Urbanism and advocates from across the country who were working on removing highways in their communities. “Of course, Amy was there, and it was probably one of the first times, if not the first, where advocates across the country came together in the same room and really started to talk about what needed to be done collectively to make change,” elaborates Crowther on meeting Stelly. “She gave us a tour of the Claiborne Avenue corridor, and yeah, it really showed off just how much damage and disinvestment the highway has caused, but also all of the potential opportunity that exists in the surrounding neighborhood that could be unlocked if the highway wasn’t there anymore.” 

When I spoke with Stelly in 2021, she believed that the full removal of the expressway was the best method for repairing the bridge and the neighborhood. With the help and guidance of Crowther and a team of advocates, Stelly began working on creating an urban plan for the removal of the interstate and the revitalization of the Tremé with Claiborne Avenue Alliance.  They worked quietly on creating a revolutionary development model to give people something to envision and talk about in order to promote community conversation. The biggest obstacles that Stelly and the Claiborne Avenue Alliance faced in 2019 was gaining support from the local government in New Orleans. She began working on a removal plan that would consider the best interests of the Tremé community with the hope that the local government would support her efforts. However, in the fall of 2022, it became evident to Stelly and the Tremé community that the New Orleans government is not on their side. 

In October of 2022, the New Orleans and Louisiana Governments submitted a proposal to the US government asking for a $47 million grant to remove ramps on the expressway and add landscape and pedestrian spaces below the ramp making the “Claiborne Innovation District”, however, this plan did not include removing the expressway completely, as Stelly hoped. Instead, it sought to carry out an elaborate plan to “reinvigorate” the space underneath the corridor and reinvest in business spaces. In opposition, Stelly submitted a proposal by the Claiborne Avenue Alliance to request a $2 million grant to begin planning for the full removal of the highway, as she believes that taking out a few ramps won’t eliminate the negative effects of the highway. Ultimately, the city-state plan was victorious, and the US government granted $500,000 to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and the continuing reparations of the Claiborne expressway. However, this grant was a slap in the face to the local government, as the grant fell $46 million short of the budget they requested.

“I knew that our chances of getting support from the government were gonna be slim because we didn’t have the city on our side or the state, and the state owns the facility. So even though I think we are proposing the right thing, the issue is the support from the city,” explains Stelly. When submitting her grant proposal, Stelly knew that the Claiborne Avenue Alliance did not have much support from the city, and that the national government would most likely side with the local government’s supported proposal plan. Stelly informs me that the city-state government’s plan was based on a project that previous New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu tried to build in 2017/2018 called the “Claiborne Innovation District”. This plan seeks to rebuild community spaces in the Tremé underneath the interstate bridge through funding food, art, produce, and market vendors, however, this completely contradicts the goals of Biden’s infrastructure bill to reconnect neighborhoods once cut off by interstate development. Therefore, Stelly views the US government’s response in giving only $500,000 to the Claiborne Innovation Plan, which is set to cost $47 million, as a win because it shows that the US government did not fully support the New Orleans government’s proposal plans.

 Meanwhile, Stelly has recently teamed up with LSU who has received a grant from the EPA that awards them money to use for research, and this is the theory: “The students at LSU, the public health students are going to collect live data, so it’ll go up into the cloud and then we’ll map it and get live mapping of what’s going on in the corridor. So, when you click onto the Claiborne Avenue Alliance digital model, you’ll be able to get some of this data that proves that it’s toxic, and it should be removed,” Stelly elaborates. The LSU team has agreed to assist Stelly and the Claiborne Avenue Alliance with half a million dollars used to fund air monitoring in the corridor. Ultimately, Stelly believes that this data will grant her organization with certified information that supports their arguments that the conditions of the bridge are unsafe and living underneath or around the bridge is toxic. Furthermore, this data will prove that the bridge is a public health emergency and force the government’s hand to remove the bridge.

“I’m confident that we’re going to show that there’s poor environmental quality based on the preliminary data we’ve collected,” reports Dr. Adrienne Katner, the director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Program in the LSU school of Public Health. Katner and Stelly first met through the association Thriving Earth Exchange, a group created to link community advocacy groups with researchers in the field they are looking for help in. “Our work together really just started as a mutual interest, and there was no money for research at this time,” Dr. Katner elaborates. Stelly and Katner initiated their research together by inviting students at LSU to sample the air around the interstate for particulate fine matter, or PM 2.5, which is air that contains microscopic solid or liquid particles that can be inhaled and cause threatening health issues. Additionally, the student research team evaluated the noise levels and exposure assessments of the surrounding area of the interstate. From this initial research, Dr. Katner was able to expand her research to involve students from the Willow School, a local high school in New Orleans, and students studying Environmental Health at LSU. 

“After our preliminary research, my graduate students and I put together a report that showed that particulate fine matter levels are higher, compared to the woefully outdated regulatory standards we have now. There are health studies that show this matter affects reproductive, respiratory ,and cardiovascular health. We presented this data to the community and to the city council here in New Orleans, and it really didn’t get much traction,” describes Dr. Katner. Nonetheless, Dr. Katner and Stelly’s passion for justice for the community of Tremé didn’t stop them from furthering their research. With the help of a recent grant from the EPA, Dr. Katner has solidified a strong research team of graduate students at LSU and an elaborate research plan that will aim at proving the toxicity of the bridge and forcing the government into removal. 

Dr. Katner and the research team will be using sensors and EPA approved methyl methods of air sampling to get a more precise number of the particulate matter levels in the air around the Claiborne corridor. Additionally, they are sampling the soil in the areas around the interstate to test for lead and high levels of blood, as their preliminary research suggested. The research is set to begin next fall and while Dr. Katner is confident that the upcoming research will prove the interstate’s toxicity, she says, “Pollution is here. We don’t have to prove that, but we have to prove that to the decision makers, and that is a challenge here in New Orleans.” 

 Stelly believes that “in the meantime, I am convinced that the US government knew that the money was then gonna trickle through the EPA and come back to us. I think they knew that and the reason that I think they knew that is because when reconnecting communities started being hatched, the folks who were working in transportation were in constant contact with the EPA. They’ve always been working together.” Stelly believes that the US government knew that the EPA grant money would end up in the hands of Dr. Katner and the Claiborne Avenue Alliance for further research. Additionally, the New Orleans City Health Department requested to meet with Stelly to discuss working together to help the area under the bridge by taking air quality readings. Stelly laughed to herself, thinking that the local health department was going to put themselves in the position of being in opposition to their own plan, as Stelly is confident that their data will show the toxicity under the interstate and therefore that the Claiborne Innovation District plan is inadequate. Moreover, Stelly is confident that the data the LSU research team will collect will force the government’s hand in removing the bridge. “What we are seeing now is a result of the real horror of having to live with machine politics,” Stelly explained to me. Moving forward, her goal is to prove to the US and Louisiana government that the area under the bridge and the structure of the bridge is a public health emergency and pressure the government into removal, as these are the necessary steps to reversing machine politics.

Around Easter time in 2018, at a community gathering Stelly asked the kids in her neighborhood what they thought Claiborne would look like without the bridge. She discovered that “they [had] never thought about Claiborne without the interstate there, they couldn’t imagine it. They were in disbelief that there was a park a block and a half away from where they live.” This interstate monstrosity has infiltrated the imaginations of the next generation and cut off a community that flourished while untouched by the government. The actions of the New Orleans government fifty years ago evidently have resounding effects on the community of Tremé. While the removal of the interstate threatens traffic patterns, gentrification, and potentially environmental pollution, it is imperative that reparations for the Tremé community are needed, and the local New Orleans government is failing to listen or respond to the needs of a community that was once isolated from each other and the city.  

“This really has become a political issue, and so part of that is now, and the Claiborne Avenue Alliance has done a great job at this, is making the removal of the expressway a voting issue. So that is, asking whoever is running for mayor or city council, et cetera, what is your opinion on this? There will be yes’s and no’s, but having that on record for voters now deciding who to elect in office will be key.” Crowther commented on the recent grant proposal. Furthermore, it is evident that the local New Orleans government is failing to respond to the needs of the Tremé community, so, as Crowther suggests, it is now their job to hold government officials accountable upon election and voting.


Stelly, Amy. Interview. Conducted by Grace Blankenhorn. March 30th, 2023.

Crowther, Ben. Interview. Conducted by Grace Blankenhorn. April 26th, 2023 

Katner, Adrienne. Interview. Conducted by Grace Blankenhorn. April 27th, 2023


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