To listen to Sharon Litwin’s interview with William Borah on WWNO radio, click here.
In the middle of the 1950s a group of business people, politicians and some civic leaders decided that the best thing that could happen to New Orleans would be to join the rest of the country and embrace the idea of interstate highways. In principle, a seemingly forward looking idea. In practice, not so great for New Orleans.
Yet on October 13, 1964, the idea of an elevated expressway beginning at the Elysian Fields exit from I-10, which would run to and then along the river through the French Quarter, was officially added to the interstate highway system. Then started what came to be known as the second battle of New Orleans.
Little remembered is the fact that also included in that system was an elevated expressway that would go down Claiborne Avenue, cutting down one of the longest avenues of oak trees in the country.
Sometimes, at least every half century or so, it seems like a good idea to look back at certain events — the ones that held enormous impact for this city.
The Riverfront and Claiborne Expressways were part of a larger idea of urban renewal promoted nationwide by a powerful and influential New York planner named Robert Moses. William Borah, one of a number of New Orleanians who fought to defeat the Riverfront Expressway idea, says Moses was the mastermind behind numerous highway systems across the United States. And while this admirable concept linked America’s cities, sometimes the intended linkage caused irreparable harm, none more so than in the historically black neighborhood of Treme.
Borah, who had graduated from Tulane University law school and was studying for a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, heard all about the plans for the Riverfront Expressway in 1965 when he returned to New Orleans to be with his ailing father. Meeting up with Richard Baumbach, a friend and later his co-author in a book they called The Second Battle of New Orleans, he recalls how little he knew about national plans for expressways.
“We went to Napoleon House for a drink and the owner came up,” he says. “I asked him how things were going and he said not so well. ‘They’re planning an expressway elevated in front of Jackson Square.’ And I remember asking, ‘What’s an expressway?’”
Researching the answers to his own question morphed into a complete dedication by both Borah and Baumbach to work at shutting the project down.
But, while the two of them, along with others interested in historic preservation and scores of community activists, battled the idea of an elevated highway running along the river, others were insistent that this would be the best thing for New Orleans. The Chamber of Commerce, The Times-Picayune editorial staff, and most of the business community favored the plan, including then councilman, later Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris.
Jimmy Fitz, as he is familiarly known, was sure it would be a good thing and remembers well his encounters with those who disagreed. Here, transcripted from an oral history produced by the Historic New Orleans Collection, he recalls the battle from his position of City Councilman at Large:
“The Riverfront Expressway was quite a political battle,” Fitzmorris recalled. “The Riverfront Expressway had been approved by every group you could think of. There was one lovely lady by the name of Martha Robinson who was a community activist and from the very beginning, was opposed to the Riverfront Expressway. We, my associates and I, thought it would be great coming along the riverfront. It passed the City Council seven to one.”
Martha Robinson was a formidable opponent, but one with a sense of humor. Not one to be taken lightly she, nevertheless, could use the written word to get her point across. To wit, the first and last verse of doggerel she distributed for the cause:
Day by day in a devious way
A sure and malicious intrusion
Is blighting the life of the Vieux Carre
By masters of delusion
The Moses plan of twenty years
Outmoded and passé
Will never do, so we count on you
To save the Vieux Carre
It took five long and brutal years to defeat the Riverfront Expressway. But on August 22, 1969, it was removed from the interstate system plan. Here’s the transcription of what the soon-to-be 92-year old Jimmy Fitz said about that:
“That probably was the best decision that was made. We were wrong. I was wrong saying let’s go put it on the riverfront. Had we done that, to all intents and purposes, we would have destroyed a lot of that beautiful progress that’s on the riverfront today.”
So it seems that sometimes the good guys do win. And sometimes, in hindsight, those who were opposed can be gracious and admit that opinions can be changed. Regardless of what’s going on in Washington, that is the American way.