Tremé’s monster

In 2018, over 18 million people visited the French Quarter to experience the city, but little did they know that the birthplace of it all was in the neighborhood Tremé. Sold in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans had been under French and Spanish rule that allowed Black people to obtain their freedom through manumissions. Black people in Louisiana had established wealthy lives dating back to the French Colonial Period in 1722. Immigration from Cuba in 1809 made the population of free Black people in New Orleans rise by 3,000, taking up twenty-nine percent of the city’s total population. Plantation owner Claude Tremé sold his land to the city of New Orleans in 1810, and the city designated this land for Black people to buy land and congregate freely after they failed to limit the number of free Black people. This piece of New Orleans became known as Tremé.

As segregation intensified in the South, African Americans, Creoles of color, and other ethnic groups that faced colorism were forced into the areas of the 7th and 9th wards of New Orleans due to redlining. Wealthy Black people were treated the same as poor Black people, but together, they formed a community amongst their different backgrounds and thrived. North Claiborne was a street built along the sides of a dug canal that was eventually covered with live oak trees and became the focal point of the neighborhood. This centerpiece, known as a neutral ground, was where children would play, festivals would take place, and where celebrations happened. North Claiborne was also home to Tremé’s commercial black-owned businesses. Lining Claiborne had more than 120 businesses, including Circle Food Store, Beck’s Restaurant, Charbonnet Funeral Home, People’s Benevolent Life Insurance, LaBranche’s Pharmacy, and Tremé Market. Straight University, a historically black college that was opened to help educate formerly enslaved Black people, was also on this street.

Photo of the neutral ground before the overpass was built. PhotoBy: The Claiborne Ave History Project.

In 1950, New Orleans felt pressure to keep up with other big cities and started to promote modernization campaigns. With government funds covering ninety percent of the costs, the city decided to make plans for highways. The freeway would promote more traffic to the central business district and would lead to the purchase of more cars. Plans were drawn by Robert Moses. He planned to build a Riverfront Expressway to make the French Quarter more accessible and was against the alternative Claiborne Expressway. The upper-class preservationists living in the French Quarter who were not in favor of the riverfront expressway used their money and access to stop the construction of the riverfront expressway. Fighting for civil rights, the Black community in Tremé had no power to change or stop the Claiborne Expressway.

In February 1966, the gutting started. One hundred-year-old oak trees were cut down and uprooted by construction workers sent by the city. The community of Tremé had not been told that the plan was going to begin until it was in progress. The oak tree and azalea-filled neutral grounds were bulldozed over and replaced with concrete and pillars. Festivals like Black Mardi Gras, music concerts, cookouts involving the entire community, and kids playing in tournaments could no longer take place on the neutral ground that the community-centered itself around. The groups Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Black Masking Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all had events that would gather many to see them on the grounds. The celebration style moved to the streets for Black Mardi Gras, with kids playing in their own yards and going to lounges or bars for music. Disrupting the sense of community that was built over a century.

The city took five hundred homes from families in Tremé and surrounding areas in order to start construction. Around six million Black people left the South to search for affordable housing, better-paying jobs, and opportunities for a better education and Black Louisianians, specifically, left to go to California and Illinois. While many people were willingly leaving their homes to get away from bad circumstances, these people were forced out of their neighborhoods. Houses further away from the expressway sell very fast because people love the old Creole-style homes, but homes closer to the interstate do not sell as easily and are abandoned. Gentrification heavily impacts this area because of how expensive it is due to the low number of houses available and the people who can afford them not being originally from the area.

The Claiborne Expressway took three years to finish, and, in the process, it blocked many businesses from getting its regular number of customers. One of the very few businesses still open is Charbonnet Funeral Home. There are over 120 businesses, and only a third are left because they have scattered across the city in order to separate themselves from the bridge. The expressway divided the shops from its community and fast-tracked everybody else to go into the business district to buy.

The Solution: Outside Movies

Summer Movies in the Park has been running since 2007 and is in San Diego, California. This company hosts movie nights in the summer after sunset. Their initiative is to get people out of the house in order to enjoy the free spaces available to them. They have a range of dates from May 28 to October 29, with multiple locations on some dates. These events include bounce houses, themed crafts, music, games, and other free things to do. The film starts to play 15 minutes after sunset, but the event starts at 6:00. In the summer of 2022, they showed 150 movies in different parts of the county. Another area with something similar is Golden, Colorado. It is a smaller city than San Diego, and they only have three showings for the whole summer, and they are all on Friday nights. Another interesting thing is that they play two movies, one at seven and then another at 8:30. Both of these events are free, but there are not as many add-ons in Golden as there are in San Diego.

Both cities are showing a free movie, but what is different is how they approach their community. People in San Diego probably have lives that enable them to bring their kids to the park any day of the week at 6, while in Golden, their community might like later events, or they could be trying to include teenagers as well that could use something to do later at night. Outside movies around the country were started to give kids and parents a cost-friendly opportunity to get out of the house during summer. These summer movie nights attract the community to spend more time outside and with each other forming a happier living environment. Many different parks and recreation centers host these movies during the summer, which could be some families’ hardest months since kids are out of school. These events let the community vote on which movies are to be played, everyone is welcomed, and there are closed captions for those who have hearing disabilities. Finding something that the entire community can agree on and enjoy creates long-lasting memories that make a community.

Implementation: 

While outdoor movies and an interstate bridge are two polar opposites, the city of New Orleans could learn a few things from San Diego and Golden. The New Orleans policymakers have never lived in Tremé and, therefore, have no sense of what the community wants or needs. Taking a piece of the outdoor movie events plans and having the community have a vote or say in what policymakers are planning so it can, in turn, help the community in the best way and not hurt. These surveys could give policymakers a better idea of how to find a middle ground to serve both the greater good and the community. If this had been put in place before the planning started, the councilmen in New Orleans could have been able to see the importance of this street to the community and could have been told of an alternative route that they had not seen before. Never being in the neighborhood or having any knowledge of the culture, it was not apparent to them.

The outdoor movie’s sense of inclusivity would also be a great addition to New Orleans. Having events in all spaces in the city instead of solely in the French Quarter would bring more attention to areas that need it and include people of different socio-economic classes. Having multiple locations would also help with the tourist industry and jobs in other areas. Having a fair opportunity makes people in the community more open to change and doesn’t leave gaps in development in the city. Humans do not have a one-size-fits-all category in life because so many different things impact the way you think and live. Seeing people and different areas equally will provide fairness to the entire city of New Orleans. Spreading out events during this time would have made the spread of Black culture in New Orleans spread faster. Also, to be fair, both bridges, the Riverfront Expressway and the Claiborne Expressway, would have been built to be fair to both areas.

San Diego also gives people the opportunity to leave reviews and offer suggestions on things they could add or take away after the summer is over so they are prepared for the next year. The neighborhood Tremé has been asking for years to get the expressway taken down, but the suggestions were not taken into consideration until very recently. The Biden-Harris Administration has taken feedback from the Black community, which has led to equity and more opportunity in those spaces. The United States government has done this and is even funding projects to help Black neighborhoods that have been neglected or targeted. The city of New Orleans can now take suggestions and feedback from the original residents of Tremé and see what the best action would be and most cost-effective with the money they have been given in order to make the neighborhood better for future generations to come.

These things combined would lead to a stronger city since everyone has a say in what goes on in their individual environments. New projects would have the least harm, and both parties could learn from their past mistakes. Outdoor movies have been running successfully for more than a decade because they apply these methods to keep the communities happy. I think adding these things to city developmental projects would result in the same effect that it did for movie nights.

 

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