People in New Orleans, Louisiana, have been voicing their discontent about the intrusion of the Interstate 10, or I-10, Freeway in their lives ever since it was completed in 1990. After years of debating and studying, they are ready to repair the damage it has caused with what they are calling a Cultural Innovation District. The community will not remove the Interstate since the city cannot afford it, and in the end, the cost of removing it wouldn’t measure up to its value, according to studies conducted. As a result, the city and designers decided to meet halfway and resurrect the commercial and cultural district that existed on Claiborne Avenue before the construction of the interstate, right under the I-10.

The I-10 is the southernmost cross-country interstate highway in the American Interstate Highway System, stretching from the Pacific Ocean at State Route 1 in Santa Monica, California, to I-95 in Jacksonville, Florida. From east to west, I-10 connects New Orleans with Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Baton Rouge, and Jacksonville. I-10 is the fourth-longest Interstate Highway in the country, following I-90, I-80, and I-40, mostly running over Texas.

cultural innovation district

Murals of Oak trees as a reminder that there were once actual Oak trees on this stretch of Claiborne Avenue that were cleared to make way for the I-10. CC: skooksie

Claiborne Avenue runs the length of the city, at about 9.5 miles (15.3 kilometers). Before the construction of the I-10 freeway on Claiborne Avenue, the area was a vibrant marketplace in the historically African-American Tremé – a traditional African-American neighborhood in New Orleans. Oak trees lined the sidewalks and Azalea bushes bloomed as dwellers visited coffeeshops and street merchants. As many as 326 businesses were lost when construction of the freeway began.

Ultimately, a cocktail of federal grant programs funded a $2.7 million 2013 Livable Claiborne Communities study conducted by Baltimore-based design firm Kittelson & Associates. Last month, a unanimous vote in the City Council made way for the first phase of the Cultural Innovation District. Adding to this, the U.S. Economic Development Administration has promised New Orleans $840,000 to push the project forward. But the city will only get access to the money if it actually controls the land; it is not clear who currently controls the land.

New Orleans’ vision for the Cultural Innovation District is to transform all 19 blocks under the freeway into a public space equipped with new green infrastructure, a market with food and art vendors, with space for exhibitions and community events. Even though the design plans haven’t been finalized yet, phase one will focus on six blocks from Orleans’ Avenue to Esplanade. The Cultural Innovation District will create retail space and infrastructure for 30 micro-enterprises, 20 small businesses, and 10 nonprofit or public sector organizations, in addition to a plethora of open spaces, art installations, exhibits, and demonstrations.

Cultural Innovation District

I-10 During Hurricane Katrina. CC: John.P

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many community have debated the viability of removing overpasses from their cities, as cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Portland have done. Last June and after two years of campaigning, the Ohio City of Akron finally reclaimed a public space formerly allocated to the Innerbelt Freeway, with plans in place to transform it into a cultivated 35-acre park. Earlier this year, after a fire broke on Atlanta’s I-85 highway, people demanded that it be replaced with a public space instead of paying almost $17 million for its restoration.

Atlanta, Ohio and New Orleans, among other U.S. cities, want to follow San Francisco’s lead of removing freeways. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco damaged two major freeways in the city’s urban core, the city replaced the Embarcadero Freeway that ran along the San Francisco Bay with a wide boulevard that opened up acres of downtown waterfront and led to the renovation of the landmark Ferry Building. The city went on to replace the Central Expressway with parks and another wide boulevard. Although freeways are considered a tool to aid the economy, when both freeways were removed from San Fransisco’s civilization, employment rates went up and tourism boomed in both areas.