Healing a Neighborhood: Amy Stelly’s Efforts to Tear Down the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans

Amy Stelly’s childhood dream was to remove the highway that devastated her neighborhood. Now that those efforts have gained traction, institutional biases remain as much of a barrier to neighborhood healing as the highway itself.

2 minute read

May 17, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Don Kostelec

The topic of highway teardowns seems like a new conversation in planning circles. However, for architect-turned-planner-turned-advocate Amy Stelly, the removal of New Orleans’ I-10 Claiborne Expressway has been a lifelong dream.

“I just decided a kid that I didn’t like it,” Stelly told the Planning Commission Podcast about growing up in its shadows. “I remember promising myself that when I grew up and learned enough to take it down, I would just do it.”  

The I-10 route through New Orleans bisected Stelly’s childhood neighborhood as way to facilitate the fast movement of motorists to the French Quarter. The wide boulevards that typify New Orleans, with medians known as Neutral Grounds, made avenues that ran through the City’s black neighborhoods easy targets for freeway construction. In 2021, the Claiborne Expressway was named one of the 15 “Worst Highways in America.”

“When they get off [the freeway], they to go to the French Quarter, they don’t stop,” said Stelly. “The highway is built so close to the houses that it looks like the deck is sitting on the roof of some. It’s terrible.”

Stelly’s efforts to remove the highway began in earnest in 2017, five years after she returned to her childhood home after working in Florida. She tells The Planning Commission Podcast of the early days, when neighbors would tell her the highway’s removal would never happen: “We’re stuck with it, we have to live with it.”

Stelly says this is an indicator of “the apathy that comes with having to live in a very depressed and oppressive environment,” the result of long-standing sociological effects of having to live with highways in your backyard.

Modern-day hopes come in the form of a planning grant from USDOT to study the freeway’s removal, as well as Stelly’s efforts to work with schoolchildren to measure the health impacts of the existing roadway.

As one would expect, resistance from state transportation officials and a fear of retaliation still stand in the way of neighborhood healing. Stelly addresses these challenges to achieving her childhood dream as the episode progresses.  

The Planning Commission is a spirited debate by planners, for planners. This independent outlet for all things planning explores the serious and lighter sides of the profession, poses probing and creative questions to guests, and always pairs the episode guest and topic with a choice libation. Listen to the podcast for a special offer from Planetizen.

Monday, May 15, 2023 in The Planning Commission Podcast

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