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A New Orleans Neighborhood Confronts the Racist Legacy of a Toxic Stretch of Highway

new orleans neighborhood confronts
Photo by Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom

(By Drew Hawkins for NPR)

Aside from a few discarded hypodermic needles on the ground, the Hunter’s Field Playground in New Orleans looks almost untouched. It’s been open more than nine years, but the brightly-painted red and yellow slides and monkey bars are still sleek and shiny, and the padded rubber ground tiles still feel springy underfoot.

For people who live nearby, it’s not a mystery why the equipment is still relatively pristine: Children don’t come here to play.

“Because kids are smart,” explains Amy Stelly, an artist and urban designer who lives just over a block away on Dumaine Street. “It’s the adults who aren’t. It’s the adults who built the playground under the interstate.”

Hunter’s Field is wedged directly beneath the elevated roadbeds of the I-10 Claiborne Expressway in the city’s 7th Ward.

There are no sounds of laughter or children playing. The constant cuh-clunk, cuh-clunk of the traffic passing overhead makes it difficult to hold a conversation with someone standing next to you.

“I have never seen a child play here,” Stelly says.

Stelly keeps a sharp eye on this area as part of her advocacy work with the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a group of residents and business owners dedicated to revitalizing the predominantly African-American community on either side of the looming expressway.

For as long as she can remember, Stelly has been fighting to dismantle the Claiborne Expressway. She’s lived in the neighborhood her entire life and says the noise is oftentimes unbearable.

“You can sustain hearing damage,” she says. “If we were out here all day and it was this loud all day — which it is for the most part — then at some point in time, it would affect our hearing negatively.”

Graduate student researcher Jacquelynn Mornay
Graduate student researcher Jacquelynn Mornay, with the LSU School of Public Health, shows a noise reading taken beneath the Claiborne Expressway on July 18, 2023, in New Orleans. The decibel levels are similar to that of a motorcycle engine and could cause permanent hearing damage after prolonged exposure.
Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom

The Claiborne Expressway was built in the 1960s at a time when the construction of new interstates and highways were a symbol of progress and economic development in the U.S., and urban planning and transportation development were at the forefront of city agendas.

But that supposed progress often came at a great cost for marginalized communities — especially Black neighborhoods.

When it was built, the “Claiborne Corridor” as it’s still sometimes known, tore right through the heart of Treme, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the country.

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