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Blake Pontchartrain: N.O. Know It All 

Oak trees on North Claiborne Avenue

click to enlarge The oak trees that once provided shade for a public gathering spot in the neutral ground of North Claiborne Avenue are now commemorated in paintings on the support piers for Interstate 10.

The oak trees that once provided shade for a public gathering spot in the neutral ground of North Claiborne Avenue are now commemorated in paintings on the support piers for Interstate 10.

Hey Blake,

I remember rows of oak trees on both sides of the neutral ground on North Claiborne Avenue from St. Bernard Avenue to Canal Street. They were destroyed to make way for I-10. Did the rows of oaks continue past Canal Street toward Uptown? Also, was there ever a bridge over the New Basin Canal on South Claiborne Avenue?

Clyde Hoa LeBlanc

Dear Clyde,

  Let's explore this area chronologically. The construction of the New Basin Canal began in 1832 and ended in 1838. It stretched from what is now the Central Business District to West End Boulevard. Thousands of European immigrants (most of them Irish) who dug the canal through swamplands died of diseases such as cholera, malaria and yellow fever.

  In 1927, the State Highway Commission authorized a bridge over the New Basin Canal at South Claiborne Avenue. City planners were ambivalent about its construction since there had been discussion about closing New Basin Canal at South Claiborne. There also were concerns for the future rearrangement of railroad tracks to accommodate the old Union Station depot.

  At that time, the Louisiana Legislature agreed not to close the canal, and plans for a bridge at South Claiborne Avenue remained in place. Plans called for a 22-foot-wide roadway for vehicles and two 5-foot-wide walkways for pedestrians. Because there were still many factors that could affect the fate of the bridge, timber piers were used instead of expensive concrete ones and the bridge was designed as a modern swing bridge, which could be moved to another site along the canal at a later time. The bridge was opened on July 30, 1928 and cost $35,000. Because the bridge was narrow and often had to allow boats to pass, it caused traffic congestion.

  In 1936, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment to close the New Basin Canal, and by 1938, the portion between Claiborne Avenue and South Rampart Street was covered. That same year, a new lane was opened adjacent to the bridge in an effort to ease traffic bottlenecks. It was built by filling a section of the canal. Traffic heading Uptown used the new lane, and traffic heading downtown used the bridge. The rest of the canal was filled by midcentury.

  In the 1950s, there were almost 500 oak trees in the stretch of North Claiborne Avenue near Esplanade Avenue toward the St. Bernard Market and from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue. The density of trees wasn't the same on South Claiborne Avenue.

  The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 pushed for an elevated section of Interstate 10 through New Orleans. By 1966, the African-American neighborhood of Treme was bisected by the interstate and the park-like neutral ground on North Claiborne Avenue was destroyed.

  Before the trees were removed, the New Orleans Parks and Parkway Commission reported that it planned to save more than 200 trees that lined the outer edge of the neutral ground and transplant many of the younger oak trees in other parts of the city. Few of the trees survived.

  This stretch of Interstate 10 is due for an upgrade soon, and there have been discussions about removing it and recreating what the area once was.

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