Bill Borah: 1937-2017

Bill Borah was funny. He was kind. He was a good friend. He was charming, courageous and wise. And he had integrity to spare. But above all, he was one of the smartest urbanists that the city of his birth has ever known.

Bill died a few days ago and New Orleans lost one of its greatest citizen soldiers, celebrated by many, listened to by too few. He spent a lifetime fighting for what he knew was right, often at great personal expense.

Bill’s impact and importance to the celebrated city we know today has yet to be fully appreciated or absorbed by current policy leaders. Bill is best known for leading the fight to stop a proposed interstate highway that would have destroyed the French Quarter and undermined the strength of the city’s economy forever. He didn’t do it alone. He teamed up with a friend, the late Richard Baumbach, and the whole preservation community. They took on a political establishment and business community dead set on building that highway at any cost and for all the wrong reasons.

Bill was an early and staunch preservationist, for sure, but he was much more than that. Historic preservation, as important as it is in this city, is only one component of the total framework that is productive urbanism.

Bill was an urbanist who understood the larger, more complex issues of urbanism, understood how all those issues were connected like links in a chain and how the strength of each link depends on and supports the others. He fought on multiple fronts, including The Lens opinion section.

A land-use lawyer, Bill understood how lucky New Orleans was to have escaped the worst ravages of the “urban renewal” era, the post-war movement that hollowed out city after city, gutting downtowns and replacing eclectic urban density with ill-considered towers and highways. Somehow — a flagging economy kept developers at bay for a while — the street grid was largely undefiled; New Orleans still had a streetcar system (albeit partly dismantled), and vast swaths of a glorious architectural heritage remained miraculously intact.

“New Orleans grew one neighborhood at a time along the oldest light-rail system in America and with an amazing street grid,” Bill told me one time. “The neighborhoods were often mixed-income and definitely mixed-use. When planners come in to tell us about models for development, I say the best model for New Orleans is New Orleans itself. In fact, it is the best model for the nation, as well. It is just good urbanism.”

Bill’s endless frustration was that, at the behest of developers and financiers,  the city’s political and governmental leadership eventually turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to what would have been really appropriate development for the city.

“It is too easy for policy makers to dismiss beneficial planning ideas because so often it is preservationists who are the advocates,” he told me a few years ago when I was writing a book about the city’s post-Katrina recovery. “But serious preservation is at the heart of good planning which is just about adding to and strengthening an existing city, not replacing it in a big and destructive way.”

More recently, Bill joined other preservationists in the fight to save Charity Hospital. Reusing and updating the art-deco masterpiece so steeped in history would have cost far less and been completed more quickly than construction of the sprawling complex that has replaced it.

It was not just a preservation issue to Bill. “You should not wipe out for anything 67 acres of any viable historic area with people living in restored or restorable homes,” he said. But that’s exactly what happened. To make room for the new hospital, 265 vintage houses were taken by eminent domain and demolished or clumsily moved; 50 functioning businesses were dislocated. “That’s how urban renewal killed so many American cities,” Bill noted.

When he helped fight for an expanded and improved streetcar system, it was not an act of nostalgia. “Transit, not cars, is the key to any well functioning city,” he said.

“Good preservationists understand the damage to a city of car dependency,” he added. It’s why he joined coalitions fighting the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas and, more successfully, the Albertson’s that was proposed in Central City.

Bill bemoaned the small number of preservationists in New Orleans willing to truly stand up to power. It took real courage to fight the universities and city and state officials who, with an eye on federal dollars, were willing to junk or mothball Charity Hospital in favor of new construction.

Ironically, today’s business and political leaders feed greedily off the tourism dollars that would have been lost, or greatly reduced, had their French Quarter scheme not been stopped.

Bill knew that from personal experience. He had already paid a steep price for standing by his principles. The son of a federal judge who had been Rex, King of Carnival, Bill participated in all the classic social rituals of New Orleans aristocracy. To the manor born by birth but not by temperament, Bill forged a divergent path as a key leader in the most significant preservation battle the city has ever witnessed: the successful fight in the 1960s to stop the planned six-lane elevated highway along the French Quarter riverfront. It had been proposed 20 years earlier by  Robert Moses, the New York urban renewal czar who had demolished so much of that city to create a web of highways and large-scale building projects.

No matter that a French Quarter expressway would have eviscerated New Orleans’ most cherished and valuable historic neighborhood.

To this day, Bill told me, the social and business establishment continues to question what he did and why. He was seen as the errant son when, in fact, he should be celebrated as a civic hero.

Bill, with his white hair and penetrating blue eyes, was tough on the city he loved and spent his life trying to protect. In no other city, perhaps, did the establishment impose so high a social and economic price for defying it.

“New Orleans’ social structure is so interwoven and interconnected,” he mused, citing Carnival as the loom on which that weave is made so tight. “If you’re born in the right family and keep your mouth shut, you can feed off the economic trough and social scene for life. You can ride it from cradle to grave,” he said. On occasion he spoke of it as a “velvet rut.”

“When we fought the highway, what we were really doing was challenging the way things were done, the way the power structure worked,” he added. “We knew the issue was key to New Orleans’ future. We set an example for the rest of the country, but it was not what the business and political elite wanted.”

Even knowing what he did about the way that elite enforced conformity,  Bill was startled by the level of ostracism he experienced. “Many of my parents’ generation just stopped talking to me,” he said, and later his fledgling law practice suffered. The message was clear: “If you straighten up, we’ll love you again.”

He didn’t, thank God. The highway was defeated, sparing the French Quarter the dismal fate of Treme, which was gutted to create Interstate 10.

It bothered Bill that to this day many people believe a myth: that the French Quarter expressway was defeated by simply moving it several blocks to the north and defacing a less powerful black community. In fact, plans for the elevated roadway through Treme dated back to the 1950s and work on the Claiborne Avenue stretch of Interstate 10 had begun even before the subsidiary French Quarter beltway (Interstate 310, as it was being called) had been spiked. The other I-10 beltway, Interstate 610, would follow.

Ironically, today’s business and political leaders feed greedily off the tourism dollars that would have been lost, or greatly reduced, had their French Quarter scheme not been stopped. But tourism is a mixed blessing, as Borah well understood.

More subtly than the bulldozers of the urban renewal era, the current overreliance on tourism is hollowing out New Orleans, once cherished as a city of neighborhoods that provided a variety of ways to make a living.

“It’s frightening,” Bill said of the interests who have bet the city’s economy on ever more tourism. “They misunderstand the concept of progress. They don’t make the connection to the proven source of economic development that preservation has been in so many ways.”

That there is more to community than buildings is a conviction Bill shared with another urbanist he never met. As Bill Borah and others fought the riverfront expressway, Jane Jacobs was leading New York’s fight against another atrocious Robert Moses design: the Lower Manhattan Expressway. It would have destroyed Greenwich Village, Chinatown and what would become SoHo.

Jacobs, an internationally acclaimed author, changed our understanding of what cities are, what makes them strong and how they can be undermined. So did Bill. But neither one of them would have prevailed without the citizen armies that stood with them.

Bill and Jane were contemporaries, too absorbed in their own crusades, perhaps, to take much note of their simultaneous battles to put the genie of “urban renewal” back in the bottle and cork it for good.

I had the privilege of acquaintance with each of them, and I can only regret that they never met. Both were great storytellers with wicked senses of humor, something badly needed if you have the courage to go up against the entrenched stupidity of the powers-that-be.

A part-time New Orleans resident, Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of five books about urban development including “Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs” and “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.”

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