If you’re really lucky, at least once in your life you cross paths with someone truly extraordinary. I was very blessed to spend time with Bill Borah during his last years. He was an exceptionally intelligent, talented and personable man — not only inspiring, but hysterically funny. He was a force in New Orleans for preservation and planning starting in his 20s, a driven man who could not stop fighting to preserve the unique character of the city he loved even as cancer claimed him.
On the way home from one of too many trips to Houston for his treatments at MD Anderson, and knowing things were not going well, I asked Bill what he wanted to accomplish in the time he had left. Without missing a beat, he said the only thing he felt he did not complete was republishing the book he wrote with his dear friend, the late Dick Baumbach, about the fight they joined to save the French Quarter from misbegotten plans to run an interstate highway along the riverfront. It is one of the great satisfactions of my life that the good people with University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press have made that happen in this, the 50th anniversary of a victory pivotal to the fate of the city.
Originally published in the 1980s by the University of Alabama Press, “The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway Controversy” had been out of print for decades but — and this attests to its importance to New Orleans history — battered copies still fetched hundreds of dollars on the Internet, if you could find one. The republished text is unchanged, but the edition has been updated with a new preface by New Orleans journalist Jed Horne, the longtime city editor of The Times-Picayune who has written highly regarded books about the city and who shared two Pulitzer Prizes with his colleagues for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The update also adds some marvelous vintage photographs and memorabilia.
Bill worked with me right up to the end. He wanted the saga of the French Quarter fight preserved, not just because it was one of the great war stories in recent urban history, but because it contained important lessons that have been useful to other communities pushing back against boneheaded government planning (or the lack of it).
To pick up on a theme that animates Jed’s preface, it’s kind of amazing to realize how comfortable the city establishment was with the idea of running an elevated expressway across what is widely regarded as urban America’s most important historical jewel. An elevated six-lane expressway, 40 feet high and 108 feet wide, would not only have gutted the Vieux Carré — look what I-10 did to Treme! — it would have separated the Quarter from the river, both visually and physically. Some of this critique is the wisdom of hindsight, but even at the time it seemed rather insane that city leadership, both in business and politics, was willing to do that to the district that is so clearly the central asset in our tourism- and convention-dependent economy, our cash cow. Alas, the highway construction industry was another cash cow, one that cities could milk for 90 percent funding from Washington. Who could resist!
The book captures the moment when America began to pivot away from “the highwaymen,” as Bill called them, a juggernaut of construction interests, politicians and labor leaders that had been strangling cities in ribbons of cars and concrete for decades. And the story is told in intricate and ironic (and sometimes amusing) detail that brings to life the whole decade of New Orleans in the 1960s and some of the iconic figures — wicked and good — who walked among us. Archbishop Philip Hannan plays a part as does the philanthropic Edgar Stern, Jr. Dutch Morial, a Borah ally, has a cameo role; so too high-powered Washington lawyers affiliated with the Kennedy family, New Orleans’ uber-preservationist Martha Robinson, Bill Long of the Vieux Carré Courier, Congressman Hale Boggs. Add to the mix Lawrence Halprin, a colorful landscape architect from San Francisco and stalwart preservation organizations including the Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), as it’s known today. The list goes on and on.
The idea of lacing New Orleans into the federal Interstate highway system was at the heart of a consultant’s report on New Orleans prepared back in the 1940s by the notorious Robert Moses, the titanic New Yorker whose devotion to cars rather than mass transit, destroyed vast swaths of his own city.
By the late 1950s, the plan centered on construction of Interstate 10 along the Claiborne corridor and two beltways, one across Lakeview (I-610) and another along the French Quarter riverfront. Napoleon Avenue was scheduled to become a multi-lane expressway hurtling vehicles toward a second bridge across the Mississippi. And with the feds offering to pay almost the entire cost, the highwaymen seemed unstoppable.
The Lakeview beltway eventually went through, of course. The Claiborne disaster was already under construction before the feds pulled the plug the Riverfront Expressway and saved the Quarter. As Jed points out, this sequence of events puts the lie to a myth that has gained wide currency in the decades since the battle was won and Borah and Baumbach wrote their book. The myth holds that white preservationists saved the Quarter by pushing the expressway a few blocks up into a black neighborhood, Treme. Fact does not support that breezy analysis. No doubt racial inequity made it easier for advocates to save the whiter neighborhood, but both Treme and the Quarter were simultaneously under siege and would have had a similar fate without the events and strategies detailed in the book.
Bill Borah and Dick Baumbach collaborated in fights to save New Orleans until Dick’s death in 1993. They were central to reworking the Moses plan to eliminate the Napoleon Avenue disaster and instead create today’s Crescent City Connection. And for another quarter century Bill carried their spirit into battles all across the nation as a lawyer and urban planning expert.
I met Bill in a losing battle, the post-Katrina fight to save Charity Hospital and some 27 blocks of vintage housing in the Lower Mid City neighborhood on the lake side of Claiborne Avenue.
Bill had just finished a grueling fight — that one successful — to amend the City Charter in a way that would give the force of law to an updated post-Katrina Master Plan then still in the works. It meant that zoning decisions would be subject to a citywide vision of our future, rather than bought and sold by developers “kissing the ring,” as Bill called it, by dropping campaign donations (or outright bribes) into the coffers of area politicians. Bill was elated by the community resolve that led to passage of the Charter amendment; he was not so happy with the early iterations of the Master Plan delivered by the Boston-based contractor Goody Clancy. The non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research, a foe in the early years of the expressway fight, shared Bill’s dismay and was an equally harsh critic of the post-Katrina city blueprint.
By the time he heard of the Charity Hospital fight, Bill was tired and wanted to take a break — to “go fly fishing,” he would tell me, whimsically. Instead, in the face of bad planning, Bill did what an ex-Marine, always does, which was to keep fighting.
The sketches for the sprawling medical center and the plan to bulldoze a whole neighborhood to build it reminded him of the disastrous “urban renewal” projects that, in the 1960s, led cities all across the country to raze low-income neighborhoods and former downtown worksites and replace them with … often nothing at all. He declared the hospital plan with its vast parking lots and disrespect for the city’s street grid better suited to suburbia than to a city — “urban renewal by removal,” he called it.
As I quickly learned, Bill was an activist who did his homework and made himself an expert on every aspect of an issue before entering a fight. His career had fostered connections with progressive planners and community groups all over the United States. He relied on them not only to hone his ideas on urban planning’s cutting edge but to sharpen his strategies as an advocate. It made him a formidable proponent of the public good when it was threatened by marginal or private interests.
His and Dick’s book is a must-read for anyone who cares about New Orleans and aspires to make a difference through community-centered advocacy.
But the book is also, in its way, a biography — not just of two young men who loved New Orleans, but of a preservation movement that came of age during the expressway fight.
Borah and Baumbach were born into the city’s elite but were essentially naive schoolboys when, quite by accident, they got wind of the expressway plans on a holiday visit to their hometown.
In short order young Borah was testifying before] Congress on land use issues, his area of expertise, though it amused him to see that the Capitol Hill lawmakers were at least as interested in finding out more about his namesake and great uncle, the legendary orator, Idaho Sen. William Borah. Borah and Baumbach learned how to transform their passion for New Orleans into a strategy to save it, and their schooling began with the fight to stop the Riverfront Expressway. With the updated edition of “The Second Battle of New Orleans,” new generations can glimpse how bad decisions and policies gain momentum and also how they can be stymied. It’s a textbook on how New Orleans really works – and its central lesson is that, against all odds, citizens do have the power to change the course of history.
Sandra Stokes is the Chair of Advocacy for Louisiana Landmarks Society, an organization she recently served as president. She was the first recipient of the Peter Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 2011 was named Preservationist of the Year by Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.
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