Allen Toussaint mural on North Claiborne Avenue as seen from the beneath the I-10 overpass.

North Claiborne Avenue

Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).

Around 1900, during the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.

Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of Black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.

By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for Black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.

In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.

A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following the levee failures devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.

Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.

As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”

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