NEW ORLEANS -- Drive along Interstate 10 between the Industrial Canal and Lake Pontchartrain, and the clues of what might’ve been are still there.
A couple of overgrown exit ramps lead to overpasses that have never been used. A concrete sign that reads “New Orleans East” is a landmark for an idyllic vision of mid-century suburban living within the city limits that never came into focus.
And while there are pockets of middle-class life – and even a leafy gated subdivision – eastern New Orleans maintains a reputation as a dangerous and poor area largely ignored and neglected by city leaders. It’s that perception that has spurred a new effort: seceding from the city of New Orleans to form a new city that would be known as East New Orleans, which would include the Lower 9th Ward.
During a meeting Tuesday evening, a few dozen people applauded the idea, which is in its infancy.
"Sometimes I believe that we just aren't being heard and paid attention to like we should," said James Ewers, who’s lived in the east for decades. He said he’s tired of seeing signs of revitalization in other parts of the city but not in his area.
Eastern New Orleans – all land in Orleans Parish east of the Industrial Canal and north of the Intracoastal Waterway – has an estimated population of about 75,000 people, down from its pre-Katrina population of about 95,000. The city as a whole is home to about 400,000.
And while the area is home to the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility and a hospital, it is largely devoid of industry, thanks to its initial plan as a collection of neighborhoods removed from the hustle and bustle of the Central Business District.
Incorporating as an independent city raises questions about how the area would fund a local government.
“The tax base of the city is not concentrated out there,” said Robert Edgecombe, an urban planner with GCR Inc., a local consulting service.
That claim is disputed by those seeking to break away from New Orleans.
Figures on their website claim 42 percent of the city’s tax base is in New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward. “Yet we receive less than 10 percent of the services provided by the present administration,” the site reads.
But even before considering the cost of operating a city, there needs to be a vote to secede from the city of New Orleans, a process that begins with collecting thousands of signatures and ends with the governor’s blessing.
It’s not an easy task. Prior efforts to separate Algiers from New Orleans have failed, as have plans to create a new, separate parish on the West Bank of Orleans and Jefferson.
CANAL CREATES BARRIER
New Orleans East, as the whole area east of the Industrial Canal is called these days, was slow to develop, thanks in part to the Industrial Canal. The waterway opened in 1932 and created a geographical barrier that would hinder any growth until the interstate system helped to usher it in some three decades later.
Development quickened in the 1960s as new subdivisions -- many built around lakes and all with underground utilities – sprung up to cater to those who wanted to live a suburban life without pulling up stakes to move to a neighboring parish. The east was considered as a site for a new international airport for the city.
The oil boom of the 1970s led developers to draw up plans for even more subdivisions – among them, a large community called New Orleans East. (Other names floated included Orlandia and Pontchartrain.)
The Plaza at Lake Forest opened in 1974. It was the largest mall in the metro area at the time and symbolized commercial investment in New Orleans East.
But the boom was followed by bust and changing demographics.
The oil bust in the 1980s was blamed for driving out younger, upwardly mobile people. An increase in crime followed.
And while the east was never segregated, it was initially a mostly white area. By the ’80s, middle-class African-Americans began to move into the area.
A swift exodus of the white population left the east was overwhelmingly African-American by the early 2000s.
Village de L’Est and Oak Island were among the few New Orleans East neighborhoods that made it off the drawing board. Three on- and off-ramps were built along I-10 in anticipation of the so-called “town in town.” Only one was ever used.
The New Orleans East sign near the Michoud Boulevard exit was put in place in 1980 as developers made one final push to develop the tract. Instead, most of it became the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.
The swampy ground on which the area sits was blamed in part for the severe flooding that decimated New Orleans East during Hurricane Katrina. Recovery since the storm has been as slow as the development of the east.
Though not unique to the east, a dozen years after the storm, there are nearly 7,000 vacant homes – a quarter of the housing stock, according to GCR Inc. Many of the area’s residents fought plans for multi-unit developments proposed after Katrina.
While smaller, the Lower 9th Ward followed a similar path the last half-century, with many of its blue-collar families fleeing in droves.
‘IN CONTROL OF OUR OWN DESTINY’
Many New Orleans East residents are bullish on the area, which in part led to broaching the idea of creating a new city.
"I think what people in New Orleans East want to see is what's happening in other areas of the city,” said Sylvia Scineaux-Richard, president of the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission. “We were one of the primary reasons we got the billions of dollars they got as a result of Hurricane Katrina and it didn't seem as though we were the priority when the renovation and revitalization occurred."
To become self-sustaining, organizers said, they need to focus on long-term economic development.
"New Orleans East is a jewel in the rough,” said Clyde McCoy, who along with three others is leading the effort to form a new city. “We have an interstate system. Railway. Airway. Waterways. We can develop those areas. "
One attendee of Tuesday’s meeting noted that there has been an apparent lack of business investment. He pointed out that the Plaza site remains vacant.
Since Katrina, Walmart has come into the area, but beyond drug stores and smaller family businesses, larger investment has been rare.
Organizers noted that they need to attract manufacturing, restore the Six Flags site and introduce a regional mass-transit system.
One audience member struck a skeptical tone when asking about what businesses have been contacted about coming to the east. “Currently New Orleans East is home to the Dollar General,” another man chimed in.
No one gave a direct answer to the question.
“It may sound like pie in the sky, but unless we approach these ventures, we’ll never know,” McCoy said.
“We can grow by being in control of our destiny,” another speaker said.