As she stood on a stage Sunday afternoon on North Claiborne Avenue under the elevated Interstate 10 expressway, Barbara Lacen-Keller promised a massive makeover for the corridor "under the bridge," an area long known for its blight and desolation.
"You are experiencing a new day," said Lacen-Keller, director of constituent services for City Councilwoman Stacy Head. "Within the next few years, you are going to see great things under this bridge."
She was introducing several musicians and vendors to a small audience to celebrate the beginning of the Cultural Innovation District, a planned 25-block transformation under the elevated expressway from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue.
The effort is made possible by an $820,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. It's designed to make the corridor the cultural epicenter of adjacent neighborhoods with vendors, social services, educational programming, special events and more.
The project will start small, with planned community festivals once a month, according to Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, one of the event organizers and director of strategic neighborhood development for the New Orleans Business Alliance.
Once fully operational, the project is expected to create spaces for 50 small and micro-businesses and eight anchor businesses, according to the federal agency's Economic Development Administration.
When announcing the project in 2017, New Orleans officials estimated it would create 75 jobs, retain 50 jobs and spur $10 million in private investment. Ecclesiastes hopes to have the entire cultural district complete by 2021.
The goal is to catalyze commerce “under the bridge," leading to opportunities again in what was once a center of small businesses and commerce for African-Americans in New Orleans.
The area will feature arts, crafts, produce and seafood vendors, as well as classrooms and exhibit spaces, interactive technology and education demonstrations.
It also will be a site for youth programming; health, environmental and social services; and community projects, workshops and special events for residents, officials said.
The new district was designed after years of debate over how to reduce blight and vacancy and increase the appeal of the corridor that was the commercial heart of Treme before being destroyed by the expressway in the 1960s.
The construction displaced more than 320 businesses, mostly owned by African-Americans, as well as the longest stretch of live oak trees in the area, according to Ecclesiastes.
"When they built the interstate, they destroyed the opportunity of intergenerational wealth of African-Americans in these neighborhoods," she said.
The Claiborne corridor remains the site of glaring socio-economic disparities, officials with the city's Network for Economic Opportunity noted. A disproportionate number of nearby residents live in poverty amidst blight and violence, and with limited access to high-paying jobs, transportation and safe housing.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, city officials and planners conducted a year-long, $2.7 million study examining ways to make the corridor more vibrant and welcoming to residents and visitors.
Called "Livable Claiborne Communities," the study was published in 2014. It examined the idea of tearing down sections of the interstate, or at least some of its on- and off-ramps.
It also considered ways to improve transit service; connect housing to jobs, schools and health care; manage soil and water; and promote vibrant, livable communities by creating new housing, jobs, businesses and green places.
Then, last year, the city reached a 20-year agreement with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development that will allow the area under the expressway to be developed as a public market. That marks the first step of a bigger project to create the Cultural Innovation District.
At Sunday's event, which also coincided with the city's tricentennial celebration, many locals seemed pleased with the plans, as they enjoyed live music by Ariel Sherman and Michaela Harrison, food from the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady and various vendors' products, including traditional African-style dress.
Among them was 66-year-old Yoshi Dubas, a retired bus driver who recently moved back to the city from LaPlace.
"That's wonderful for the city," Dubas said of the project. "It's got my vote."