The story of our neighborhood is one of change and resilience. The Tulane Canal neighborhood (now commonly also referred to as Tulane Gravier or Lower Midcity) is a historically African American, residential neighborhood in the heart of New Orleans, with close proximity to long-standing centers of commerce, culture and community resources.
Long term residents of the Tulane Canal neighborhood will tell you this is a tight knit community with a generous spirit. One resident, who was raised on Gravier street put it like this: “We just try to stick together, say good morning and how are you. And ask for help. If you need help, we’re going to help you- but you’ve got to say something!”
Independence and Stability, Post-war – 1970
This interdependence and resilient attitude is reflected in the historical legacy of public institutions and local businesses in Tulane Canal. During the post-war era, a variety of black-owned businesses called the oak tree lined Claiborne Avenue home; ranging from pharmacies and flowershops to insurance companies and funeral homes. Generations of Tulane Canal residents benefitted from healthcare and employment through Charity Hospital, which operated as a public hospital for over 100 years. Social aid and pleasure clubs and credit unions offered assistance to help community members afford medical treatment and education.
Between 1940 and 1969, nearly 600 homes were built in the Tulane Gravier neighborhood. This development comprises over one third of the housing stock in our neighborhood today. However, during this period, opportunities for homeownership were limited for families of color. Explicitly racist policies written by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), created maps which “redlined” predominantly African American neighborhoods like Tulane Canal. If a neighborhood was colored red, which Tulane Canal was, it meant that lending organizations should not provide loans to buyers in that neighborhood. While some black families were able to accrue enough wealth to develop or purchase their homes outright and some local lending institutions such as Liberty Bank supported black home ownership, census data from this period shows that a majority of homeowners in the neighborhood were white landlords, whom African American residents rented from.
Construction of I-10 and White Flight, 1970-2000
The post-war period was defined by upward mobility for communities of color, even while the right to homeownership and democratic participation was limited by white leadership. However, this growth was impeded by a series of government funded physical changes and demographic shifts which redefined Tulane Canal. As part of President Eisenhower’s Federal Highways project, plans were made to build a highway conducting traffic through New Orleans to its burgeoning suburbs. Initially, the interstate was routed along the riverfront, through the French Quarter. However white home owners, backed by historic preservationists, were able to convince city planners to divert to Claiborne Avenue. Of course, stakeholders on Claiborne rallied to protect their community as well. Louis Charbonnet, a prominent Claiborne business owner, told WWNO in a 2016 interview, “we tried to organize some opposition to it, but it just wasn’t enough… Without that representation (in local government), you got stuck with what came your way.” In 1968, 155 properties and over 200 live oak street trees were bulldozed on Claiborne Avenue to make way for Interstate 10.
The creation of I-10 destroyed the fabric of the communities along the Claiborne corridor and enabled the mass migration of middle-class New Orleanians to suburban areas. In 1970, 54% of New Orleans’ metro population lived along the river and in the “inner ring” around the French Quarter and CBD. Tulane Canal grew out of this concentration of resources, investment and people. However, between 1960 and 2000, over 30,000 people moved out of the inner ring and historic neighborhoods within, taking jobs and tax revenue with them. Whereas two-thirds of New Orlean’s jobs were located in the city in 1970, by 2000 nearly 70% of the city’s jobs were located outside of the city.
The displacement of social and economic anchors for the Tulane Gravier neighborhood led to an increase in unemployment and decline in property values. By 2000, the average Tulane Canal resident was a renter, struggling to get by; more than 40% of Tulane Canal residents were living below the poverty line. The average home was valued below $50,000 and only 20% of residents owned their home, in contrast to the rest of the city in 2000, where over half of residents had a mortgage and the median home value was nearly $90,000. This discrepancy is likely attributed to the economic instability of the community and declining quality of housing stock; by 2000, for every owner-occupied home in Tulane-Gravier, there was a vacant property.
Hurricane Katrina and Recovery
These conditions left residents of Tulane Canal neighborhood vulnerable in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While it is unknown how many residents were permanently displaced from the Tulane Gravier neighborhood, personal narratives and statistics tell a story the immense struggle for those who returned to their origin communities after Hurricane Katrina. The majority of properties in Tulane Canal were badly damaged or deserted due to flooding in the area, as the average elevation in Tulane Canal is at or below sea level. Those dependent on rental properties were at the mercy of landlords to restore their property and lease at affordable rate. Few landlords sought funding to restore rental properties: by 2010, 35% of properties in the neighborhood were still vacant.
FEMA funding and the Road Home Program allowed some property owners to make repairs, but securing this funding was a complicated process that often did not favor homeowners from poor neighborhoods. Funding was allocated based on the Pre-Katrina market value of the home, rather than the cost of repairs. Given that property values in the Tulane Canal neighborhood were disproportionately lower than the rest of the city, many homeowners had to pay out of pocket to recover their homes. Though our work, TCNDC has heard stories of dozens of homeowners in Tulane Canal who would like to return home, but have long since run out of funds to restore their homes to a livable standard.
40 years after the construction of I-10 and within 5 years of Hurricane Katrina, another event of disruption and displacement occurred, which has laid the groundwork for the incredible change that has occurred in Tulane Canal in recent years. It was the joint decision of LSU and city administrators to leverage billions in disaster funds to desert Charity Hospital and instead construct a 26 acre health complex in the heart of Tulane Canal. The construction of the Veterans Affairs and University Medical Center resulted in the loss of over 27 residential and mixed use block and 250 homes in our neighborhood. Many homeowners had just returned and had already invested thousands of dollars in recovery funds and personal labor to restore their homes by the time they were demolished in 2011.
Creation of the Bio-District
Whereas the development of the I-10 overpass displaced businesses and placed a strain on the local economy, the development of the UMC health care complex and other investments have attracted many new residents to the Tulane Canal neighborhood. Five years after the storm, the number of people living in Tulane Canal was still less than half of what it had been in 2000. Even taking into consideration the loss of 250 residences from UMC development in 2011, the population of the Tulane Canal neighborhood increased by nearly seventy five percent between 2010 and 2016. While some of this growth is attributed to long-term New Orleanians returning home, demographics of the neighborhood are changing in response to new infrastructures, new businesses and attempts to brand the neighborhood as a ‘bio district’ for the medical field. Realty listings for “charming historic homes” in Tulane Canal market proximity to UMC, Whole Foods and the Lafitte Greenway. In part due to this marketing, young professionals and white residents from other parts of the city are beginning to recognize our neighborhood for what it has always been: a livable, affordable community with access to recreation, jobs and all that Mid-City, CBD and French Quarter have to offer.
As our neighborhood is attracting new residents, demand for development is also increasing. Since 2010, the number of vacant homes has decreased fifty percent. In the last 5 years, increased demand and high turnover and redevelopment of historic homes have increased the cost of housing. While Tulane Canal has traditionally been home to low-income renters, the percentage of renters spending more than a third of their income on housing was at an all-time high of 70 percent by 2015. Pre-Katrina, median rent for a 2 bedroom house was around 500 a month, while a recent report from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority confirms that the rental rate has doubled.
Homes that were valued below $50,000 before Katrina are being renovated sold for upwards of $300,000 throughout the Tulane Canal neighborhood. The average listing price for homes on the market at the end of 2017 was $371,453. The dramatic increase in market value of single family homes is a strong indicator that the demand for housing is driven by those in a higher socio-economic bracket than most long-term residents. Unfortunately, private homeowners are often not capturing this equity on their homes. Rather, developers who purchase properties from homeowners, renovate, market and resell are making incredible profits. Based on a sample of homes that were developed or renovated in the last 4 years, the average developer sells a property for $100,000 or more than the amount the original owner sold it for.
With this reinvestment and development comes increased diversity, density and tax revenue for our neighborhood. Yet, for-profit development is outpacing the restoration of homes that have been occupied by long-term New Orleanians by generations. Further, rental rates indicate that many long-term New Orleanians are no longer truly able to afford to live in the neighborhood they call home. The historic legacy of displacement and disempowerment of Tulane Gravier residents should not be ignored. Tulane Canal families have seen the social and economic anchor that was the Claiborne Corridor be replaced by a noisy interstate. They have watched their property values and investment in public infrastructure decline and struggled to get adequate assistance to rebuild after the destruction and chaos of Hurricane Katrina. They have rebuilt their homes, the largest investment of their lives, only to have it taken from them once again to make way for a health-complex that was intended to redefine the neighborhood. Now, long-term residents could miss out on the opportunity to benefit from the return of investment in their homes, or be forced out by skyrocketing rents.
It is also important to remember that residents of this neighborhood are resilient and committed to their community. Businesses and property owners on Claiborne did organize to divert 1-10; Census data shows us residents remained in their family homes and continued to invest their in communities throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Road Home funds were used to restore dozens of homes in Tulane Canal after Katrina. In a recent survey of residents in our area, more than half responded that they intend to stay for the next 10 years. For all of these reasons, our mission at Tulane Canal Neighborhood Development Corporation is to ensure that this is possible for any New Orleanian who wants to make Tulane Canal home.