Mr. Landrieu, tear down this fence.
I am speaking, of course, of the fence that has spanned the end of Newcomb Boulevard at Freret Street for the past several years. The installation of the fence was approved by the city at the behest of Newcomb’s well-heeled, well-connected residents who were concerned about through traffic clogging their street.
The problem is that Newcomb Boulevard is near Tulane University, which (for better or worse) is a gigantic blot on the street grid. Between Freret Street to the north and St. Charles Avenue to the south, the grid is entirely consumed by Tulane. Newcomb runs from St. Charles to Freret and is situated uncomfortably between Broadway, a bottleneck if there ever was one, and Audubon Place, a gated, private street.
Accordingly, Newcomb is the first public northbound street after motorists pass Tulane on St. Charles. Thus, when traffic backs up at the intersection of St. Charles and Broadway, some impatient motorists tend to cut down Newcomb Street to Freret. This is what annoys residents of Newcomb Boulevard, upscale-types who look longingly at Audubon Place.
To be glib, the residents of Newcomb petulantly demand all the amenities of a suburban cul-de-sac or gated community even though they live on an urban, public street.
Naturally, nearby neighborhood groups were not happy about the installation of the fence and sued to have it removed. In early January, the court ordered the fence removed and a city official promised to comply “without delay.”
Alas, the city’s understanding of the phrase “without delay” is stunted, to say the least. It is now more than a month since the court’s order was issued, and the fence remains in place.
Since this is a considerable delay, it’s apparent that the city is willfully violating a court order.
The city’s supposed excuse for the delay is that it claims to have conveniently determined that the street is too narrow and is therefore unsafe for two-way traffic. The city claims that it will take several months to reopen Newcomb as a one-way street.
Of course, the city could have made this argument while the case was pending before the Court issued its order, but failed to so. Furthermore, it’s simply a dumb argument. First of all, it has nothing to do with whether it’s legal for the city to allow a fence at one end. Secondly, Newcomb has always been a two-way street, and many other two-way streets throughout Uptown New Orleans are equally narrow.
Let’s call this was it is – a red herring. This has nothing whatsoever to do with safety. The city, having lost the lawsuit, is now scrambling to find some other way to accommodate Newcomb’s residents. Making the street one-way, presumably in the direction of St. Charles, would eliminate most through traffic and reduce its utility.
Thus, the city is doing everything it can to deprive its citizens of the use of a public street on behalf of a small number of wealthy and influential homeowners. The city is going to extreme lengths, even flouting a court order, to benefit Newcomb’s residents at the expense of everyone else.
Were an outside observer to look at this turn of events in a vacuum, they may we conclude that New Orleans is an oligarchy, not a democracy.
And there’s the rub — there is a growing perception that Mayor Landrieu’s policies favor the wealthy and ignore everyone else. Over at The Lens, Mark Moseley’s most recent column asked us to consider whether Landrieu is pursuing policies “that favor an upper-crust influx that’s crowding out the poor.” Blogger Jeff Bostick responded that the same monied interests that backed both Nagin and Landrieu are “well on the way to re-imagining New Orleans as the smaller, whiter, more fashionable resort town they’ve always longed for.”
The Newcomb fence controversy is a microcosm of this wider trend, and it’s troubling. It’s one thing to pursue policies that grow our tax base and improve the local economy, but it’s quite another to kowtow to the wealthy and connected, thereby disregarding the public good.
I’ve argued previously that gentrification isn’t really a problem unless the government starts putting its thumb on the scale. What the fracas over the Newcomb fence shows us is that the city is not only willing to put its thumb on the scale, but that it will continue to do so even when it is caught.
Hence, this is about more than a single fence –- it is about whether we are going to have a city that attempts to treat its citizens fairly and equally, or a city that allows its power to be used by private interests.
Presently, the latter vision is winning. The Newcomb fence is a veritable monument to that.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.