I personally loathe either giving or receiving directions, particularly in New Orleans. With all the twists and turns in the Crescent City, it’s a sure bet that there’s at least one step where you’ll have to “bear” onto something or venture on some convoluted path to make a left turn, all the while cursing the lack of rhyme and reason to the whole mess.
It’s all part and parcel of living in a city established nearly three-hundred years ago along a winding river. The streets tend to take on a life of their own.
Now, sadly, it’s about to become ever more difficult to meander some streets of Uptown New Orleans. Yes, the City Planning Commission (CPC) has once again exhibited its total lack of purpose, this time by approving needless street name changes borne of local political horse-trading.
It happened this past Tuesday. Two changes came before the CPC: First, being the proposed renaming of a section of Carondelet Street, from Felicity Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, to Robert C. Blakes, Sr. Drive, and secondly, to rename LaSalle Street between Earhart and Simon Bolivar to Rev. John Raphael Jr. Way.
Blakes, who claimed the title of “prophet,” was a Protestant pastor and later bishop in New Orleans from 1965 until his death in 2013. He was the founder of New Home Ministries at 1616 Carondelet Street, which has churches in New Orleans, Hammond, Baton Rouge, and Houston. It boasts a combined membership of over 10,000.
Raphael, on the other hand, was a former New Orleans Police detective who became a pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in 1988. He is most well-known as being the source of the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs that appeared through Central City.
Both men were certainly noteworthy religious figure in New Orleans, but one naturally questions the necessity of chopping up sections of city streets simply to emblazon them with the full names of recently-deceased pastors.
The CPC staff certainly did. Their report recommended rejecting both requests, citing nonconformity with the city’s own planning rules. First of all, both Blakes and Raphael died less than two years ago, and under the rules, any renaming is only supposed to take place after five years.
Secondly, both proposals would butcher continuous streets. Planning rules mandate that the entire length of a street be renamed or only some discrete portion so as to maintain the integrity of the street grid.
Because the proposals violated multiple planning rules, the CPC staff instead urged that honorary signs be placed, but that the actual addresses remain the same to avoid confusion.
However, it quickly became clear that the CPC had no intention of following its own planning rules, despite its dogged and sometimes irrational adherence to those rules in the past. Vice-Chair Craig Mitchell, who previously opposed reopening a 13,000 square foot apartment building due to a lapsed nonconforming use, decided that the rules just don’t matter when it comes to renaming streets. He announced his support.
Written opposition was dismissed in insulting, comical fashion. Commissioner Jason Hughes openly argued that anybody opposed should have appeared in person, as though a willingness to leave work and appear before the CPC at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday constituted an appropriate measure of the value of a person’s opinion on the matter.
Ultimately, most of the rest of the commission fell in line behind the name changes. It appeared that the basis for their support was the fact that the name changes were being pushed by Mayor Landrieu and District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell.
With these types of vapid proposals, it’s virtually always the case that political favors were involved. New Orleans is downright notorious for this sort of thing, and it’s easy to speculate about possible political quid-pro-quo in this case.
It all stands to reason. Inner city pastors yield political power. They provide venues for politicians and sway the votes of their congregations. Attempts to rename streets after them reflect less their virtue than their perceived value to local candidates. From the perspective of the politician, it’s a trivial giveaway that buys concrete support.
The consequences, however, are real. The vanity of a congregation does not warrant butchering our street grid with excessively-long memorial names in the middle of existing thoroughfares. The planning rules acknowledge that, and this is one area where they make perfect sense. Alas, that same sense is exactly what is lacking in the CPC itself.
The City Council now has the opportunity to reject the CPC’s recommendation, but it’s doubtful that it will do so. The fix was in long ago.
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.