May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Part of I-10. Taking its cues from Robert Moses, in March 1968 the city of New Orleans allowed Interstate 10, which connects Jacksonville to Santa Monica, to rip through the black neighborhood of Claiborne Avenue. Ancient forty-five-foot-tall oak trees were sawed down to make room for a twenty-five-foot-high elevated roadway; the concrete monstrosity forced poor citizens to abandon their businesses and homes. The neighborhood had once been home to Storyville, the historic birthplace of jazz.
The drive from New Orleans to Memphis, through the Mississippi Delta on Highway 61, is the most underrated road in America. The Delta is a strange, flat, haunted land, a great agricultural garden of cotton, soybeans, and rice. As Big Daddy says in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , the Delta is the “richest land this side of the Valley Nile.” Highway 61—the road that carried migratory blacks from New Orleans to Chicago in search of the promised land that has yet to be—exudes a sense of past that is vivid and slow. The Civil War blankets this stretch of highway like kudzu, and I never tire of wandering around Natchez. Blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were born just off Highway 61, and that says it all.