North Rampart Street forms the western border of New Orleans‘ French Quarter. On one side, streets named St. Louis, St. Peter and Dumaine lead to picturesque homes, elegant restaurants and rowdy bars. On the other side of Rampart sits a park that’s been both feared and beloved by residents and visitors, avoided by some, a lifeline for others.
Louis Armstrong Park has been through a series of trials in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Named for one of the city’s most famous musical sons, the park that was supposed to be a tribute instead became something to avoid.
Although it houses a historic landmark, Congo Square, where slaves came to socialize and share African rhythms, many tourists never saw it, or were told not to set foot inside. Fences kept many out, including residents of the Treme neighborhood nearby.
The worst insult came in summer 2010, when a botched facelift went awry and a contractor cracked the toe of the Louis Armstrong statue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered work to stop and the park was closed. The city discovered newly poured sidewalks were cracked, curbs and manholes damaged, and a sprinkler system was improperly installed. Even one of the park’s soaring palm trees was knocked down.
A new contractor was found, work began anew, and finally, last year, Louis Armstrong Park came back to life, a symbol of the New New Orleans that’s evolved since the storm.
%Gallery-170746%Although the 32-acre space is rarely crowded on weekdays, it’s become a stop for visiting tour groups, like a bunch of French teenagers who posed for pictures and generally ignored a guide trying to explain the site’s historic importance.
McKenzie Coco, a new resident of the French Quarter, came to the park with her husband recently to walk their three dogs. “I always felt sad that it wasn’t being utilized,” Coco said. Now, “it’s well-lit, and safe, and it’s a real positive place for the neighborhood.”
Nobody was happier to see the park return than Ben Harwood and Emanuel Lain, the co-founders of People United For Armstrong Park.
Over the past few years, Harwood and Lain have spearheaded community efforts to bring the park back up to life. With almost no corporate backing, and using volunteers, the pair put together a summer concert series that drew 50,000 people to Armstrong Park. They just held a benefit for the concert series, and plan to expand it by more than double for 2013.
Harwood, a native of Detroit who lives in Treme, and Lain, who grew up in New Orlean’s ninth ward but who attended church near the park, met when Lain knocked on Harwood’s door to ask what should be done with the Municipal Auditorium, which sits within the park.
Quickly, the conversation turned to the closed park, and what might be done to help it. Although they were bent on seeing it come back to life, they say their efforts to rehabilitate the park were not always greeted with warmth by its neighbors.
Although they surveyed several thousand residents, and held two public meetings, “some people told us to stop doing it. This was their park,” Harwood recalls. “We had to be bullheaded, and do what had to be done.”
Disaster funds, which are less restrictive than federal block grants, were available, but it seemed like other projects in New Orleans had a much higher priority, and the park was not listed on city officials’ priority list. “Basically, it seemed like the city was just going to keep the park locked, and that was it.”
The organizers gathered 2,000 signatures demanding that the park be reopened, put together a second line parade that stretched from Congo Square to City Hall, and essentially drove home their point that the park was important to the people who lived in New Orleans. “We did a lot of knife-twisting, using the media, to get the city to admit that this park existed,” he said.
Once work got underway, the PULAP group got an unexpected surge of support when contractors cracked the Armstrong statue. “People were really pissed,” Harwood recalls. There was lingering frustration over the fact that a portion of the park remained fenced in, despite all the renovation work that’s taken place.
Although the park now gleams under streetlights in the evening, Lain says there is more to be done to bring the park back to the way it was when he was young. “Those lagoons used to be clean enough to swim in,” he says, gesturing to the ponds on the north side of the park. He and Harwood have numerous ideas, beyond the concert series, to attract more visitors, whether locals or tourists.
Wireless Internet, like the service available in New York’s Bryant Park, could guarantee users all day long, and help people in the neighborhood who don’t have Web access. Food trucks and coffee stands might attract city workers who have few affordable choices. The organizers would like to see the park used by school bands and other young musicians, who could earn their performance stripes by playing traditional New Orleans jazz.
But, for now, says Lain, the improvements will come one step at a time. “This park needed a champion and our organization is just that,” Lain said.
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[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]