The New New Orleans: Finally, Louis Armstrong Plays Again

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.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

Photo of the day (12.9.10)

photo of the day 12 9 10

Finding contrasts is one of the best things about travel. We love seeing places, people, and cultures different from our own and when we see a familiar item in an unfamiliar context, it’s especially interesting. Pick up any travel article about Turkey, Morocco, or Japan and you’re guaranteed to read a few examples of “old world meets new” contrast. Today’s Photo of the Day by Mike GL captures a moment between a monk and his mobile in front of New York’s City Hall. Recently in Kiev, Ukraine, I saw young Orthodox monks wearing track suit jackets over their robes and chatting on iPhones, and couldn’t help but find the image jarring and funny, but even monks have to stay connected these days. You think there’s a FourSquare check in at the monastary?

Take any good contrast photos? Share them in our Flickr Group – we may just include it as our next Photo of the Day.

Photo of the Day (5.30.10)

Whoa. That was the first thing that came to mind when I looked at Flickr user Bryson Gilbert’s photo of City Hall in Toronto. It’s not just the vertigo-inducing angle – I also love the choice of black and white, which accentuates the curves, shadows and lines of the buildings. It almost looks like the facades of these two structures are the wings of some giant insect, preparing to take flight. Here’s to the photographers that help us to take a second look at familiar landmarks.

Have any great architecture photos you’ve taken during your travels? Why not share them with us by adding them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Eternal returns in springtime Paris

Natives will tell you that Paris has everything necessary for the pursuit of happiness, including songbirds. The intensity and frequency of birdsong signals the end of winter, if not the arrival of spring. Spring comes and goes, hesitating on the threshold. That’s why accordions are Paris’ reliable bellweather. Their wheezing is a sure sign people are back outdoors filling cafés, or draping themselves over the double-backed park benches, staring at buds.

The other day the usual spring suspects began squeezing their red-and-white accordions in the square under our bedroom windows. Listening to them, I just happened to open an email and click a link to the biggest panoramic photo ever taken, “Paris 26 Giga Pixels“, composed of 2,346 individual shots stitched together.

Up came Paris, from the belltower of Saint Sulpice. And up came the accordion waltz from the cult movie “Amélie Poulain.” I closed my eyes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of nostalgia. Baguettes and berets, Edith Piaf’s raucous croonings, and Robert Doisneau’s black-and-white photos floated above Montmartre painted by Utrillo and Modigliani, the merry-go-round spinning below Sacré Coeur.

The music distills the bittersweet essence of a certain Paris. It’s a Paris much of the world — and many Parisians — desire, a magical city of dreams and memories and merry-go-rounds, abstracted from the globalized, recessionary nitty-gritty of today.I opened my eyes. On screen were the domes and Gothic towers, the neoclassical palaces, the gardens and 19th-Century merry-go-rounds of my home of the last quarter-century. The digital technology is state-of-the-art, the definition astonishingly high. But the high tech didn’t diminish the nostalgic punch.

Carouseling on Amélie’s waltz, clicking, dragging or scrolling, the merry-go-round of images sped up, zooming in and out, unapologetically plucking at heart-strings. The effect was instantaneous and systemic. I reconsidered Paris from a rooftop perspective, eager to see what had changed. I flew to the places I’ve lived and worked in. So much seemed the same, at least outwardly. Better, the panoramic view pushed me out to climb a real tower, revisit Paris, and be an aimless wanderer in spring all over again.

Because the belltower of Saint-Sulpice isn’t accessible, I headed to the Panthéon. En route at arcaded Place des Vosges, the Internauts used free WiFi, blissfully oblivious to the 17th-century bricks and stones. Across the Seine, a carousel spun near giant sycamores in the Jardin des Plantes, Louis XIII’s lush botanical garden. To synthesized calliope music, shrieking todlers rode back in time to the days of their grandparents.

The Panthéon rises atop Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, an awkward imitation of the real Pantheon in Rome . A toothy guard from a former French colony informed me gleefully that the panoramic terrace wouldn’t reopen for another week. In the meantime, there was Foucault’s famous pendulum, and the tombs of France ‘s great and good.

Directly beneath the dome, the pendulum dangled from a wire over 200 feet long. Back and forth it swung in the damp gloom, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, marking the seconds, minutes, hours and days. It was not the pendulum moving forward, but we the public, the church, the city, the Earth, moving around it.

Mesmerized, it seemed to me that the pendulum’s bob was Paris, marking timelessness, while the rest of the universe spun around. Paris was as eternal as Rome, the Eternal City. The real Paris, of the mind, did not exist and could never age.

By comparison, the vaulted tombs of the country’s great men — and one woman, Marie Curie — left me chilled, an exercise in mildewy propaganda. Rome’s Pantheon, dedicated to the pagan gods, was saved by being consecrated as a church. In Paris, a church was saved from Revolutionary vandalism by becoming a temple to the Republic.

The cult of the Republic may once have been a fine thing. It seems less so now, when France’s anti-immigrant policies and reactionary reinterpretations of liberty, equality and fraternity clash with a spinning Earth of many hues and infinite diversity. In the gift shop a visitor wondered why French patriot Léon Gambetta’s heart was in an urn. The attendant replied that a body part was needed. Clearly the cult of relics had not ended with the Revolution, the visitor remarked, buying a mug emblazoned with “Vive la République.”

Down the street in the Luxembourg Gardens, the merry-go-round turned dreamily. Nearby, children rode ponies. Gaggles of pimply teens fiddled with hand-held devices as others devoured obsolete printed matter. Everyone smoked, even the tennis players.

The pendulum swings, the Earth and the merry-go-rounds spin. Paris stays the same.

Skipping Montparnasse, I aimed for the Eiffel Tower, last experienced by me in 1976. Bookstores in the notoriously literate 6th and 7th arrondissements displayed the sensation of late-winter, La Paresse et l’oubli, a novel by 29-year-old David Rochefort. The title means “sloth and oblivion” or perhaps “laziness and forgetfulness.” The cover is wrapped by a banner promising “Les battailes perdues de la vie” — life’s lost battles.

How someone not yet 30 could know such things, be compared to Flaubert and Balzac, dead for 150 years, and how such a clear-eyed and pessimistic oeuvre could be published and embraced by all in a world of corporate sameness, seem unanswerable questions to non-Parisians. The other big literary noise, this one written with tongue firmly in cheek: Mai 1958: Le Retour du Général de Gaulle. Did he ever go away?

At the Eiffel Tower’s base the requisite merry-go-round wheezed. Accordionists serenaded the waiting lines. Why not hang Foucault’s Pendulum here, I wondered?

Riding up, I calculated the number of merry-go-rounds in Paris. There are dozens. Dozens. But there are many more bookstores selling difficult novels. Both are subsidized, like public transit, health care, and much else. Culture is propped up at both ends of the spectrum. French movies are too. And the Eiffel Tower.

Might that help explain Paris’ abiding popularity even among lovers of free enterprise?

Amélie’s waltz replayed in my mind’s ear as I gazed down at 17 centuries’ worth of cityscape, from the Roman baths at Cluny, to the National Library and other remarkable monstrosities of the 1980s and ’90s. The messy reality of Paris glimpsed from above seemed immeasurably more satisfying than Paris 26 Giga Pixels.

Amid the jumble below I spied two more merry-go-rounds, one in the Tuileries and one in front of City Hall, my next destinations. As I walked through the Tuileries, the same children rode the same ponies. Had they trotted over from the Luxembourg or was I hallucinating?

Beyond the merry-go-round fronting City Hall’s neo-Renaissance façade, the line to enter “Izis: Paris des Rêves,” a photo exhibition, was as long as the lines at the Eiffel Tower. ” Paris through a Dreamer’s Lens” is the French Dream, the European Paradise as dreamed by Izraël Biderman, better known as Izis. A Lithuanian Jew determined to escape persecution, Izis wound up in the City of Light, soon dimmed and Occupied. Like other Jews and undesirables, Izis was hunted by Nazis aided by zealous Frenchmen. But he kept loving Paris. It belonged to him and the world, not his persecutors.

Like those of Doisneau or Brassai or Cartier-Bresson, Izis’s black-and-white photos capture the allure, the sleaze, the enchantingly bleak Paris of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Everyone smokes, especially the Résistance fighters. Everyone dresses in the shades of gray that are fashionable again today. One haunting, wall-sized image shows a merry-go-round in the Tuileries, its battered horses standing out against the snow.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall an outdoor exhibition currently hails 150 years of immigration to Paris. As I walked home past it I thought of Izis, Brassai, Chagall, Picasso, Piaf, Yves Montand and others. Many others. I thought of Chopin, a Pole, and how Paris is celebrating his 200th birthday, as if he were a native son. The cafés I looked into were staffed by immigrants. The restaurants, museums, monuments and City Hall were too. Even the accordionists in the square beneath our windows are immigrants. And so am I.

The pendulum swings, the accordions play, people, politicians and recessions come and go on an ever-spinning merry-go-round. Paris remains.

David Downie is an American writer and journalist based in Paris. He is the author of nine books, including Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light and Paris City of Night. He has written for Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Town & Country Travel, Departures, Travel + Leisure, salon.com, and concierge.com. His website is www.davidddownie.com.