The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

09:32 March 08, 2018
By: Steven Melendez

City Park, a carefully crafted urban oasis just west of Bayou St. John, spans about 1,300 acres—about 50 percent larger than New York's Central Park. And while the park has expanded and evolved over the years, some of the land where it sits has been the site of local history since before Europeans ever arrived.

When French colonists first established New Orleans in 1718, it's believed that they came across a Native American village near what's now the entrance to City Park, where Esplanade Avenue crosses Bayou St. John.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

And by the end of the 18th century, land along the southern edge of the current park had been settled by Europeans. Most historic accounts hold that in 1845, Louis Allard was operating the site as a small plantation, raising dairy cattle and a small number of crops, when his property was auctioned off for failing to keep up with his mortgage payments. Accounts differ as to the cause of Allard's financial difficulties, and even less is recorded about the 19 slaves who were auctioned as part of the estate, but it's known that the property was bought by the wealthy merchant John McDonogh.

McDonogh is best known today for his generous will, which left substantial funds to New Orleans and his native Baltimore to build public schools upon his death in 1850. But McDonough also left what had been the Allard Plantation to the city, the beginnings of what is today City Park.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

The fledgling park, then on the outskirts of the city, was still a wild place in its early days. Duels were regularly fought beneath the oak trees near where the New Orleans Museum of Art now stands—even after the practice had been outlawed—and cattle still grazed on the park grounds. In 1891, when the City Park Improvement Association was founded to manage the mostly undeveloped parkland, an initial inspection found farmers harvesting grass for hay, hunters and trappers chasing their prey, as well as picnickers enjoying the shade of the centuries-old live oak trees.

The Association advertised—in English, French, and German—to find donors. And before long, the park was the site of a variety of entertainment options: City Park's now-antique carousel made its debut in 1906, as did pony rides, and the Peristyle—a neoclassical open-air structure located along the park's southern edge on Bayou Metairie and designed for dancing—opened the following year. Golf, a perennial crowd-draw and moneymaker for a park that's largely responsible for funding its own operations, first arrived in the early 1900s.

Horse races were even briefly held on a track in City Park, until a 1908 state law cracked down on gambling. The track was then used for early aviation exhibitions by celebrity pilots—often referred to as "birdmen" by the local press at the time. Most famously today, aviator John Moisant was killed in a New Year's Eve plane crash in 1910 after taking off from the City Park field. He was the original namesake of what's now Louis Armstrong International Airport, and his name lives on in the airport code MSY (which stands for Moisant Stock Yard).

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

The Casino Building, where Cafe Du Monde now serves coffee and beignets, opened in 1913 as a refreshment stand. (Despite the name, it's never been used for gambling.) Concerts and even movie screenings were regularly held at the park. What's now called the New Orleans Museum of Art opened in 1911, then named for its original benefactor, sugar baron Isaac Delgado.

During World War I, the racetrack area was converted into "Camp Nicholls" and housed soldiers. In 1917, scandal erupted when the New Orleans Item printed, then retracted, an article claiming that Storyville prostitutes lingered near the camp to offer their services and that teen girls spent time "in City Park after nightfall visiting with guardsmen in secluded places." The Army strenuously denied the allegations, and the newspaper ran a front-page apology.

After the war, the park expanded dramatically, acquiring much of its present holdings between City Park Avenue and Lake Pontchartrain. The land was initially largely swampland, but during the New Deal, the federal Works Progress Administration put thousands to work in City Park—clearing land, excavating lagoons, and building roads and bridges—all largely by hand. What's now called Tad Gormley Stadium was built then, as were other athletic facilities, and the rose garden that evolved into the New Orleans Botanical Garden got its start. The WPA's initials, along with Art Deco-style bas reliefs and sculptures created by celebrated Mexican-American artist Enrique Alferez, can still be found throughout the park.

Officials also took steps in the 1930s to convert Bayou St. John, the park's eastern border, from a working waterway lined with houseboats, shipyards, and other businesses into something more tranquil—essentially an arm of the park. And thanks in part to a bequest from businessman Rene Couturie, the park's arboretum was established in 1939 with the planting of thousands of trees. It soon came to be known as Couturie Forest.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, City Park was soon housing troops once again, participating in blackout drills, and hosting appearances by celebrities like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour, where audience members were encouraged to buy war bonds.

WPA labor naturally became scarce, with federal funds and manpower redirected to the war effort. By 1942, park officials reported that the WPA could only provide 20 "very old" men who were put to work in the plant nursery. "All other work has ceased," the general manager reported. Parts for park machinery were hard to come by, and even golf balls became hard to replace, sending workers diving into park lagoons to retrieve them. At one point, the park sold some of its ducks to save on the cost of their food. Many of the park's employees departed for Higgins Industries, which made military boats and planes. "Their personnel department rides around our park in Cadillac cars and picks up our men," the general manager complained.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

Not long after the war, the park faced a number of challenges over its racially discriminatory policies. In 1947, an employee of The Louisiana Weekly, an African American newspaper, wrote to the park board "asking the use of the smaller golf course for colored citizens." The board declined to respond. Earlier, in 1935, a black physician had written to the board lamenting that even with the federally funded expansion, there were no park facilities available to black people within City Park or elsewhere in the city.

That left them "forced to the open woods miles beyond [the] city limits for recreational space," he wrote. "Certainly, in the name of democracy, humanity, and common justice, something should be done to obliterate this wide difference in citizens."

The board's president replied that black visitors would not be turned away from the park "with the only exception of the swimming pool, the tennis courts, and the golf links," where he said the people of New Orleans wouldn't tolerate integration. But in practice, it appears to have been commonplace for black visitors to the park to be swiftly ejected by police.

By 1952, a lawsuit had been filed demanding that the park be integrated, and the park board passed an official policy on the matter—saying it would be illegal for the races to "use New Orleans City Park or any of its facilities simultaneously." That lasted until 1958, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn lower court rulings integrating the park. City Park's swimming pool remained closed the next summer. It, and others around New Orleans, were shuttered rather than being allowed to integrate.

By the 1960s, the park came to terms with other aspects of a changing society. As the interstate highway system continued to grow, part of the park was taken—with compensation—for the construction of I-610, which continues to physically divide the park.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

In 1964, the Beatles appeared in the park's stadium before a crowd of roughly 12,000, and within 15 minutes, the stage was soon swarmed with avid teenage fans. Police eventually restored order and, The Times-Picayune reported, had to revive about 200 swooning fans with "spirits of ammonia," similar to smelling salts. Other acts of the era also played the stadium, including James Brown, the Dave Clark Five, the Allman Brothers Band, and Al Green, though park officials seemed wary of the then-young baby boom generation.

"Two beatniks were also arrested in the park after I refused to grant them permission to distribute Vietnam war literature in the park," the park's general manager told the board in 1966. As late as 1971, park officials were celebrating being able to avert "a mass invasion of hippies in City Park," at a time when local papers frequently ran stories about underemployed young adults living in French Quarter hovels.

The park saw a burst of popularity in the 1970s, even as its budget remained mostly fixed, with revenue chiefly coming from fees for playing golf and from park concessions. In 1977, the park and the New Orleans Museum of Art saw more than 800,000 people visit in just four months to see a traveling exhibit of artifacts from King Tut's tomb, including a death mask. A brass band ultimately saw the pharaoh's treasures off with a jazz funeral.

During the 1970s and 1980s, board members frequently lamented the park's low level of government funding. The size of the park's workforce gradually declined, although inmates from the Orleans Parish jail did some work in the park. "This 'free' labor actually costs the park approximately $650 monthly for the cigarettes given to the work details," one official noted.

The Liveliest Of Oaks: 300 Years of City Park

Park officials still looked to innovate. A room of "electronic games" was briefly installed at the park, though it proved less popular than hoped. More successfully, the Friends of City Park, a nonprofit that raises money and otherwise supports the park, was founded in 1979. And in 1986, the park acquired its historic carousel from a concessionaire who owned it, and a successful fundraiser enabled it to be refurbished.

The holiday light festival that became the wildly popular Celebration in the Oaks also began in the 1980s, at first in the park's Botanical Garden, which took that name and itself saw refurbishment in that decade. And in the 1990s, the park saw a new generation come to appreciate its musical offerings—Pearl Jam, with the Ramones opening, played to a reported crowd of 30,000 in 1995. And in 1999, the park hosted its first Voodoo Music + Arts Experience festival, starting a Halloween-time tradition.

In 2005, like the rest of New Orleans, City Park was wrecked by the winds of Hurricane Katrina, then inundated with multiple feet of floodwaters after the levee failures. All told, the park sustained an estimated $43 million worth of damage. But through a mix of volunteer work, eventual aid from FEMA, and generous donations, the park was able to rebuild, even hosting its Celebration in the Oaks during the 2005 holiday season. Since then, the park has continued to add new facilities, including City Bark—a dog park within a park—and City Putt, a new miniature golf facility.

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