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Almost Another Country
On the current state of New Orleans parks, gardens, and cemeteries.
By J. William Thompson, FASLA

Every time I visit New Orleans, I have the distinct impression that I have come to a small Caribbean island that has, by some accident of nature, become attached to the North American mainland.

In part it’s the exotic culture—the rich ethnic mix of African, French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, German, and other strains—that reinforces this impression. It’s the city’s musical heritage—the richest of any city in North America—of jazz and R&B. It’s the still-vibrant local traditions such as spontaneous parades (always on foot), “second lines,” and marching bands. It’s the famous Creole cooking.

Perhaps more to the point for those interested in urban design, it’s the walkability of the neighborhoods, the presence of a dense population right in the center of the city, and the preference for lush gardens over sweeping lawns. In these ways New Orleans is profoundly different from most U.S. cities—and therein lies its value for landscape architects. Lessons that will be important to the future of developing cities nationwide—and values currently promoted by the New Urbanists—are evident on a walk down any New Orleans street. These include a tight mix of uses such as apartments over shops and a corner grocery store or bar a short walk down the block. The pedestrian scale of much of the city is most evident in the French Quarter, with its geometrically laid out streets and handsome public squares, but many a New Orleans neighborhood is a pedestrian’s delight.

Richard Sexton

For all its cultural richness, though, New Orleans is a city of stark and sometimes shocking contrasts. If you travel outside the standard tourist routes, you’ll find big chunks of the city that appear to be in a state of neglect if not outright decay. Alongside small concentrations of private wealth in the city are a high poverty rate (32 percent) and a low educational level (one in three adults lacks a high school diploma). Since the oil industry imploded in the 1980s, the local economy has been in gradual decline. Shipping is still a thriving industry (New Orleans is second only to Amsterdam among world ports in annual tonnage), but the port has become so automated and containerized that it doesn’t provide a wealth of career opportunities. That leaves the second-biggest industry—tourism—also booming but offering mostly low-end jobs. Given the general state of the economy, the political climate—“attract business at any cost”—mitigates against most planning controls, so that development occurs in a free-for-all scenario.

So with all this, is a trip to New Orleans worthwhile? Absolutely! All its contradictions add up to a bubbling gumbo of a place, still one of the great cities of North America. In garden and landscape interest, it ranks right up there with San Francisco, New York, and Boston.


A Lunar Legacy
Although the parks and gardens of New Orleans have developed steadily since the first French gardens were laid out in the early 1700s, the 1970s were particularly fruitful years for park building that shaped the city as we know it today. Specifically, the two mayoral terms (1970–1978) of Maurice “Moon” Landrieu illustrate the extent to which a mayor can affect the landscape fabric of a city. Moon left a lasting imprint on the city’s downtown—not all of it successful, but all of it significant—that continues to evolve and change.

If, for example, you appropriately start your tour of the city overlooking the Mississippi River—the raison d’etre for New Orleans and still the source of its major industry, shipping—walk downriver from the convention center and the aquarium and you’ll come to a pedestrian path atop an old levee, dubbed the Moon Walk, a reference less to the astronauts’ lunar landing than to Moon’s tenure, during which the project was built. The Moon Walk is historically significant in that it allowed people to get down to the Mississippi—something that used to be impossible anywhere near downtown. But it is even more significant as the beginning of something else: the redevelopment of the riverfront after the shipping industry moved upriver in the 1970s. Moon’s vision was to redevelop it in a way that could make New Orleans a major tourist destination.

“You can’t stress enough the importance of the improvements that Moon initiated,” says Lake Douglas, landscape architect, garden historian, and coauthor of Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess. “He had a sense, even before people started talking about cultural tourism, that the city’s economic future could revolve around tourism and convention-related business.” Moon’s vision, says Douglas, was that river views and the romance of the mighty river itself could serve as catalysts for the developments that have occurred since his tenure: the convention center, the aquarium, and riverside shopping, among other things. Woldenburg Riverfront Park, 20 acres of greenspace created on top of old warehouses and wharves where freighters used to dock, was built in the 1990s at the same time as the aquarium—but as a direct result of initiatives begun in Moon’s time, according to Douglas.

Cross over the levee to the French Quarter and Jackson Square, the quarter’s most iconic public space, and you’ll come upon more of Moon’s initiatives in an area around the square, where streets were converted to a pedestrian domain during Moon’s tenure. If you have coffee and a beignet at the nearby Café du Monde, you should know that the slate paving stones that knit together the pedestrian areas around the French Market were installed around the same time as Latrobe Waterworks Park, an intimate seating area adjacent to the French Market. The local firm Cashio Cochran was the landscape architect for the pedestrian areas, the Moon Walk, and a number of other Moon-era projects. Max Conrad, ASLA, now a professor at Louisiana State University, also worked on the design of the pedestrian areas, and Woldenburg Riverfront Park was done by Cashio Cochran Torre Design Consortium.

Not all of Moon’s park initiatives panned out, however. One that didn’t is Legends Park (formerly Edison Park) at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville in the French Quarter. Moon had a way of taking junkets to other cities and coming back with ideas for new parks. In this case, he visited New York and came back with the idea of building something along the lines of that city’s Paley Park. The result was duly built, water wall and all (a statue of trumpeter Al Hirt was added recently). But after Moon left office, Carlos Cashio says, nobody programmed or maintained the park—fatal oversights on as rowdy a street as Bourbon, where drunken revelers can trash anything that stands still. Today, Legends Park is gated and locked for its own protection, but according to Cashio plans are afoot to tear out the water wall and reopen the park with a coffee shop, bar, and small restaurant—and a statue of Fats Domino.

The real disaster among Moon’s park-building efforts, though, is Armstrong Park, just outside the Quarter. The idea of a cultural center modeled on New York’s Lincoln Center had been around from a previous administration, and an early design for it had been done by Lawrence Halprin, FASLA. But everything started to gel when Moon took a junket to Copenhagen and came back with the notion of a large downtown pleasure garden like the Tivoli. The overall intent seemed sensible enough: Build a performing-arts complex adjacent to the site of historic Congo Square, where slaves once gathered for drumming and dancing rituals, and name it after Louis Armstrong, the most famous and arguably the most talented New Orleanian of all time. But the project got off to a bad start with the decision to raze several blocks of a historic African-American neighborhood to make room for the park, then to build a high fence around it, apparently to keep out people living in adjacent low-income housing projects.

The result is a park that seems menacing to enter on foot or even on a bicycle. Ironically, part of the problem is the fence itself, which, though intended to keep out “undesirables,” seems to have created a cage where a visitor could find herself trapped.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. The National Park Service (NPS) is developing a New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in Armstrong Park. Four buildings will be renovated into a complex that will include a visitor orientation facility with exhibits and performance venues for jazz musicians. When completed, according to the NPS web site (www.nps.gov/neor) the park will finally have its own identity. “I think this is going to make the park work once and for all,” says Douglas, “because, being part of the NPS, it will probably be run very well—and it will have a funding source outside the city. And the idea of having a jazz park there just makes sense.”

Another relic of the Moon era that may be getting a new lease on life is Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia on Poydras Street, near the convention center. In the late 1970s the piazza was hailed as the supreme icon of postmodern design and graced the pages of many design magazines, including Landscape Architecture. But when postmodernism fell out of favor, and with the advent of new trends in high-fashion architecture, the piazza was allowed to deteriorate to the point that it became a target for graffiti and a hangout for homeless men. LAM reported on it at its very grungiest in a Critic at Large piece in June 2001.

Now, however, Loews Hotels is building a 282-room hotel adjacent to the site and, as part of site development, will spend at least $750,000 restoring Piazza D’Italia. The restoration should be completed in time for the ASLA annual meeting, but don’t expect to see me there. I despise design that embodies trendy effects, and the piazza is the absolute epitome of that. Still, the piazza is colorful and fun and, if properly restored, will probably be a magnet in the riverside portion of downtown.

A park built well after the Moon era, but strangely reminiscent of the piazza and in the same part of town, is the Cancer Survivors Park at Lafayette and Loyola Streets near the Superdome. Several blocks away from Piazza d’Italia, it’s worth the walk if you are interested in New Orleans’s contribution to the cancer park genre. With its double row of “positive mental outlook” totems, the park was pictured in the May issue of Landscape Architecture.

If you like kitsch, you’ll love this park. If you don’t, you may wonder (as I did) what saccharine, Disneyesque totems have to do with surviving a disease. But if the park helps even one cancer victim, I’m all for it.

The French Quarter:
Changing from the Inside Out

“One big theme park” is how one popular guidebook to New Orleans characterizes the French Quarter.

Well, it is and it isn’t. True, thousands of gawking, pleasure-seeking tourists throng the narrow streets, lending a surreal quality to a very real historic district, and almost all the ground-level retail—the junky bars and T-shirt shops on Bourbon Street, for example—aims to suck in the tourist dollar by selling trite, highly processed images of the city.

But there are important ways in which the Quarter is totally unlike a theme park. For one thing, theme parks are gated, meaning that visitors can be screened. By contrast, there are no controls on who comes into the Quarter. The humblest denizen from one of the surrounding ’hoods can rub shoulders with tourists. Occasionally some of the local users clash with what merchants and city fathers might view as the proper tourist image of the Quarter. Take the benches in front of the Cabildo in Jackson Square, where tourists throng to listen to street musicians play traditional New Orleans jazz, for example. They were removed earlier this year when a city councilwoman observed a homeless person sleeping on one of them. New benches that feature raised barriers to prevent anyone from lying down have since been installed.

The other way in which the Quarter differs from a Disney spectacle is that thousands of people actually live in this 85-block area, which coincides with the original city plan of 1721. Just look above the storefronts on any street and you’re likely to see a balcony absolutely festooned with plants. In fact, until quite recently the Quarter was one of the densest urban neighborhoods in the United States. That changed in the past decade with the influx of monied out-of-towners who want a pied-à-terre for the yearly Jazz Heritage Festival, Mardi Gras, and similar events. This has led to established Quarter residents selling their family homes, which are then broken up into condos for owners who show up only a few times a year. The resident population of the quarter is plummeting, according to Janice Foulks, president of Patio Planters, a group that celebrates and organizes tours of the gardens of the Quarter. The end result will probably be that the French Quarter is less a functioning neighborhood with political clout at the local level and more purely a vacation destination.

The invasion by what I might call drop-in residents is insidious, since the houses outwardly tend to look the same. It takes someone who knows the Quarter well to point them out. R. J. Dykes, a Quarter resident and landscape designer who tends many of the Quarter’s gardens, took me on a tour. “That’s Francis Ford Coppola’s house,” he said as we drove by a facade that looked very much like others on the same block. “He’s never here.” The population (or non-population) of such drop-ins is burgeoning, says Dykes.

But even though the population of the Quarter is dropping precipitously, there are still several thousand people who reside here full-time, and many of their homes feature spectacular gardens. The catch is that these are almost all private, so you must be part of a tour to view them. (Fortunately, ASLA and Patio Planters are organizing tours at the annual meeting.) French Quarter gardens are often referred to as “secret gardens,” given that they are without exception walled, forming an outdoor room of the house. Lush, overgrown, and damp, they feature spectacular tropical and subtropical plants—bananas, various citrus trees, all shades of bougainvillea, and palmettos. Because of the high walls surrounding them, sunlight is at a premium, meaning that gardeners must creatively arrange their plantings for maximum solar gain. And when the temperature falls below freezing—if only for a few hours, as happened one night last January—it can take the tropical species months to recuperate. When I visited a number of Quarter gardens last April, devoted garden owners told me they were still reeling from the impact of those four chilly hours in January.

New Lives for Historic Parks
Recent developments have also reshaped the faces of New Orleans’s most venerable large public parks.

Initial sketches for 340-acre Audubon Park were done in 1898 by Arthur Shurtleff (later Shurcliffe) working for the Olmsted Brothers. Basic design work was completed in the 1920s, although the Olmsted firm remained involved until the 1940s. Today, the park seems to be in a constant state of change. Last spring the original 1898 golf course was replaced by a new one designed by Georgia-based golf course architect Denis Griffiths, ASLA; a new clubhouse and other landscape elements were designed by Cashio Cochran. Not everyone was happy with the new course, however. A preservationist group, Save Audubon Park, charges that the new course has actually reduced public open space in the park. Still, the new course is said to be one of the most popular in the region; based on the number of golf carts I saw hauling golfers around when I visited on a weekday, it is.

The Audubon Zoo, with its fine Louisiana Swamp and other exhibits, is currently
being expanded and updated by Cashio Cochran. By no means are directors of
the Audubon Institute, who manage this graceful historic park, resting on their laurels; upcoming plans include a reconsideration of the park master plan.

Audubon Park is accessible on one side from the St. Charles Streetcar line. From there you can walk all the way to the zoo and the Mississippi River on the walking, jogging, and biking trails that more than 2,000 people use each day.

Another good way of getting to Audubon Park is via boat ride along the Mississippi River. The boat docks at the bottom of Canal Street, and the ride to Audubon (or in reverse, from Audubon to Canal) provides compelling views of the shipping infrastructure along the Mississippi. Make no mistake; this is a working river.

Don’t miss a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar, a venerable institution in itself that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Starting downtown at Canal Street, the car clanks and rattles on its tracks in a right-of-way that forms a gracious linear park with live oaks stretching overhead. It traverses several historic neighborhoods, including the Garden District, and passes Tulane and Loyola Universities. You can purchase a guide from The Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center at 533 Royal Street in the Quarter, to identify houses and gardens along the route; the museum’s exhibits make it a worthwhile destination in itself.

There is also a riverfront streetcar line that runs 1.9 miles from the aquarium to the other end of the Quarter. And New Orleans’s streetcar system is expanding. There will be a new line running up Canal Street in the Quarter to City Park on the Lake Pontchartrain side of town. At 1,500 acres, City Park is New Orleans’s biggest park and boasts the largest stand of mature live oaks in the world. This venerable park, like Audubon, is being updated—in this case with the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, sited adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Sydney Besthoff, the former owner of a chain of pharmacies in the Gulf South, long kept his collection of outdoor sculptures on the terrace of his corporate headquarters downtown. By this fall, however, a five-acre garden will designate spaces for 60 of the sculptures, by major twentieth-century European, American, Israeli, and Japanese artists, that form Besthoff’s collection. Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, René Magritte, Louise Bourgeoise, Tony Smith, and Gaston Lachaise are among the sculptors included. The museum raised the funds to build the garden. Brian Sawyer of Sawyer Berson in New York City, the landscape architect for the garden, calls it “a romantically inspired garden in a contemporary style.” It will feature meandering footpaths and lagoons crossed by three bridges, all set, of course, under existing live oaks hung with Spanish moss. The garden will be open to the public without charge.

Adjacent to the sculpture garden site is the New Orleans Botanic Garden, which opened in 1936 as New Orleans’s first public classical garden. It is said to be one of the few remaining examples of public garden design by the Works Progress Administration. Recent refinements include the renovation of the garden’s original conservatory, built in the 1930s, to house new rain forest and “living fossils” plant exhibits. All this is part of a long-term master plan for the garden by Jon Emerson, FASLA, of Baton Rouge.

Whither the Neighborhoods?
How is the fabric of New Orleans’s historic neighborhoods holding together?

Fortunately, the city’s premier neighborhood, the Garden District, is holding steady. I rode around one afternoon with René Fransen, ASLA, who designs elegant gardens for the District’s toniest clients, and was awed by the majesty of the grand columned houses, meticulously restored and maintained. All the well-groomed gardens here, including those designed by Fransen, are very much of a piece with the historic styles of the architecture. This raises an important point that every visitor should understand: New Orleans is a city steeped in tradition. Don’t look for trendsetting design. Learn to recognize and appreciate garden forms that go back to the early 1700s, when the first French settlers arrived, and forms that have evolved in the city since. Tradition here is a powerful force, and it demands respect.

The staying power of the Garden District shows that a neighborhood very close to downtown (I enjoyed walking from one to the other on a pleasant afternoon) can still be an eminently desirable address. This is important because the city, overall, is still losing population as residents flee to suburban communities on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain (“white flight” is not an anachronism here). In fact, travel outside the wealthier in-town neighborhoods, and you’ll see the sad legacy of poverty and continuing population decline. Thousands of old buildings have been abandoned and blighted; according to Planning magazine, hundreds are destroyed every year.

Try not to let that fact spoil your walk in the Garden District, though. In fact, leave time for several walks there. And don’t leave out some of the less-grand neighborhoods, such as the slightly run-down but still flavorsome Lower Garden District, one of the first neighborhoods settled after the Louisiana Purchase. If you walk there, look for a historic park named Coliseum Square at Coliseum and Camp Streets. On the river side of the park are remnants of the first subsurface drainage system in the city, which allowed neighborhoods to be settled within walking distance of downtown.

Call me quirky, but I think the atmosphere of genteel decay is part of the charm of New Orleans. It calls up the ambiance of Tennessee Williams and Blanche DuBois. (And even though the streetcar named Desire has been replaced by a city bus, it’s still marked “Desire,” and you can still get on board.)

One caution, however: Neighborhoods in New Orleans can change dramatically from one block to the next, or even within a block. You can pass a meticulously restored mansion, turn the corner and find yourself in a patch of slum dwellings. Be ready to beat a retreat if necessary, but don’t let fear deny you the pleasure of seeing some of the texture of the old neighborhoods that you can only see on foot. Any able-bodied person should be out walking in New Orleans as much as she or he possibly can. This city was, and still is, made for walking.

But even as you steep yourself in the gardens and other glories of New Orleans, spare a thought for those neighborhoods off the tourist routes and stop to reflect on what may lie in store for this grand and glorious old city in the decades to come.


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