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Tree-mendous City Tradition

New Orleans gets ready to celebrate 160 years of City Park.

Erroll Laborde’s father spent 30 years as superintendent of City Park in New Orleans, La., and experienced many things in his career, but nothing could prepare him for the earthquake that happened in 1964, a seismic event known as The Beatles.

tree

Above: The world’s oldest grove of mature live oaks, like the one shown in this photo, is within City Park. One of the trees is thought to be 800 years old. Cheré Coen photo

Below: The carousel, which dates to 1906, is one of the park’s many treasures. New Orleans CVB-Jeff Anding photo

carrousel

“Once The Beatles got on stage at City Park Stadium, the whole moment was lost when the girls raced to the stage,” Laborde recalled.

Anniversaries for the park and The Beatles’ visit to New Orleans will be observed this year. City Park, one of the oldest and largest urban parks in America, turns 160 and it will be 50 years this September since the Fab Four came to town.

“It was all scary and bedlam inside the stadium,” said John Hopper, City Park chief development officer and director of public affairs. “It was a school night and there were stories of high school girls there with curlers in their hair.”

The Beatles’ visit is one of many great memories New Orleanians have of their City Park. Others include feeding the ducks in the park’s many lagoons, falling in love on the century-old carousel, and attending the annual Celebration in the Oaks holiday lights extravaganza, among so many others.

Remembering park history

The park dates to 1854 when the first parcels of land were acquired for an urban oasis near Lake Pontchartrain. Over the years, the park has been many things to many people, including the site of gentlemen duels or “affaires d’honneur”; a racetrack site; a swimming pool location; and a popular place for countless weddings.

The beloved carousel dates to 1906, although some of the animal figures are older. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under President Franklin Roosevelt spent millions to construct fountains, roadways, and City Park (later renamed Tad Gormley) Stadium. Today, the park still contains numerous pieces of WPA artwork.

It also is home to another city treasure, the New Orleans Museum of Art.

On the natural side, the 1,300-acre park is filled with ancient live oak trees, some with arms stretched out and reaching the ground, a playground for children. The oldest grove of mature live oaks in the world exists within City Park and the McDonogh Oak is thought to be 800 years old.

“McDonogh is probably the oldest thing in Louisiana,” Laborde said.

Looking to the future

As comprehensive as its history is, looking forward is even more impressive.

The City Park Improvement Association has embarked on a master plan that will transform the park, performing facelifts to many structures, moving others for better planning, and adding new elements.

Public input was solicited, and park administrators examined Central Park in New York City and Balboa Park in San Diego for inspiration, Hopper said. New Orleans respondents asked for more green space and family friendly attractions.

“When we sat down and looked at everything, we had the right pieces in the wrong places,” he said.

The final master plan was adopted in March 2005, with the goal of completion being 2018, the 300th anniversary of the city of New Orleans.

“The plan all along–even before Katrina–was to hand off a first-class park back to the citizens of New Orleans,” Hopper said.

But on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The hurricane and failure of the federal levee system resulted in flooding of the park and its buildings. Park archives located in the basement of the New Orleans Museum of Art were lost. Two thousand trees in the park were destroyed.

There was structural damage to several park buildings. It took years to get the park back in shape and raise the needed funds to both restore and revise the park according to the master plan. To complete the goals for 2018, Hopper said, $143 million needed to be raised. As of the end of 2013, they have raised $108 million, he said.

Since Hurricane Katrina, changes to City Park have included the restoration of the old casino building–which always has been used for refreshments, not gambling–and the addition of The Morning Call Coffee Stand that serves up traditional New Orleans beignets and café au lait 24 hours a day.

“A lot of people are saying that’s one of the best moves you’ve made,” Hopper said of adding The Morning Call to City Park. “It’s always packed and people spread out on the lawn.”

More than $7 million was invested in the amusement park and Storyland, and a new 26-court tennis center was installed. There’s now a “City Bark” dog park, miles of biking and hiking trails, and the development of the Goldring/Waldenberg Great Lawn and Tricentennial Place. The stadium where The Beatles caused such havoc has been renovated, and more than 5,000 trees planted, in addition to the replanting of the Botanical Gardens.

And some traditions, like The Celebration in the Oaks–an explosion of holiday lights held throughout the park’s oak trees–haven’t skipped a beat. The holiday event beloved by city residents of all ages continues every Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

“It’s now going on so (long) that several generations have participated in it,” Hopper said. “There’s no way not to have a smile on your face at Celebration in the Oaks.”

There’s still more to come, he added, including a championship golf course, skate park, splash park, Environmental Education Center, and the relocation of the Louisiana Children’s Museum from downtown New Orleans to park property.

“We are peddling as fast as we can to get the remaining things in place for 2018,” Hopper said. “The vast majority of them will be done.”

“What’s happening in the last few years, it’s really going to be one of the best parks in the United States,” said Laborde, who is following in his father’s footsteps by serving on the park’s board. “They’re doing everything classy. They’re doing everything well.”

Whatever the future brings to this massive urban oasis, chances are there will be plenty of stories to tell.

“That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working here, is there are so many stories,” Hopper said.

Cheré Coen is a New Orleans native whose grandparents courted in City Park. She now lives in Lafayette, La.

May/June 2014 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information on New Orleans City Park, visit www.neworleanscitypark.com or call (504) 482-4888.

Visitor information for the city is available through the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.neworleanscvb.com or (800) 672-6124.


 


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