In a city still suffering from wounds inflicted by Katrina over two years ago, it’s nice to know there are spots around town we can count on to enjoy a respite from the daily hassles and stress. And even though it too endured its share of licks during the storm, New Orleans’ City Park, the sixth-largest municipal park in America, is one of those places where locals retreat to for much-needed relaxation, repose, and fun.
Many of us have dearly cherished memories that were made in City Park. One of my earliest childhood recollections was going to Storyland in the park with my German cousins in town for a visit. We spent that happy day frolicking in the mouth of the whale and around the Old Woman in a Shoe. Even with a few slight language barriers, those familiar storybook characters did something magical to bring us closer together, widened our ability to understand each other through shared good times, and narrowed communication gaps with laughter and smiles.
Undoubtedly one of the city’s greatest cultural gems, the New Orleans Museum of Art which is located in the park made a deep impression on me as a child. My mom enrolled my brother, Treg, and me in a progressive art program for kids. One day, we ran amok through bunches of colorful diaphanous curtains that hung from high ceilings, then plopped on top of large, fluffy, silky pillows that lined the floor. We pressed sliced root vegetables into paint and made permanent impressions on paper. Those formative experiences in expression made their indelible marks on five-year-old me.
I’ll never forget the exhilaration of attending the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit back in 1977 at NOMA. Waiting in that long, snaking entrance line along with New Orleanians outfitted in Pharaoh and Cleopatra costumes—while Lelong Drive was painted blue to represent a faux Nile River—was more than enough fun one could ask for, almost like an out-of-season Mardi Gras Day. But actually getting to feast my eyes on the breathtaking collection of ancient Egyptian treasures was pure gold, like many of the gorgeous artifacts themselves. Tut’s astonishing funeral mask is etched into my mind forever.
I’d have to say my favorite recurring City Park activity of all time is feeding the ducks, swans, and their precious downy offspring who call the lagoons around the park home. Watching the hungry basses’ mouths skim the dark water’s surface to chomp on bird bread is equally fascinating. Speaking of creatures, Treg and I loved riding the ponies at the park as children, and Equest Farms in the park offers everything from horse riding lessons to pony parties. Although the obnoxious equine allergies I developed as an adult prevent me from visiting and saddling up today, Treg can still go, assuming he upgrades from ponies to horses. Giddayup, boy!
Like elsewhere in New Orleans, many aspects of City Park were changed, or rather flat-out destroyed during Katrina. That violent wind gave a whipping to the majestic oak collection, and much of the park sat underwater for days. Although not every oak in City Park was completely leveled, those familiar with the park notice the shorter tree tops and that the trees themselves lack their normal healthy fluffiness thanks to Katrina’s rude talent at natural pruning. The storm transformed the grounds into an arboreal graveyard. After such a tempest, the ghosts of a thousand oaks will forever haunt the park.
Autumn starts the season for various exciting events to happen in, around, and for City Park. Weddings and other special events are being held at the lovely Botanical Gardens. High school football games are in full swing at Tad Gormley Stadium, continuing a great sports tradition in New Orleans. On Friday, September 28th, Love in the Garden will be held to benefit the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure will take place on October 7th, allowing participants to raise money and awareness for the fight against breast cancer. The Voodoo Music Experience, held October 26-28 in front of the Museum of Art, will feature a plethora of local and national musical acts. And all the metro area looks forward to the enchanting lights of Celebration in the Oaks that will keep New Orleans bright and beautiful from November 23 into the New Year.
The Friends of City Park New Orleans, a group dedicated to ensuring the park gets the love it deserves, is sponsoring fundraising gatherings such as Martini Madness on Friday, September 21; Ghosts in the Oaks on Friday, October 19; and the extravagant New Year’s Eve gala, Popa- Cork for City Park. Its members continue to devote themselves to efforts to support the park even though they have their own personal Katrina-related worries with FEMA, insurance companies and the like, and the citizens of New Orleans should be thankful, given that donations make an essential part of City Park’s operating budget.
Folks can always lend the park a hand by rolling up their sleeves one particular “Super Saturday” out of each month, when volunteers meet and happily oblige to perform various jobs such as raking and cutting grass. It’s imperative that urban settings continue to dedicate green space for their communities, and City Park has been an outdoor oasis for us our whole lives. I’ve only scratched the surface on the various opportunities to get involved with City Park. If our beloved park is appreciated and protected, it will thrive and continue to generate countless memories for generations of New Orleanians to come. And that’s a good thing.