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Laura Kuhn, March 15, 2016

Once upon a swampland, a southern plantation stretched between the remains of Bayou Metairie and the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Brimming with canopies of ancient oak trees, this mossy landscape was established during the mid-19th century as New Orleans City Park in a movement to retreat from congested city life by constructing urban commons as a sanctuary.

City Park thus began as a lush oasis in a wild stretch of bayou. Master planners commissioned the development and by the 1930s, numerous federal relief agencies such as the Works Progress Administration implemented the plans to make substantial improvements to the greatly enlarged Park.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a keystone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambitious American New Deal agency which employed millions of unwaged people to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression in the United States. It was an era of poverty, deflation, and high unemployment following the stock market crash of 1929, and therefore the goal of WPA was to alleviate the worst effects of the Depression by producing job eligibility to a large span of people in need of wages.

Public building programs, including park construction, enabled employment for millions of people who needed subsistence incomes. The construction of City Park helped maintain the public’s self-respect, reinforced work ethic, and ultimately developed a picturesque and historic landmark. More than 20,000 people were employed through Works Progress Administration, and twelve million Federal dollars were spent building the Park’s roads and structures, as well as digging more than ten miles of lagoons, all the work done by hand.

During FDR’s visit to New Orleans in 1937, the president dedicated Roosevelt Mall in City Park near the city’s new municipal stadium, then under construction. FDR witnessed firsthand his administration’s vision brought to life as the Park’s bridges, fountains, sculptures, roads, landscaping and gardens were included in the extensive WPA improvements.

New Orleans City Park has since become an epicenter of culture. Its 1,300 acres of land encompass the largest collection of mature live oaks in the world. Its painstakingly restored magnificent mechanical carousel is still in operation since its debut in 1897. Its stadium hosted The Beatles live in concert on September 16, 1964, with a cover charge of only five dollars. City Park features an amusement park, an art museum, botanical garden, a Peristyle dance pavilion, and the historic Popp Bandstand.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused severe destruction due to the storm surge and levee failure. City Park suffered along with greater New Orleans as extensive damage resulted from winds toppling trees and water flooding almost the entire Park. The inundation of water damaged buildings, amusement rides, electrical systems, and caused the death of 2,000 trees and landscaping, including the plant collection in the Botanical Garden.

Yet in the immortal words of author Margaret Mitchell, “Land is the only thing that lasts.” People prevailed with dedications and donations. The Park, along with much of New Orleans, recovered. The post-Katrina restoration and improvements are the most extensive since the WPA era, and therefore, in honor of its past and its future, City Park now offers Parker’s Amber Ale, a draft brewed in Baton Rouge by Tin Roof Brewery. When you enjoy Parker’s Amber Ale, lift your glass and toast to the men and women who worked and labored in the southern heat to build New Orleans City Park. Drink in tribute and continue to “Watch us grow.”


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