Sunday, November 05, 2006

Signs of life in City Park

Turtles basking on a log in the lagoons off City Park Avenue

The turtles basking in the sun on a log in the lagoons along City Park Avenue in New Orleans' City Park are a subtle sign of the park's slow recovery. These lagoons were innundated with lake water by the flood (as was the rest of the city), and filled with downed trees and debris.

The lagoons are linked to Bayou St. John and through that waterway to the lake, so some salinity from the lake's brackish water is natural, but I wondered at how the likely higher salinity along with the contamination of the city's floodwater would affect these lagoons and the birds, fish and turtles I have associated with them since childhood. A pre-flood Save Our Lake report on the water quality of Bayou St. John and the lagoons found historically low salinity the years right before the Federal Flood. I can't find a study of the aftermath of the flood

These turtles are a small but important sign that the lagoons are likely going to make it. On this day's lunchtime walk the fish were snapping at the surface for their own midday meal, and a diving duck breasted the water like a small Loch Ness monster. If the lagoons had died, or if the stand of centuries-old live oaks that surround them had all been lost, a part of the city's heart would have died with it.

The park has been a central part of my entire life in New Orleans. While I looked uptown for affordable, dry houses that would more closely meet my wife and daughter's picture of what a proper New Orleans house looks like, I am glad we landed in our craftsman double shotgun on a high peninsula off of the Metairie ridge. It puts me back in proximity to the park of my youth, and allows me to see it in a new light.

All through my childhood in a house on Egret Street just off Robert E. Lee the area where I live now along City Park Avenue was the far end of the park to me. If I ventured this far on my bycicle, reaching the City Park Avenue lagoons was to reach the limit, and beyond oak canopy I peered into a city vastly different than the 20th century surbaban enclaves I knew to the north, as if cycling the winding park roads allowed me to travel back in time to an older and different city, one I usually only glimpsed from out my parents' car window.

Now I enter the park from the south, crossing City Park Avenue, and like anything approached from a new perspective I see it in new ways. The bridges that once marked for me the park's southern limit are my entry. I prefer to walk almost up to the Casino to cross the steeply curved, Japanese style bridge there. The sterile childhood vista of the north gold course is replaced by the stands of live oaks that define the park's southern end. The rump remains of ancient Bayou Metairie that form the lagoons of the south end are more natural than those that line the golf courses to the north. Vegetation lines the banks, and fallen logs shelter fish and sun turtles. Carefully shaped over a century into its current citified parkscape, it still hints at what the place might have looked like when first glimpsed by Bienville.

The north end of the park offered its own, wilder version of citified nature when I was very small. Before the construction of the north golf course it was a wild space where snakes could be caught and packs of feral dogs ran. I viewed it with the same respectful fear as a medieval villager looking on a dark wood, and would only venture into the heart of the north end when the alphas of my own nearly feral pack of boys carried me there, an unwilling tagger on. After the construction of the north course, a tree house was built by children older than us in one of the park's trees, and adopted by us as a retreat where we could talk away hot afternoons high up in the breeze under the shade of the canopy.

The long lagoon along Marconi Drive once hosted water skiers, including a jump ramp, before the construction of the shell causeway for Filmore Avenue bisected the long run. My father would sometimes park under the trees along Marconi so we could sit and watch them make the long run up to the ramp and launch themselves into the air. In this same stretch, I once saw an Amphicar launched and watched it take a spin around the lagoon.

From fifth through eight grade, I attended Christian Brothers School in the old McFadden Mansion in the park. Nestled into the older golf courses of the south end of the park, it was set in its own small parkland with its own lagoon. There were several stone constructions, one clearly meant as a grotto (and I wonder today why there was no statue of the Virgin or some saint there), and a raised overlook lined by a brick wall that in fifth grade we thought of as The Fort.

On one of my children's first visits to New Orleans, I made a point of taking them to then newly refurbished Story Land, a small children's park of climable children's sculptures of figures from childhood stories, a wonderland of figures from Mother Goose, Pinnochio's whale, a small pirate ship, and many giant toadstools. We road the flying horses and and the minature train that circles the park's south end. We walked the south end lagoons, and fed the geese and ducks that live there in part on the kindness of strangers with day-old french bread.

On my recent walks I often wondered which attractions might never return. Unlike Audubon Park which is subsidized by a property tax, City Park depends almost entirely on the revenue of its ruined attractions to find itself. The driving range and tennis courts are back, but the golf courses remain a wild tangle. The government seems reluctant to spend money on something as trivial as one of the nation's largest and most active urban parks. It has not been clear that the park was going to recover.

Then, on my return trip (this time with camera) to look for the basking turtles, I found a railway repair company working on the miniature train tracks and confirmed with one of the crew that the tracks were being repaired and not (as I feared) removed. If the life of the lagoons is making a post-flood comeback and the trains are coming back, can the rental boats be far behind? It looks as if this one corner of New Orleans, like so many others, is pulling itself by its bootstraps and getting back together.

Signs of a crew working on the miniature railway tracks along City Park Avenue in City Park.

It is nice to see the City waking up.
In a lot of ways I like City Park more now than I ever have. With the golf courses closed, you can almost feel like you're in the country if you ride (fat tire bike) or walk out on the golf paths--particularly near the lagoons where there's a healthy water fowl population. It was a little easier to get that feeling before they began to cut the grass in preparation for re-opening. The sad thing is, only a few dog walkers and a very few cyclists seem to take advantage of that big empty space.
I lived near the SE corner of the park before the storm and, like you, am glad to see that it didn't die. I used to take my dog running under the ancient oaks between the lagoon and City Park Ave. Walking underneath the Spanish moss between those massive trees was nothing less than magical every single time. I was distressed watching from Texas as the storm waters kept those magnificent trees inundated for weeks. I thought that these trees, some of which predate the city's founding supposedly, would be goners, so it's great to see them still alive.

When you say that the lagoons are connected to Bayou St. John, I can't picture where that connection is. Is there an underground pipe that runs beneath Wisner?

BTW, I think I know that exact log you took the pic of.

And per bayoustjohndavid's advice, I'm going to get off my ass and take the Trek out to the golf courses, like I've thought of doing, and not done, for too long.
Oooh I love City Park!
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