I Rediscovered Armstrong Park
So should you
Jason Raish illustration
What I’m about to say is heretical, hysterical, nonsensical, irrational and nearly tyrannical: Former Mayor Ray Nagin left a beautiful legacy to the city of New Orleans.
Now, after you’ve wiped up the coffee, beer or whatever else you may have coughed out your nose onto the pages of this magazine, hear me out. I am admittedly talking about a relatively minor beautiful legacy. A tiny, little beautiful thing from an otherwise very ugly, tarnished, disgraced and damaging tenure as our chief executive.
I am talking about Armstrong Park.
There is nothing else that I can think of that Sugar Ray did over eight years worthy of merit, other than providing occasional and sorely needed comic relief in the days, weeks and months after the Federal Levee Failure of 2005.
The cussing on the radio. The shower on Air Force One. Chocolate City. Words and actions so terribly unfunny that they were hilarious.
It is a complicated world.
So yeah, I know, I know, I know. He messed this place up badly; made us a laughing stock; added layers upon layers of trial, tribulation, trouble and tears to the damage already wrought by the flood.
But have you been to Armstrong Park lately? In fact, have you ever been there at all?
I give walking tours in the French Quarter that end near the park, and the most consistently shocking comment I receive, repeatedly, comes from locals. I have lost count of people from New Orleans and surrounding communities who tell me they have never been there before.
Now, I know full well that for a long time, there were legit reasons to steer clear of the place. For the first few decades I lived in the city, Armstrong Park’s reputation was as a dark, dank, dirty and dangerous place. The murder of a tourist there in mid-1980s seemed to solidify the park’s disreputable appeal. People gave up on it. Hell, even the city gave up on it.
It overgrew. The serpentine waterways were fouled. Trash was everywhere. It was scary, depressing and shameful.
And then Ray Nagin. After Katrina he put resources into the park, got it cleaned up and kept it clean.
Then came that really bizarre statue debacle.
Do you remember that? Nagin allotted discretionary mayoral funding to install a sculpture garden in the park, depicting mostly New Orleans cultural iconography, including a second-line parade, Congo Square revelry and famous musicians.
Lots of folks complained about Nagin’s unilateral spending of more than $1 million at a time when the city was still struggling to find its post-disaster footing. And then a whole lot more folks nearly lost their minds when it turned out that all of the statues had been mounted on faulty concrete and were in danger of toppling over.
In fact, all of the park’s new concrete turned out to be flawed. The whole damn project had to be dug up and done all over again from scratch. More money spent. The park was closed down for months.
That was so perfectly Ray. Even what he did right, he did wrong.
But here’s the thing: Those statues are beautiful; the park remains consistently manicured; danger concerns are alleviated by a new police substation inside the park gates.
That murder was more than 30 years ago. And the park, day by day, is a clean, bright, happy, safe, tranquil and beautiful place.
New Orleans’ own Tivoli Gardens.
But it’s woefully under-appreciated and sadly under-visited. Attended mostly by out-of-towners, tourists and foreigners. Although the Thursday night outdoor concert series draws legions of local adventurous urban culture vultures, by and large the park remains a non-entity – nearly invisible – to so many folks who grew up here and live here still.
Although the fate of the hulking and still dormant Municipal Auditorium remains a vexing problem, likely still years in the fixing, the rest of the place is as charming and romantic as anywhere in the city.
So do yourself a favor this holiday season: Take a stroll through Armstrong Park. A slow stroll over the bridges, around the lagoons, through the gardens. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine. Take a deep breath and look around you.
And then, safely out of earshot of anyone whose friendship and respect you wish to retain, whisper very quietly: Nice, Ray; it looks good.
Too bad you can’t see it.