A Tricentennial Proposal

AN ORIGINAL ©MIKE LUCKOVICH CARTOON FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE

We are only eight years away from New Orleans celebrating the tricentennial of its founding. In preparation for the festivities we have a suggestion: Let’s use the anniversary as an occasion to focus on the lakefront.

In 1718, Jean Baptists LeMoyne Sieur de Bienville established a city 19 years after his big brother, Pierre, and a band of mostly French Canadians spent their first night on a bayou in what’s now Plaquemines Parish.

Because of the trade potential of such an impressive river, eventually a major port city would be developed.

Bienville could’ve established the city most anywhere, but the spot that made the most sense was where the river made its big bend, and where the land was circumvented by a network of lakes. One of those lakes was so dominant that Bienville, ever the politician, named it after Louis Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, the French Minister of the Marine. Though New Orleans is most often thought of in terms of the river, its existence also has as much to do with the lake at its back door.

As a waterway connecting to the Gulf and its rich estuary systems, the lake upped the value of this new town, making it one of the most important cities on the continent; yet, 300 years later the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront is an underutilized resource. Drive along its roads, many of which are continually blocked for one project or the other, and you’ll see an area that should be busy with life looking mostly abandoned. With the right planning our lakefront could be virtually a second city and no, it wouldn’t have to be a wall of high rises like Miami Beach, Fla, there would still be plenty room for green space. Also leisure development, if done right, wouldn’t have to be polluting. To the contrary, it would be in the interest of businesses, particularly those that are leisure-related, to work at keeping the lake clean.

At some point our lakefront got roped off from public consciousness by becoming a buffer to clusters of modern homes, but it could be so much more. At the very least we propose a tower celebrating the lake’s nautical history with a beam that can be seen on the Mandeville shore. We also suggest a zoning overhaul so that small resorts and recreational areas could be developed. With that could come seafood restaurants, once a part of the lake’s nightlife, that are now limited to only a few places.

For a good part of the 20th century the lake was severely polluted. Through the good works of public agencies, most notably the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the lake is now remarkably clean. Hurricane Katrina provided a threat for fear of the toxic mess that would be dragged into the lake’s bottom. But the lake proved remarkably able to clean itself. The clam population, once thoughtlessly dredged to build roadways, is rebuilding itself. Environmentally the lake has gotten stronger. Yet the lakefront remains unfulfilling as a place to experience.

With planning that can be changed – and eight years is plenty time to make a difference. That would truly be something to celebrate, and the tower’s light beam could be sensed around the world.
 

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