The Ghosts of City Park
By Errol Laborde
Mona developed a romance with a young man, most often believed to be a sailor. They might have spent their days walking hand-in-hand alongside the lagoons that now comprise the park, but the father didn’t approve of his daughter’s suitor. He forbade her from seeing him. The daughter was heartbroken beyond her father’s expectations. If she couldn’t live with her sailor than she couldn’t live at all. One evening she ran outside the mansion, leaped into the lagoon and ended her life.
A variation of the story justifies the father’s apprehension – the sailor, it turns out, was just looking for a fling and had no long-term interest in the girl. Standing alongside the lagoon he told the girl that he was leaving for another port. The two got into a tussle and the girl was fatally pushed into the water.
The old man would eventually donate his vast property to the city but under the condition that a Venus statue honoring his daughter would stand in a cul-de-sac at the end at the end of a nearby road. The monument was erected – but there was misfortune. The site attracted large crowds, quite often pairs of lovers moved by the story behind the statue. One night the Venus was knocked down. Eventually the fallen monument was destroyed through neglect and both the road and the cul-de-sac were overcome with vegetation. The exact location would be lost, though we’re told that it was somewhere near the Popp Fountain toward the back of the park.
Not lost, however, was Mona. There would forever be stories of an apparition appearing at night quite often delivering a mournful sound, especially at the sight of parked cars and embracing couples. Because of her first name, the area she haunts would be known in popular legend as Mona Lisa Drive.
Not far from the drive, near where the tennis courts stand, I personally experienced supernatural sounds in the night, especially in the evenings during the weeks when the first chills usually set in. Over the sounds of tennis balls being whacked there would suddenly be screams, cackles, sirens and yells. Even the nearby raccoons would scurry as the sounds grew progressively louder, than disappeared only or return again. In the distance there would be blinking lights silhouetting the trees.
Mona might have experienced the sounds, too, although non-believers dismiss her as just another lover’s lane urban legend. Former University of New Orleans anthropologist Ethelyn Orso studied such tales and notes that as the population shifted, so did the location of the stories. One version placed Mona Lisa Drive near Williams Boulevard in Kenner. Orso also observes that many of the teenagers who told the tale confused the apparition with the sound she supposedly made. They listed her name as being “Moaner” Lisa.
Not legends at all were the wails and screams heard from the tennis courts. Those sounds lasted through several Octobers but were eventually exorcised by Katrina. After the storm the nearby old swimming pool, which housed the Sheriff’s annual Haunted House, was torn town. No more would the hay wagons wind their way through the park. The automated scary sounds would be muted. The blinking lights of the ever-protective police would go elsewhere.
Now the autumn evenings in City Park are darker as they once were. Lovers Lanes have moved to other places. As the evening progresses Mona has the night to herself. The quietness is broken only by the sound of acorns making their plunge.
Wherever legend takes Mona Lisa Drive, City Park, with its moss-draped oaks and moonlit ponds, is where it should be forever. Not far from where hot-headed Creole men once dueled beneath the trees, poor Mona deserves to roam freely finding at least the embrace of nature if not her wayward sailor.