Looking up St. Ann Street from Jackson Square, the elaborate white gates of Armstrong Park are clearly visible. Those gates had been locked for a long time as a troubled repair program sputtered along. But now they are finally open again, and visitors will find new and spruced-up attractions at the 30-acre park.
“Armstrong Park is a national treasure that, unfortunately, has suffered decades of neglect,” City Councilman Eric Granderson said during its reopening ceremony. “Its historical and cultural roots will also be a draw to visitors of the city, especially those interested in our storied musical past.”
Most significantly, the revamp has reopened Congo Square. This part of the park had a long history as a gathering place for slaves and free people of color in antebellum days. Music scholars widely credit these gatherings with keeping alive African customs in America, eventually fostering the first strains of jazz.
“This is the spot where jazz was created, that art form for the entire world, New Orleans’ most poignant gift to the world,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “It’s just really important that we remember and we understand. I’m happy this public space is open now. It’s here for everyone to enjoy.”
Another addition to Armstrong Park is its Roots of Music Sculpture Garden, which includes statues of New Orleans musical icons including Buddy Bolden, Mardi Gras Indian chief Tootie Montana, a brass band and an abstract representation of the French Opera House.
Late in the administration of Ray Nagin, the former mayor decided to add the music-themed sculpture garden and spent some $1.2 million from a special city fund to commission its sculptures, paying artists between $180,000 and $400,000 each.
But the overall park repair project went off the rails as it was revealed that City Hall’s contractor had done a shoddy job. Concrete paving had to be replaced several times, while workers damaged lighting, landscaping and even a statue of the park’s namesake, Louis Armstrong. Eventually, the Landrieu administration was able to finish the park’s restoration with funds recovered from the contractor through surety bonds.
The park also includes the Municipal Auditorium, which remains closed. City Hall reports that FEMA is still assessing Hurricane Katrina damage and repair needs for the auditorium.