New Orleans’ biggest park comes back

John Hopper
John Hopper, the director of development for New Orleans City Park, sits beside a sculpture in the Storyland portion of the park in this September photo.Alex Brandon / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Orleans' City Park was once a lush Southern landscape of lazy lagoons, majestic ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss, and magnolias framing the fairways of three golf courses.

That was before Hurricane Katrina swamped nearly all of New Orleans' biggest park with up to 8 feet of water. Most of the grass died, along with more than a thousand trees. The golf courses were left covered with weeds, the lagoons choked with debris.

But the 1,300-acre park, one-third larger than New York's Central Park, is slowly coming back, with the help of volunteers, private donations from around the world and a major gift from New Orleans Saints football star Reggie Bush.

"It's kind of like everybody's big back yard," said Harold Lee, as he and his 6-year-old granddaughter, Sally, fed ducks waddling along the banks of Bayou St. John, across from the park.

Almost 15 months after the hurricane, a few attractions have reopened, including the botanical garden, the golf driving range, tennis courts, softball fields and Storyland, populated by colorful life-size characters from fairy tales.

Later this month, an amusement park that contributed about 10 percent of the park's pre-Katrina revenue will reopen for Celebration in the Oaks, the annual display of twinkling holiday lights.

The celebration, the park's signature moneymaking event of the holiday season, drew 50,000 last year, even amid the post-Katrina chaos. It is expected to be bigger this year, although the city has only about 188,000 residents, compared with 455,000 before the storm.

Still, the job ahead is huge, and park officials estimate complete restoration will cost $43 million. Money for repairs — much of it from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — has been slow in coming. Because of red tape, FEMA has authorized only $2.6 million, and until recently, the park had received only about $250,000.

"It's a struggle," said John Hopper, director of development for the park. "Sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one back."

‘A vicious cycle’
Largely self-supporting before Katrina, the park has received only $200,000 budget was cut to $2.8 million. Before Katrina, City Park had 240 employees; now it has 30.

"It's a vicious cycle," said New York City Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "They need to restore the golf course, the other attractions that can earn money, but they can't restore them because we have no money."

The funding crunch has left much of the work to be covered by private donations, with more than $5 million raised so far.

"Everything done in the park so far has been the result of donations," said City Park chief executive Bob Becker. "We've had convention groups donating time to come out here and work, newspaper readers in Germany and a corporation in France donated money to us, along with countless individuals."