In the mid-1980s, Cal Alexander took his young daughter to a public meeting in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, where she asked Mayor Dutch Morial why children had no playground in the Holy Cross neighborhood.
“I’ll have to try and change that,” Morial told her.
Ten years later, Morial’s son, Mayor Marc Morial, helped make that promise come true. Later this month, Marc Morial, now head of the National Urban League, plans to visit the Delery Street Riverfront Playground to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
In 1996, more than 700 volunteers helped to build the playground on a 10,000-square-foot empty lot owned by the Port of New Orleans. Located at the far corner of Holy Cross, near Jackson Barracks, the community-built play space includes a spectacular fantasy village made of wood and an amphitheater, along with ramps, bridges, slides and mazes.
“We wanted the neighborhood to do better,” said Carletta Reneau, an original booster club member. “When it was a vacant lot, mischievous people were utilizing it for sexual acts and drug use. But we didn’t want people to pick up on those negative habits. We wanted a place where everyone, especially our youth, could dream more and accomplish more.”
Another original booster, Vibiana Thomas, still remembers the electricity she felt as the process got underway. “It was exciting. I said, ‘We’re building a park?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Marc Morial got involved after seeing a television news story about the efforts of two key boosters, Vickie Judice and Pam Dashiell. “Their determination was infectious,” he said. “So I reached out to offer my help, because they were making a difference in a part of the city - the Lower 9 - that was a priority.” Like Thomas, he found the grassroots project exhilarating.
“I was so impressed,” he recalled. His administration featured the project in an annual report, he said, to encourage others to make similar changes in their neighborhoods.
The original boosters engaged Robert Leathers and Associates, a New York architecture firm known for creating playgrounds. The firm’s staff visited local schools and asked children what they wanted to see. In the end, the total estimated cost for materials was $140,000; the equipment’s specially milled lumber alone ran $70,000. The Delery Playground still boasts the only New Orleans playset made entirely of wood.
For two years, residents raised money through dinners, dances and other events, including a campaign dubbed Pennies From Heaven, in which schoolchildren went door to door, collecting coins in jars. They gathered enough pennies, about $3,300, to cover the entire gymnasium floor at the nearby St. David’s Catholic School.
As work on the site got underway, Louisiana National Guard troops from Jackson Barracks drilled holes for more than 1,000 poles. Alexander, who was then working for AT&T, got his company to donate solar poles and fixtures to light the park. A group of shops cooperated to lay out, cut, drill, weld and install brackets for the park’s eight swings. Neighbor Shirley Johnson recruited volunteers for the park’s construction by getting a ride up and down the streets of Holy Cross, yelling “Come out and help,” through a megaphone.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Recreation Department provided programming there. For the park’s first nine years, neighbors said, tutors sat on benches under a live oak tree and helped with students with homework every night after school. Artists held art classes and Easter egg hunts.
Neighbors found fill to raise the lower parts of the grassy field and hosted soccer practices there, attended by more than 100 children who competed in regular games, ate pizza and took home trophies. At a small amphitheater with a triangular stage, neighbors hosted small performances. For years, residents created a schedule and took turns picking up trash in the park. Every year, led by booster club member John Koeferl, neighbors got together to apply a heavy coat of sealant to all the wood.
Nine years into the life of the playground, Hurricane Katrina hit, the Industrial Canal floodwall failed and the neighborhood was flooded with catastrophic levels of water. But the wooden playground came through it in perfect shape, and on Saturday volunteers returned to freshen it up for the upcoming anniversary celebration.
The larger message seems clear, even today. “We went through a lot,” Reneau said, “but we’re still here.”
The Delery Playground anniversary party will be held March 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the park at 6335 Alhambra St.