NOLA 300: The story of City Park is all about change

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans City Park started off in 1850 as a hundred acres along a bayou. Today, it is one of the oldest and largest urban parks in the country.

"It started off with just 100 acres," says Robert Becker, City Park CEO. "Then, over the course of many years, probably 80 years, the park and the city began acquiring additional parcels of land."

Those additional parcels of land eventually added up to 1,300 acres. For comparison, City Park is about 450 acres bigger than New York's Central Park. And, it's older.

"City Park began as a legacy gift from John McDonogh," says Becker.

"His will was contested by relatives," he explains. "And, it wasn't until 1854 that the court finally ruled that the City of New Orleans owned 100 acres of land."

That first 100 acres started near City Park Avenue and Orleans Avenue and ran along the high ground of Bayou Metaire. Today, the park extends from there all the way to Robert E. Lee Blvd.

While City Park grew, its ownership changed hands.

"In 1896, the City Park Improvement Association, which until that time had just been a voluntary group of people doing things in the park, was vested with the authority to operate this park," says Becker.

That's when the earliest buildings started going up in the park: the Peristyle in 1907, the Casino Building (which houses a beignet shop today) in 1913, and Popp Bandstand in 1917.

As the park grew, it needed infrastructure, which it got after one of the hardest times in the country's history.

"The Great Depression was an impetus to bring federal investment into this park through the WPA (Works Progress Administration)," says Becker. "Many of the Bridges, the water lines, the drainage systems, the lighting in this park were built by the WPA."

That opened the park to new visitors and made all types of activities possible, including golf courses, tennis courts, and even a race track at one time.

Becker says the Great Depression was one of three watershed moments in the park's history--the first being McDonogh's gift of 100 acres and the last being an event that many New Orleanians would rather forget.

"The third watershed was the hurricane, Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed a lot of the facilities that were in the park, but at the same time offered an opportunity to rebuild," he says.

The post-Katrina rebuilding has brought many changes to the park: two golf courses instead of four, a new tennis complex, a dog park, a miniature golf course, festival fields, and a children's museum under construction. The changes, Becker says, are all part of what makes City Park special.

"The hallmark of almost all great parks is that they change. They're capable of changing," he says. "There's always things in parks that people want to remember, treasure, and have memories of, and don't want to change, and think they will go on forever. But, most all great parks change."