In the Lower 9th Ward, the Richard Lee playground — a New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) facility — is totally deserted. A sign on a pole proclaims, "We cut tall grass," as the grass in Richard Lee grows higher than 4 feet tall. There's an uncovered manhole on the sidewalk on the way into the park, easily big enough to swallow a child.
Someone has stripped the unlocked changing rooms of all their fittings, exposing dozens of sharp edges and rendering the facilities useless. Ceiling tiles are falling down, and there are signs of recent occupation. Rust has overtaken Richard Lee's cracked jungle gym, and the baseball diamond is recognizable only by its wire cage, which pokes out from a sea of tall grass in the distance as crickets punctuate the silence.
Down the street, the two-story Copelin Center was demolished several months ago and is now a vacant lot next to a trailer, which serves as the neighborhood's makeshift fire station. There's an empty storage container on the center's old parking lot, which says, "Rent me."
"They tore it down, but there was nothing wrong with it," says David Magee, a scrap metal dealer who lives opposite the Copelin site. "It's just a waste of government money. It was in good condition. There was nice stucco, a gymnasium and the lights still worked."
Before the demolition, Magee's 13-year-old son David Jr. would hop the fence and use the center's playground. "At least we had something to do," the son says, gesturing to the crooked basketball goal that he and his father erected recently with the help of some local firemen. "We just put it up for something to do," he adds, sinking a shot from just inside three-point range. "It's still crooked, but we want to paint it up and make it work."
It's children like David who have traditionally been served by NORD since the department was founded in the 1940s. Mayor Mitch Landrieu "believes passionately in NORD's potential for improving life in city neighborhoods," according to his mayoral campaign platform.
But with a city budget $67 million in the red and so many playgrounds in such deplorable shape, can the new administration really bring back NORD?
NORD was once a national success story. New Orleans City Council vice-president Jackie Clarkson's father, the late Johnny Brechtel, was NORD's co-founder, and she can recall the agency's heyday. In her youth, Clarkson was a NORD swimmer and lifeguard.
"NORD was like a religion in our household," she says. "My mother had to cook for NORD. We lived NORD, and loved it. Loved what it stood for."
Clarkson recalls the early NORD meetings around her family's dining room table in Algiers between her father and Lester Lautenschlaeger, then chairman of the board at Tulane University, Gernon Brown, coach of Jesuit High School, and Dr. Morris Jeff, athletic director at Xavier University. The four men pitched the idea of the agency to then-state Rep. deLesseps "Chep" Morrison when Morrison ran successfully for mayor in 1946. They saw it as a way of heading off a nationwide rise in post-war juvenile delinquency.
Morrison established the agency in 1947, and it was written up in the Sept. 5, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine under the headline "LIFE Congratulates New Orleans — Its Children's Recreation Program Is The Most Progressive In The U.S."
"All this summer, in the big, sprawling city of New Orleans, 75,000 children have been having the time of their lives," reads the introduction to the six-page article. "Unlike so many city kids, they have not had to hang around the streets. They have plenty of places to play, pools to swim in, shows to watch, and a schedule of free activities as full as a woman's pocketbook. They are beneficiaries of NORD."
Another picture from the LIFE article serves as a reminder of just how much times have changed in New Orleans — and that the past was not entirely rosy. Its caption: "At a track meet a Negro girl flies through the air in a broad jump. She is competing at NORD's new Shakespeare playground for Negroes ... NORD recreation facilities are segregated. Negroes have eight pools and 21 playgrounds."
"It didn't matter if you were Uptown, downtown, rich or poor," Clarkson recalls. "You either volunteered, coached a team, or wrote a check. NORD was public and private, it was black and white — though separate — and it was athletic as well as artistic.
"My father never built a white playground without building a black playground," she adds.
Lautenschlaeger worked as the agency's first director for a salary of just one dollar a year. He stayed on the job for more than two decades and through several mayoral administrations, bringing in a swath of private sector contributions while Clarkson's father managed the agency from City Hall. Opera singer Norman Treigle sang at NORD operas staged on NORD football fields. There were ballet classes taught by accomplished Parisian ballerinas.
That was a long, long time ago.
"When I was a kid, NORD had great playgrounds and sports teams and even theater, dance and music programs," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at his State of the City speech on July 8. "But when I came into office 67 days ago, I found a recreation department that would make you weep, one that is underfunded and under-prioritized.
"We found many of NORD's facilities are in shambles — swimming pools without filtration systems, no restrooms and no shower facilities," Landrieu continued, later referring to Jerome Smith, who runs the Fan NORD summer camp in the Treme Community Center, saying Smith's "request for basic supplies for his camp this summer was botched by bureaucracy."
"It breaks my heart — because we can do better," Landrieu said. "You know it. And I know it."
In late June, Landrieu appointed Vic Richard III as NORD's new director. Richard, who previously served as NORD director from 1994 to 1999, will be the fourth director of the agency in two years. He returns to New Orleans after spending eight years as Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation from 2000 to 2008.
To get a sense of the challenges facing Richard and NORD today, Gambit took a list of NORD properties assembled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricane Katrina. All are on the East Bank, where storm damage was most severe.
On Sunday, June 27, we visited 25 of the 134 sites on the FEMA list, chosen at random across five neighborhoods selected for their geographic and socio-economic diversity: Uptown/Central City, Mid-City/Broadmoor, the 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, and Gentilly. Our survey found many pools closed, community centers shuttered or bulldozed, and a striking disparity in the care being given to NORD sites in richer areas of the city compared to less affluent parts of town.
As summer heat rises, New Orleans still has a dearth of public pools. At a meeting of City Council's Youth Recreation Committee on June 23, NORD officials estimated just seven pools were open citywide — compared to 16 pre-Katrina.
Pools were closed at three of the four sites Gambit visited: the A.L. Davis Playground in Central City, the Sam Bonart Playground in the Lower 9th Ward, and Joe Brown Park in eastern New Orleans. Only one pool was operational: at the Lemann Playground on Lafitte Street — opposite the largely demolished Lafitte housing project.
Conditions varied widely at NORD sites. We found no children playing at any of five sites we visited in the 9th Ward, nor at any of the five sites in Gentilly. In eastern New Orleans, 18 people gathered at Joe Brown Park for a family reunion, but nobody was playing at any of the other four sites in that part of town. Only one person was playing at the five sites visited in the Mid-City/Broadmoor area. By comparison, 32 people were using facilities in the Uptown/Central City zone — more than in any of the other four neighborhoods combined.
Only one of the five 9th Ward sites had its grass cut. Only two had signage, and only two could qualify as safe under a subjective appraisal: Would a responsible adult feel comfortable allowing a child to play there?
Likewise, in eastern New Orleans, facilities are scarce. At the Werner Playground on Werner Drive between Hammond and Leeds streets, high school student Alex Ronquillo laments the fact that the playground used to have lights, monkey bars, four basketball goals and a baseball diamond. "Now we have just two basketball goals, but they need to level out the court because it keeps flooding and you can't play on it," he says.
"They came and took the swings. I thought they were replacing them, but they never came back," says Ralph McDermott, a Sheetrock finisher who grew up in the neighborhood. "And now there's broken glass all over the playground and missing pieces all over."
"It seemed like after Katrina they never tried to bring it back," says Nakita Gains, a welding student whose grandmother lives across the street. "They cut the grass out here; that's about it. As far as the kids having a safe place to play, they don't seem to care about that."
In Mid-City, the NORD Golden Age Center on North Alexander and Iberville streets also remains boarded up five years after Katrina. A sign from 1998 next to the front door of the facility reads, "Rebuild New Orleans Now!"
The closure of the Sam Bonart pool in the Lower 9th is particularly galling to local residents, who face many other challenges. A sign on North Claiborne Avenue proclaims street repairs under the slogan "Our Recovery In Progress," but someone spray-painted "5 years later" underneath. Behind a wire fence at the corner of Forstall and Marais streets, the Bonart pool sits empty, pieces of brick and masonry at its dry bottom.
"It's disappointing that they're not reopening that pool," says Jenga Mwendo, who runs the Guerrilla Garden, a community gardening project in the Lower 9th. "I took my daughter last year and either it was closed or there was a camp of kids in there or something. And this year, there's no repair, and no ETA on when it might happen. It's just really frustrating to know that we live here and have this community facility that we might be able to use, or we might not."
District E Councilman Jon Johnson, whose district includes the Lower 9th, raised the Bonart pool issue at the recent Youth Recreation Committee meeting. "In the Lower 9th Ward, the community that was hit hardest by Katrina, we just need to pay more attention to that community," he said. "And that is one of the pools that should have been first on the line to make some kind of statement to the people in that community, that we are with you to try to rebuild that community, to bring it back.
"There's nothing, absolutely zero, nothing in that community," Johnson continued. "And nothing has been done by the city or the state in that community for five years since Katrina. Nothing."
Sabrina Montana, NORD's former interim director, responded by telling Johnson that the Bonart pool's changing rooms are "falling down." There's no electricity, and the structure "needs to be bulldozed," she said. "It's in deplorable condition."
Johnson is pushing to open the pool by the end of summer, possibly by bringing in portable bathrooms, as has been done at the John P. Lyons Memorial Center on Louisiana Avenue in the Irish Channel. "Why can't we do the same thing for Sam Bonart as we did for Lyons?" Johnson asked.
Gregory St. Etienne, deputy mayor of operations, responded, "We can explore it. I'm just not sure what it's going to cost."
Gambit sought an interview with NORD director Richard but was referred instead to St. Etienne by Landrieu's office because Richard is new to the job. St. Etienne told Gambit nine of the 10 pools on a targeted reopening list are now open, but the Sam Bonart pool is not on that list. "There's plenty of others that need to be totally redone," he says. "I can't say [when they'll be reopened], because they're probably on the capital projects list, and there's 650 capital projects that are at varying stages of development."
District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, whose district includes Gentilly and part of eastern New Orleans, is frustrated. She says many of the playgrounds in her district were used by FEMA to house trailers and that, despite having promised to bring the sites back after leaving, FEMA never delivered. "The problem is, here we are five years after Katrina," she says. "And we're still arguing over work orders."
NORD estimates having served 4,400 youth so far in 2010, according to a status report delivered at the Youth Recreation Committee meeting. Council president Arnie Fielkow estimates there are 75,000 to 90,000 age-eligible youth for NORD programs in the city. If his numbers are right, he says, "we aren't serving a very large proportion of those New Orleans youth.
"How we can be almost five years from Katrina and not have those playgrounds up is a shame on a lot of people," Fielkow said at the Youth Recreation Committee meeting. "And it's shame on all of us up here."
In comparison to other parts of the city, parks in the Uptown neighborhood were well attended, well tended, and appeared safe. On the day of Gambit's visit, investment banker John Callaghan brought his wife and two kids to Danneel Park on St. Charles Avenue and Octavia Street. He says he's frustrated by the slow pace at which the park came back after Katrina.
"People tried to raise the funds privately to repair it," he says. "And the city was very obstructionist. They said the money had to go to into a general fund for parks across the city. So this was done by the people — 500 people came out here last summer." (A "Friends of Danneel Park" website offers donors the chance to be a $50 supporter of the park, or join the "Platinum Circle" by donating $5,000.)
"Different parts of town have different levels of booster activity," St. Etienne, says when asked about the disparities.
Parks advocate Babs Johnson lives opposite the Lyons Center in the Irish Channel. She got donations from the Allstate Foundation to rebuild that playground after Katrina but is furious that the Lyons recreation building remains closed after five years. Johnson says she often drives out to other NORD sites across the city and calls the agency to report problems. "The issue for me is, why should I, an advocate, have to be telling NORD about these issues, instead of them figuring out what they need to do for themselves?" Johnson asks.
And why can't NORD at least cut the grass at its parks in the 9th Ward?
The answer is simple: money. Or rather, lack of money — which forces some tough decisions on NORD and city officials.
"You have to manage how your resources are deployed, and I'm not familiar with the specifics of the properties you looked at in the 9th Ward," St. Etienne says. "But if none of the physical plant is usable, then why keep the grass trimmed on a regular basis, as opposed to a less frequent basis, if there's no reason for the kids to go there? If this park is on a list of properties to be totally redone, then you sort of land bank it until it's ready to be redone."
The dilapidation raises another worry for the city: that private contributions will dry up if NORD can't manage its facilities better. At the recent Youth Recreation Committee meeting, Fielkow referred to a letter from Nina Packer, executive director of the 1 Family Foundation.
"This is a funder who came in with a $200,000 grant two years ago dealing with Harrell Park, both for the basketball courts and also for the facility itself," Fielkow says. "They're very concerned. They thought the facility would be open a year ago, and this is the Lil' Wayne Foundation. We don't want to lose not only this funder, but we don't want to serve as a precedent for losing other grant money for the whole city."
"Our intention in granting these funds at the time that we did was to expedite the reopening of Harrell Park, and to make sure that the young people in that community had access to facilities for out-of-school programming in their own neighborhood," Packer wrote in the letter.
"We are disappointed that the project that we funded nearly two years ago has not yet been completed."
"The money's still there," St. Etienne says of Harrell Park. "We spent $50,000 on renovating the basketball courts. The other $150,000 is sitting in escrow, waiting for the capital projects team to approve it."
"I think NORD is a very broken, dysfunctional system right now," Fielkow says. "It's woefully dysfunctional both in terms of funding and a governance structure, which over recent years has led to a leadership void and a politicization of the process."
The agency's budget has been halved from $10 million to $5 million in the last 10 years, and it pales in comparison to the $40 million annual operating budget of the Baton Rouge Recreation Commission (BREC). Of BREC's $40 million annual budget, $10 million goes to parkway and park maintenance; the other $30 million funds facilities and a wide variety of recreational programs.
BREC's governing structure was separated from Baton Rouge city government in the 1940s and is funded by a city millage.
"I know things are pretty tough down in New Orleans for parks and recreation," says Mike Proctor, finance director of BREC, who was born in New Orleans. "My dad was a parks director down there many years ago, and I keep up with the goings-on down there. It's not pretty."
Proctor attributes BREC's success to its separate dedicated funding stream, something New Orleans has considered as part of a best practices report undertaken by the city's Recreation Citizens Advisory Panel. "The mayor doesn't tell the school board what to do, and the city doesn't tell the parks board what to do in Baton Rouge," Proctor says. "They're not in competition with the police department for funding, and people like the parks, so they vote to pay for them every time it comes around."
Mayor Landrieu supports the public-private partnership that the advisory panel has proposed, but he has balked at asking voters for a property tax to pay for the broken agency, which was a cornerstone of the advisory panel's report. Instead, the mayor has suggested using the city's general operating fund to double NORD's budget from $5 million to $10 million next year. Meanwhile, Fielkow is pushing to reform NORD's governing structure to reflect the public-private partnership suggested by the advisory panel. A charter referendum embodying the proposed reform will go before city voters in October.
"You build the right organization, you build the right structure, you have an organized development department, and I think the money will come," St. Etienne says.
"I think the real issue is that the leadership of NORD, historically, has been beholden to the politics," says Rod West, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Entergy Corporation — and co-chair of Landrieu's NORD transition team. "It's been difficult to have a long-term strategy as the director of NORD if the election cycle happens every two-and-a-half to three years. We can talk about all of the esoteric issues, but when you're talking about connecting programs to the kids, what you're really talking about is money."
West says an independent governing structure for NORD is most likely to woo back private-sector investment. "We want to hire a chief executive who doesn't have his livelihood interrupted because there's a new mayor in town," he says. "When the private sector is making an investment, they're looking for stability of leadership, clarity of strategy and predictable outcomes."
Over the last 30 years, NORD has seen 14 directors, and "from the private sector that says you have no stability in leadership or strategy," West says. "And the private sector had disengaged because they no longer had confidence that the strategy they were investing in was going to be around long enough to see it through."
West notes that a dedicated millage for NORD was also on the cards during the reform process, but that "there's only so much headroom for additional taxes to be supported by a limited number of people in New Orleans."
"When millages arise, everybody wants to jump on board," says West's fellow co-chair of the NORD transition team, Roy A. Glapion, senior vice president of Professional Service Industries. "It's in the best interests of NORD to move this reform forward, and the millage may not have been the best way to do that."
Not everyone is convinced the proposed structural reform is a panacea, however.
"I think the idea of a public-private commission is a good idea," Hedge-Morrell says. "But my concern is I don't want to change the whole structure of NORD if we don't have the money there in the first place."
Hedge-Morrell points to BREC as an example of a recreation district with a dedicated funding source from property taxes — and she wonders whether soliciting donations from private business is a better idea. "We know we need the money," Hedge-Morrell says. "And we always say public-private partnerships, but the question is, how much can the private [sector] put up? Entergy can only do so much."
Meanwhile, others are simply frustrated with NORD's lack of progress since Katrina.
"Probably my biggest frustration is in the five years since the storm, there just seems to be a lack of urgency around what to do to bring NORD back," says Gena Warner, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Afterschool Partnership. "But we are so far from strategic planning. We're just trying to right the ship right now."
"The time for action has come and passed," Johnson adds. "And people are tired of waiting. They're angry. They're mad, and they have good reason to be."
GAMBIT'S NORD SITE VISITS
Heres a quick video of what we found during the research of this report and please keep in mind that these arent abandoned or defunct playgrounds: these are active NORD facilities, this is is where the city of New Orleans expects its children to play, today.
To view the Methodology of this report and to find a Google Map assembled by Gambit, showing the location of all 134 NORD sites on the FEMA list, click here.