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.