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How Post-Katrina New Orleans Inspired Civic Engagement

I recently traveled to the crescent city, New Orleans -- affectionately known as NOLA -- for a conference. Besides the lively music, cultural hybridity, and unforgettable food, what soulfully grasped me was the civic spirit of its resilient residents and newcomers, who all seem to have metaphorically boarded the streetcar named 'rebuild NOLA', in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina that devastated the city in August of 2005.

Away from the surreal madness of Bourbon Street, one of the rebuilding projects is the proposed Lafitte Corridor Greenway. Jason Neville, NOLA native and former Los Angeles city urban planner, says that the project is "one example of the wide variety of grassroots recovery projects that have taken hold of the city."

A 3.1 mile stretch of land that runs through the neighborhoods of Mid-City and Tremé (made popular by the HBO series and historically home to free people of color during slavery), the corridor served as a canal and railroad that connected Lake Ponchartrain and Bayou St. John to Basin Street, which is situated at the northern edge of the French Quarter. With decreasing reliance on the canal and train, urban planners dating back to the 1970s had pushed the idea that the corridor be turned into a linear greenway park. Lacking the funds and complete public ownership of the land, the city had not acted upon the suggested plans.

Following Hurricane Katrina the city and the nation came to the aid of NOLA. This included the city inviting residents to take part in planning exercises and provide ideas to guide the reinvestment back into the city.

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Lafitte Corridor hikers from 5th annual hike in 2009 | Photo by Bart Everson

Bart Everson, a resident of Mid-City who had organized a hike through Lafitte Corridor the spring before the storm, thought it would be fruitful to organize an annual hike of the area to bring attention to the greenway project and push the city to direct funds and political will to make the greenway a reality. Through Everson's research into the Rails to Trails Conservancy national network and through engagement of his fellow NOLA citizens to hike with him, the Friends of Lafitte Corridor (FOLC) was born.

Now in its seventh incarnation, the FOLC hikes have involved as many as 400 participants who walk the 3.1 miles to call attention to the project. Everson describes the event as an "exercise in imagination," and tells fellow hikers to "imagine what [the area] could be and use the hike as an opportunity to think about what one would like to see and share these thoughts in the formal city planning process."

Since then the city has officially started a planning process called the Lafitte Corridor Connection and has begun to involve the neighboring communities of the corridor into the design workshops. According to Everson, the project has met some delays, but a groundbreaking is expected to take place in 2013.

I was fortunate to be able to go on a hike of the proposed greenway with Everson. We started at Louis Armstrong Park, home of the historic Congo Square, where slaves gathered on Sundays to organize a market, sing songs, play musical instruments, and dance. Even though the official trailhead for the greenway project is proposed to start across Basin Street, northwest of the park, some residents have suggested that the trailhead would make more sense to start directly in the park. Some residents also suggested that the park should be relieved of the fences that surround it.

Congo Square information sign in Louis Armstrong Park | Photo by George Villanueva

As I hiked the corridor's mixture of concrete pavement, grassy areas, empty lots, street intersections, housing projects, drainage systems, and smaller parks, I was immediately struck by the scale of the land and the potential to turn the corridor into a mixed-use linear greenway. I was also pulled back into history as I imagined the corridor's past as a canal and railroad that once connected Bayou St. John and the Lake Ponchartrain. I became fascinated by the empty spaces once owned by the Louisiana Institute of Film Technology who promised to build film studios on the lots. This development never materialized, but the city was able to buy back the land through post-Katrina funds that will eventually be used to develop the greenway.

I was equally intrigued by the sight of the Orleans Relief Canal that serves as a critical drainage system for the area. Everson suggested that the project and NOLA embrace the concept of "living with water," given its geography.

The "Dutch Dialogues" were spawned from citywide interest to address flooding concerns post-Katrina. Not foreign to living with the threat of floods in the Netherlands, Dutch engineers were invited to exchange ideas with the city on how they could create a sustainable greenway project that integrated the reality of hurricanes and water in the NOLA region.

Of most interest and fun to me in terms of engaging spaces were the public installations in the medians along the proposed greenway. Conceptualized as "green rooms," the installations include see-through fencing, artistic takes of traffic signs, playful artifacts of recreation, and banners that visually render the proposed greenway. The works elicit the passersby to pause, engage with the public space.

Another green room installation at the Jefferson Davis Parkway intersection along the Lafitte corridor | Photo by George Villanueva

Bart Everson standing by a green room installation designed to be a tri-panel wind activated structure | Photo by George Villanueva

On my return flight to Los Angeles, I became re-energized about our own city's efforts to turn the L.A. River into a 51-mile greenway that spans from the western edge of the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Efforts to engage residents and visitors and re-imagine the river are underway with the "I want my L.A. River to be..." kiosks along the Northeast L.A. Glendale Narrows section of the river, installed as part of the NELA Riverfront Collaborative initiative, a project with which I've been involved as a Civic Engagement Project Coordinator.

Furthermore, the Southland itself is re-thinking entire stretches of its land in park-poor cities such as Compton. Through an Urban Pathway Initiative called the Compton Creek Bike Path, the city and its residents are advocating for a space that can be updated for recreational uses, such as walking and biking, that promote healthy activities in the community.

Los Angeles residents who may suffer from the stigma of not engaging themselves in the political and civic process (take for example Steve Lopez's recent L.A. Times article on the upcoming mayoral election), can look to projects and installations that not only re-imagine the physical spaces of the city, but also the political and civic heart of the city -- itself akin to NOLA's enduring civic spirit post-Katrina.

George Villanueva examines the engagement of space and place that aims to make Los Angeles more democratic, socially just, culturally intriguing, and fun. He currently is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, with a research focus on civic engagement, spatial justice, and sustainable urban development. George is a native Angeleno born and raised in the intersecting spaces of East Hollywood, Koreatown, and the Temple-Beverly corridor (now Historic Filipinotown).


Top: Green room artistic installation of stop signs with banners marking the future development of the Lafitte greenway project. Photo by George Villanueva

About the Author

George Villanueva, Ph.D. is a native Angeleno born and raised in the intersecting spaces of East Hollywood, Koreatown, and the Temple-Beverly corridor (now Historic Filipinotown).
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