John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2010

Transformation of Laurel Street park benefits mutts, people

Tonight was dog night at the Wisner Playground across the street from our house on Laurel Street. Greyhounds and boxers and terriers and mutts, especially mutts, of all shapes, sizes and colors. With them their owners are every bit as eclectic a mix, young, old, blacks, whites, families, couples and singles all seem to enjoy the collective socializing. Bright lights provide illumination until 10 p.m. weeknights, giving the groomed outfield a pleasing, bright green otherwise unnatural appearance after sunset.

Five years ago if you’d shown me this field as it looks tonight and the metamorphosis it has been through in the interim, I’d have been dumbstruck. Visit the scene even now via the Internet on Google Earth and some of the street level photos show the rows of FEMA trailers that occupied the space after the storm.

In the fall of 2005 we began to hear that the space would be utilized for FEMA trailers. At first, we worried about who would end up in those trailers and what would become of the park. It’s not as though the park was pristine prior to the storm. It was poorly maintained. The ballfield bleachers across the street from our house served as an open-air market for certain contraband as did a rotting pavilion on the other side.

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Our fear of the unknown was compounded when construction started. Contractors laying out the site for the trailers came with armed guards. Nobody answered questions. The project involved much more than bringing in the 30-something trailers. They installed infrastructure — new cyclone (the irony in that name has not escaped me since) fences, pipes to provide water and pipes to remove sewage, sheets of landscape fabric over the grass infield and outfield followed by layer of white gravel onto which the trailers were placed.

Then came the people to live in the trailers — they turned out to be displaced firemen, policemen and other city workers who had lost their homes in the storm. They’d been staying on a cruise shipped docked at a downtown wharf until then, probably in quarters equally cramped. Entrance and exit from the facility was monitored by guards on duty around the clock. Their post was right across the street from our house, giving us the benefit of their presence as well.

When it was over — after about two years — the last residents left the FEMA trailers and everything that had been done was undone. Trailers were removed, gravel was scraped up, pipes were dug up. When all traces of the FEMA encampment were gone, they (we never know who they were — multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors working, presumably, with FEMA oversight) began to restore the ball field. Grass was rolled out, infield dirt, in an appropriate shade of reddish-orange and certainly alien to any source nearby, was spread into the shape of a diamond. Backstop fencing was added. The final touch on the field was installation of the lights last spring.

In the playground area, an activist group of neighborhood parents was finally able to convince the New Orleans Recreation Department to tear down the rotting pavilion. They also secured a grant from KaBOOM, a non-profit organization which provides bright, colorful playground equipment to help combat childhood obesity with places for fun outside play.

Tomorrow night will likely be a softball night. Co-ed teams of 30-somethings play slow-pitch almost every other night and weekend afternoons. The dog people have maintained a truce with the ball players by fastidiously removing with plastic bags any evidence of their visits. A sack of plastic bags has been placed near the entrance in case a dog owner arrives without his or her own.

Amazing what has transpired in five years. The image of Katrina’s aftermath is becoming smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror on Laurel Street where the neighbors and their happy dogs certainly now outnumber the hoods.