“Most folks in town have no idea where it is,” said Kurt Weigle, President and CEO of the Downtown Development District (DDD), the organization that will attempt to lead this long-forgotten New Orleans park out of obscurity. Weigle is referring to Duncan Plaza, and he forgives you if you don’t know what space he’s referring to. At least for now. “That,” he added, “is something we hope to change.”
A Colorful History
Like many things in New Orleans, this public space has a colorful past.
First imagined in the 1930s by former city planning director Brooke Duncan, it finally became a reality in the 1950s, when a young Duncan Plaza became the centerpiece of a brand new complex of civic buildings: surrounded by a new public library, the Louisiana Supreme Court and City Hall.
It was meant to be one piece of a mile-long stretch of parks, extending from the Union Passenger Terminal all the way to what is now Mahalia Jackson Theatre. That dream never materialized, but it did hold the Grandstands for several years of Mardi Gras parades and even hosted a President when JFK accepted honorary New Orleans citizenship and spoke from the second floor of City Hall to tens of thousands of city residents gathered in the park.
Duncan Plaza has also been home to decades of public protests, ranging from a 10,000-person civil rights march in 1963, to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and women’s marches, more recently.
In the late-1970s the park was almost turned into the world’s largest aviary, designed to allow employees and visitors to enter City Hall via a glass-enclosed walkway. While an aviary would have been interesting, that idea gave way to what we have today: a park, largely forgotten, with a series of berms and dunes that have the unintended consequence of blocking the rest of the park from view when on the street.
“People just drive up Loyola Avenue and right by it,” said Lindsay Glatz, Creative Director at Arts Council New Orleans. In partnership with the DDD, the Arts Council applied for and received a large grant from Southwest Airlines in 2017 to begin re-vamping this forgotten downtown green space.
In 2014, amidst an infusion of billions of private investment dollars in downtown New Orleans, the DDD surveyed neighborhood residents, business owners, and public officials to find out what they felt could help continue the revitalization of downtown. One answer was consistently given: better parks.
“So we asked the Urban Land Institute to help us put together a parks master plan,” said Weigle, and we agreed the plan had to start with Duncan Plaza,” Weigle says. Why? At 4.5 acres, it’s one of the largest downtown parks, it’s much more centrally located in downtown than we give it credit for, and it’s severely underutilized, according to Weigle.
When the Arts Council was awarded the Southwest Airlines grant, the funding was finally available to get started. Through community meetings and surveys, the DDD and Arts Council have prioritized finding out what the neighborhood wants in their park that is expected to see as much as five million dollars in renovation.
In a video showing plans for the park’s design, released by the DDD earlier this year, many of those suggestions were incorporated, including a children’s play place, a dog park, and a “flexible lawn,” with space for 5,000 people, that can be used for a variety of events including concerts, festivals, exercise classes, and evening movie screenings.
“We’ve had our sights on Duncan Plaza for years before that grant,” explained Weigle. “Our goal is to have a downtown in New Orleans that can compete with any downtown in the world.”
All About the Programming
This year has already seen a major shift for Duncan Plaza toward that vision. As part of the Southwest Airlines grant, the Arts Council has led programming. The park is coming to life with daily exercise wellness classes including meditation and yoga, food truck roundups, nighttime movie screenings, and even a De-Stress Day for City Hall employees.
Weigle hopes this will lead to more moments like the one that has stuck in his mind from earlier this year.
One evening, a portion of the park was full of New Orleanians, colored lights hanging from tree branches, food trucks, drinks, music, and boards full of neighbor’s suggestions for what the park could one day become.
“It was amazing to see. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these people had never stepped foot in Duncan Plaza before. And here they were, taking ownership of their park. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of that in the coming years,” Weigle says.