I attended the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, but oddly it was not held in Congo Square. Though the festival was amazing, it would have had so much more impact and meaning if it had been held in its namesake. I can't seem to find out why it wasn't held in Congo Square, except for the explanation of "ongoing repairs" being done to Armstrong Park. My question is: Why isn't more being done to make Armstrong Park and Congo Square available to the citizens of New Orleans? Such a historic place should certainly get the care and attention that other areas of New Orleans do. It seems the park is simply being ignored and left to die. With so many of our citizens and visitors willing to volunteer for rebuilding projects, it seems a shame to see those doors locked so tight.
Do you remember Hurricane Katrina? Of course you do.
Armstrong Park and the buildings in it — the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts — were severely damaged. It will take a great deal of time and money to get the park and the city-owned buildings back in shape. Everyone has to wait for FEMA, but as of last May, the city had $2 million in bond money and $1.7 million from FEMA for repairs to that park.
The latest good news is that Armstrong Park should be open next month. The Theatre of the Performing Arts is being renovated and is scheduled to reopen with a spectacular series of events lasting a week. Performances will be held by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), the New Orleans Opera, the New Orleans Ballet Association and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In addition, Placido Domingo will sing at a concert Jan. 17 and will have the theater's stage named in his honor.
The Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts opened in 1973 and was home to the New Orleans Opera and New Orleans Ballet Association before Hurricane Katrina flooded it, damaging the hydraulics and stage machinery. The roof was badly damaged by the hurricane's winds, and seats and wall coverings needed to be replaced. After renovations are complete, just about everything in the theater will be new.
On Jan. 10, the LPO will return to the Armstrong Park venue, where it performed for 10 years before moving to the Orpheum Theatre. The future of the Orpheum, also damaged in Katrina, is still uncertain.
You'll be happy to know that about 350 volunteers from the tourism industry spent a day in Armstrong Park last spring, but they were not there for a picnic. They were raking, sweeping, scraping, hauling and painting all over the 32-acre park. Even the statue of the great man himself — Louis Armstrong — was refurbished.
Last May officials began the process of draining the lagoons, which is necessary before they can assess damage to the bridges, lights, electrical system, pumps and aeration system.
The 78-year-old auditorium, also closed since Katrina, is another story. City officials say there is no timetable for renovating that building, which sustained greater damage than the theater. Repairs to the auditorium are estimated to cost more than $13 million, which prompted the decision to renovate the theater instead of the auditorium. Despite the damage, there currently are no plans to demolish the auditorium, which has been used for everything from graduations, Carnival balls and Summer Pops concerts to rock shows, boxing matches and ice hockey games. Because its renovation will be such an enormous project, however, the city placed other storm-damaged buildings higher on its priority list.
If you will be patient just a little longer, the gates to Armstrong Park will open once again and the next Congo Square festival can be held where it's supposed to be.