I recently visited Washington Square Park. It's lovely. Can you tell me something of its history?
The young Marigny ordered a wide central avenue to be built along one side of the faubourg, with a landscaped neutral ground — Elysian Fields Avenue. He also set aside land for a large public square, which he named in honor of the first U.S. president, George Washington.
Beginning in 1805, Bernard divided his huge estate into small lots designed for residential development. Lots continued to sell well into the 1820s, and the new neighborhood grew rapidly. It was populated by diverse ethnic groups including Spanish, French, Italians, Germans, Irish and free people of color.
Washington Square was developed almost immediately. On March 17, 1843, The Daily Picayune reported on improvements at the park: "Posts at the distance of about 30 feet apart are to be connected with each other by means of iron chains." This was the first fence around the park. The iron fence was installed in 1853 — the same fence that surrounds it today.
The park, normally a quiet place for relaxation, was the scene of great confusion on Oct. 13, 1899. A steer being led on board a ship broke loose and headed down Royal Street. Perhaps attracted by the grass and flowers in the park, the bull dashed through the gateway, terrifying visitors, who ran for safety. After trampling the flowers and generally wrecking the place, the steer was roped by police officers and thrown down. One officer stood on its neck crying "Victory!" as onlookers cheered from the other side of the fence. The steer was returned to the ship.
In 1904, there was talk of removing the fences around parks in New Orleans. Several fences, including the one around Lafayette Park, were removed, but the very expensive fence around Jackson Square was left untouched, as was the one surrounding Washington Square.
In 1924, the park's character changed when it was transformed into a playground. The residents of the Washington Square area gave the New Orleans Recreation Department permission to use the park for recreational activities, but residents later wanted it back. In 1973, concerned members of the Faubourg Marigny Association expressed their displeasure that the park was being used for recreational purposes and claimed it was destroying the beautiful grove of oaks that surrounds the park inside the fence. The residents won, and the park eventually was returned to a "people's park."
In 1975, the entire Faubourg Marigny was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the neighborhood began a surge of revitalization. Before that it had suffered a decline dating from the Civil War, during which time the neighborhood was considerably poorer than when it was created. New investment in the area beginning in the mid-1970s substantially reduced blight and increased property values.
In 1990, there was a movement to change the name of Washington Square to Morial Memorial Park in honor of the late Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial, our first African-American mayor, who had died the previous year, but this never came to pass. Morial's name graces the city's convention center.