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"Really Excellent to Look At" 

Volunteers in the Faubourg St. John are digging in, literally, to bring a small park back to life -- and lift their own spirits in the process.

Before Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people each week drove past Alcee Fortier Park on Esplanade Avenue and never gave it a second thought. Even now, chances are few people notice the changes that have occurred there since the storm.

But, for some residents of the Faubourg St. John neighborhood, the triangle-shaped park bounded by Esplanade, Grand Route St. John and Mystery Street holds a significance far larger than the tiny park's humble dimensions. For them, it's a symbol of their determination to rebuild their neighborhood -- and, by extension, the entire city.

"I grew up in this neighborhood, around the corner from the park on Rendon Street, and now I live across the street from it," says Bob McGuire, 41, a pharmaceutical sales rep. "This is where I used to take my sons to play football before Katrina hit. When we evacuated for several months, I asked my younger son what he missed most, and he said it was playing checkers in the store and throwing the football in the park. When we came back, I spent five hours in the park throwing the ball with him. We didn't stop until he said it was time to quit."

That simple human connection to a familiar place also inspired McGuire to roll up his sleeves, put up money that his co-workers had collected for him after Katrina, and join about a dozen of his neighbors to bring the park back to life after the storm covered it in several feet of brackish water, killing many of its plants and leaving God-knows-what in its topsoil.

The effort started modestly enough. McGuire spotted one of his neighbors, Bobby Wozniak, digging in the park's gardens one day in December, trying to rescue some of the plants before the first freeze of winter. "I was out there gardening and wondering what can we do," says Wozniak. "And Bob said, 'Hey, let's have a benefit.'"

That was all the start they needed.

McGuire, who admits he had no experience whatsoever at fundraising, suddenly found himself organizing a neighborhood benefit for the park. He enlisted the aid of Wendy Smith, another neighbor, and before long they had scheduled an alfresco dinner featuring Italian sausage po-boys (donated by Terranova's Grocery), salads (courtesy of CafŽ Degas), and wine (discounted by Dorignac's) on Dec. 29 -- four months to the day after Katrina made landfall.

"We did little-to-no advertising -- mostly word-of-mouth -- and the turnout was phenomenal, far beyond our expectations," says Smith. "We also held a silent auction, which was hugely successful."

Even more than the money it generated, the event gave long-displaced neighbors a chance to reconnect with friends they hadn't seen since before Katrina.

The neighbors raised several thousand dollars at the initial event and promptly put that money into the ground -- literally. On Saturday, Jan. 7, barely a week after the fundraiser, more than a dozen neighbors spent the day cleaning debris, moving dirt, filling holes and planting new shrubs in the park. Wozniak, a landscape photographer whose family has farmed in Avoyelles Parish since the 1790s, was designated the project's landscape architect.

"The garden stuff is just an extension of farming, which is part of my heritage," says Wozniak, who rattles off the various plants that were lost to the flood, as well as those that remain. "We have a dozen live oaks on the periphery. They look like they were from the WPA era. They're still in good shape, but we lost some camellias, all the ferns, the oak leaf hydrangeas and the azaleas -- and a small cypress in the middle of the park. We also lost some big sections of grass. But we can get all of that back and more. We'll re-sod in the early spring, put down a layer of sand to cover any lead or other stuff left over from the flood, and then plant new shrubs everywhere."

He walks his dog, Lopez, along the edges of the park, pointing out areas where fresh pine straw was put down or where new camellias and sasanquas have taken hold. "In a couple of years it will be unbelievable," he says, waving his hand across the small cityscape as if he were brushing a canvas. "I just love doing this. I wanted to get really involved again after the storm, and this has given me the opportunity to do that."

By coincidence, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was lunching across the street at CafŽ Degas on Jan. 7, the group's first workday after the fundraiser. When Landrieu saw the work party, she went over to investigate and, upon learning of the group's all-volunteer effort, stayed a while to encourage and praise them. She left a $40 donation. "That meant a lot to us," says Wozniak. "It really gave us a boost -- and a few days later, after we posted something about it on our Web site, we got a matching donation from someone. We're now above $5,100 in contributions."

Buoyed by their early success, the group is planning a second fundraiser this Saturday (Feb. 4) from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. to finance another round of major improvements to the park. The event will include a larger variety of foods from area restaurants and groceries, wine, and a silent auction of art donated by local artists like Michalopoulos, Tony Green, Herman Leonard and others. The group hopes to attract patrons from across the city.

"Some neighborhoods may feel they are not yet ready for something like this because their damages were much more severe," says McGuire. "But at least here we can give everybody a po-boy or some paella and a glass of wine and let them join in and get a feeling of accomplishment, because they can see the results. Plus, of course, it's so much fun."

The neighbors hope their efforts will make the park even better than it was before Katrina, with landscape-quality lighting (including up-lighting), park benches, and an automated sprinkler system. For now, a temporary pole installed by Entergy provides power for limited lighting, and the neighbors run hoses from their homes across the street to water the plants. The park's monthly electricity bill is paid by DeBlanc's Pharmacy, located directly across Esplanade Avenue from the park.

"We're getting it together after the next fundraiser," says McGuire. "We're actually going to hire someone to do the electrical and run the irrigation from point to point on the triangle. Bobby [Wozniak] will also coordinate the purchase of various plants so that we have flowers blooming year-round."

That will be quite a change from the original use of the park, which once was the site of Alcee Fortier Elementary School. It's hard to imagine a school tucked into such a tiny plot of land, and the spatial limitations may have led to the school's demolition in the 1920s, says Wozniak. "It's interesting that the space was first rejuvenated right after the last major natural disaster, the Flood of 1927," he says. "Now we're bringing it back to life again, after Katrina."

As the rest of the city struggles to recover and rebuild in the wake of Katrina, small advances such as the restoration of Alcee Fortier Park pay huge dividends.

"This area is where everyone converges, whether it's the baby-strollers, the joggers, the people going to groceries or to church -- it's the hub of the neighborhood," says McGuire. "All these people are, at some point, just going past this spot and not necessarily noticing how beautiful it is. Our goal has been to give people something really pretty to look at. And now we've got something really excellent to look at.

"It's also about our spirit," McGuire continues. "Our spirit has been beat down by the storm, but this experience has given us an opportunity to participate in the neighborhood's recovery -- and build on the spirit that we need to rebuild our entire city. It also lifted our spirits. That ultimately is what happened."

click to enlarge Neighbors in Faubourg St. John rolled up their sleeves and - cleaned up Alcee Fortier Park on Esplanade Avenue. The - volunteers say the cleanup has allowed them to join in the - neighborhood's  and the city's recovery.
  • Neighbors in Faubourg St. John rolled up their sleeves and cleaned up Alcee Fortier Park on Esplanade Avenue. The volunteers say the cleanup has allowed them to join in the neighborhood's and the city's recovery.
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