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On Sunday, June 27, we visited 25 of the 134 sites on the FEMA list, chosen at random across five neighborhoods selected for their geographic and socio-economic diversity: Uptown/Central City, Mid-City/Broadmoor, the 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, and Gentilly. Our survey found many pools closed, community centers shuttered or bulldozed, and a striking disparity in the care being given to NORD sites in richer areas of the city compared to less affluent parts of town.
As summer heat rises, New Orleans still has a dearth of public pools. At a meeting of City Council's Youth Recreation Committee on June 23, NORD officials estimated just seven pools were open citywide — compared to 16 pre-Katrina.
Pools were closed at three of the four sites Gambit visited: the A.L. Davis Playground in Central City, the Sam Bonart Playground in the Lower 9th Ward, and Joe Brown Park in eastern New Orleans. Only one pool was operational: at the Lemann Playground on Lafitte Street — opposite the largely demolished Lafitte housing project.
Conditions varied widely at NORD sites. We found no children playing at any of five sites we visited in the 9th Ward, nor at any of the five sites in Gentilly. In eastern New Orleans, 18 people gathered at Joe Brown Park for a family reunion, but nobody was playing at any of the other four sites in that part of town. Only one person was playing at the five sites visited in the Mid-City/Broadmoor area. By comparison, 32 people were using facilities in the Uptown/Central City zone — more than in any of the other four neighborhoods combined.
Only one of the five 9th Ward sites had its grass cut. Only two had signage, and only two could qualify as safe under a subjective appraisal: Would a responsible adult feel comfortable allowing a child to play there?
Likewise, in eastern New Orleans, facilities are scarce. At the Werner Playground on Werner Drive between Hammond and Leeds streets, high school student Alex Ronquillo laments the fact that the playground used to have lights, monkey bars, four basketball goals and a baseball diamond. "Now we have just two basketball goals, but they need to level out the court because it keeps flooding and you can't play on it," he says.
"They came and took the swings. I thought they were replacing them, but they never came back," says Ralph McDermott, a Sheetrock finisher who grew up in the neighborhood. "And now there's broken glass all over the playground and missing pieces all over."
"It seemed like after Katrina they never tried to bring it back," says Nakita Gains, a welding student whose grandmother lives across the street. "They cut the grass out here; that's about it. As far as the kids having a safe place to play, they don't seem to care about that."
In Mid-City, the NORD Golden Age Center on North Alexander and Iberville streets also remains boarded up five years after Katrina. A sign from 1998 next to the front door of the facility reads, "Rebuild New Orleans Now!"
The closure of the Sam Bonart pool in the Lower 9th is particularly galling to local residents, who face many other challenges. A sign on North Claiborne Avenue proclaims street repairs under the slogan "Our Recovery In Progress," but someone spray-painted "5 years later" underneath. Behind a wire fence at the corner of Forstall and Marais streets, the Bonart pool sits empty, pieces of brick and masonry at its dry bottom.
"It's disappointing that they're not reopening that pool," says Jenga Mwendo, who runs the Guerrilla Garden, a community gardening project in the Lower 9th. "I took my daughter last year and either it was closed or there was a camp of kids in there or something. And this year, there's no repair, and no ETA on when it might happen. It's just really frustrating to know that we live here and have this community facility that we might be able to use, or we might not."
District E Councilman Jon Johnson, whose district includes the Lower 9th, raised the Bonart pool issue at the recent Youth Recreation Committee meeting. "In the Lower 9th Ward, the community that was hit hardest by Katrina, we just need to pay more attention to that community," he said. "And that is one of the pools that should have been first on the line to make some kind of statement to the people in that community, that we are with you to try to rebuild that community, to bring it back.
"There's nothing, absolutely zero, nothing in that community," Johnson continued. "And nothing has been done by the city or the state in that community for five years since Katrina. Nothing."
Sabrina Montana, NORD's former interim director, responded by telling Johnson that the Bonart pool's changing rooms are "falling down." There's no electricity, and the structure "needs to be bulldozed," she said. "It's in deplorable condition."
Johnson is pushing to open the pool by the end of summer, possibly by bringing in portable bathrooms, as has been done at the John P. Lyons Memorial Center on Louisiana Avenue in the Irish Channel. "Why can't we do the same thing for Sam Bonart as we did for Lyons?" Johnson asked.
Gregory St. Etienne, deputy mayor of operations, responded, "We can explore it. I'm just not sure what it's going to cost."