Rebirth History on the Brink of Extinction

By Mercer BaggsApril 16, 2006, 4:00 pm
Golf Chronicles: After KatrinaNEW ORLEANS -- Natural Light beer cans scatter the ground just outside a clubhouse whose roof is covered in blue tarp. Old, ragged campers filled with vagabond contractors litter the parking lot. The hood of a washing machine lies in the middle of a fairway. The smell of trash and urine carries in the wind.
 
Amidst it all, there on the ground, near the empty, crushed cans; outside the gutted clubhouse; next to a barren cart barn; there lies a card. It reads: How to Get to Heaven Wherever You Are.
 
Heaven, at the moment, feels far, far away. At the moment, City Park, like much of the outer edges of New Orleans, is in shambles.
 
Every day we feel like we take a step forward, says Mike Rodrigue. And then we read the paper the next day and its another step back.
 
Rodrigue is a fourth generation New Orleanian. His father used to bring him to City Park as a child and let him ride on the back of his pull cart. Rodrigue, whose immediate family lost six homes to Hurricane Katrina and now resides under one roof, is the founder of the Fore!Kids Foundation. The foundation raises money for various childrens charities through golf tournaments, many of which were held at City Park.
 
Its tough, he says, before stopping at length to fight back tears. Its tough to talk about. It affects everybody.
 
City Park Clubhouse
City Park's clubhouse before Hurricane Katrina and after the flooding.

City Park is the New Orleans equivalent of New Yorks Central Park. Opened in 1854, it spans 1,300 acres, making it one of the oldest and largest urban parks in the country.
 
And come September, it may be no more. No more picnics. No more boat tours. No more festivals. No more amusement parks. No more weddings. No more tennis. No more golf. No more music. No more beauty. No more history lessons. Just history.
 
We have enough money to make it to September, says City Park COO Robert Deviney, then a lot of this park will go back to nature.
 
Wearing a light blue, short-sleeved, collard shirt; jeans and work boots, Deviney, who was born and raised in the Crescent City, pulls into the Bayou Oaks Golf Club on a newly procured tractor, navigating his way around the squatters.
 
We lost every single piece of equipment, he tells, and then goes on to say that, nearly eight months after Katrina busted the nearby 17th Street Canal and flooded 90 percent of City Park land, they are still without electricity or phone service.
 
Devineys job duties have increased significantly as his staff as been reduced 25 fold. What once was a stable of 250 employees is now down to 10.
 
He is now not only the man in charge of restoring his beloved park; hes in charge of picking up range balls.
 
He does this menial task because he knows that golf, of all things, can help save City Park.
 
But he first needs to save golf at City Park.
 
City Park is a self-sustained, non-budgeted state agency, owned by the City of New Orleans. However, it receives no money from the city and gets only $200,000 each year from the State of Louisiana. That 200-grand represents but 1.8 percent of its $10.8 million annual operating budget.
 
The rest of the money comes from within. And nearly half of that internal income is generated through golf.
 
Pre-Katrina, there were four 18-hole golf courses at City Park, as well as a two-tiered driving range that accommodated 75 players at a time. Combined, they pulled in $4.5 million a year.
 
Now, there is overgrown grass and garbage. No flag sticks or tee markers. No players. Just that washing machine hood resting on the Wisner Course.
 
Before the 29th of last August, before Katrina did $55 million worth of damage, more than 100,000 rounds a year were enjoyed at City Park. And just like at Bethpage State Park in New York, players would beat the sun to the course.
 
We call them Dawn Busters, says Rodrigue, who adds, This is where everybody in the area learned to play.
 
He says that because this is the only public place to play in all of New Orleans.
 
Ben Hogan has played here. So, too, have Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. Everybody who was anybody in professional golf in the 40s, 50s and 60s knew City Park, as it hosted the Greater New Orleans Open Invitational (now the PGA TOURs Zurich Classic) 14 times from 1938-62.
 
And, as Deviney said, unless there is some significant funding, golf will cease to exist at City Park, which will mean the end of City Park itself.
 
Were relying right now on donations, and relief from FEMA and our insurance to get facilities back up and running, Deviney says.
 
They are in dire need of at least a couple of million dollars. They figure, if they should receive the necessary funds, that it will take about two months to get at least one course in playable condition.
 
Unfortunately, they need it from a community that has nothing to give. That means they are asking for help from others.
 
This is all part of a bigger picture, Deviney says, this is about us as Americans caring about helping other communities.
 
(Donations can be made at www.neworleanscitypark.com).
 
Just down the road from City Park, men in Hazmat suits filter through rubbish outside one of hundreds of decimated houses in the neighborhood, none of which are habitable.
 
Its just amazing, that in one day it was gone, Deviney says. You have to come down and see the magnitude of this devastation. Its not like a tornado ripped through a 10-house pattern in a neighborhood. Nobody was spared. This was every single house in the community.
 
New Orleans House
Not a house was spared in the City Park area.
Further down the road, a church stands with only half a roof. Its steeple points the wrong side of up.
 
Heaven, at the moment, seems far, far away.
 
But out of the worst evil can come the greatest good.
 
Laissez les bon temps roulez: Let the good times roll. Its long been the local motto in an area known as the Big Easy. Now times are very, very hard, and that motto has forcefully evolved into a new mantra: Recovery, Rebuild, Rebirth.
 
The process of rebirth is underway at City Park. Certain areas have been re-opened, including the practice range.
 
From Tuesday-Friday, during the daylight hours of 3-6 p.m., people can hit a $5 bucket of beat-up, yellow balls just like they used. They can temporarily escape the worries of life; place on hold all that bothers them.
 
People like Jane Rosen, a golf instructor for 15 years at City Park, who made signs that said, Stress Relief, to increase business.
 
People like Kevin Hude, a doctor, who is wearing his work clothes ' long-sleeve, white button-up shirt; tucked-in tie; slacks; beeper; soft spikes ' while hitting old irons and wooden woods out of a weathered, skinny, gray-and-pink canvas bag.
 
On this Friday, the bottom tier of City Parks range is almost at capacity. Everyone pinched in the middle is hitting off of mats, while two men on each side opt for the patchy grass.
 
There is a 20-something white male in shorts, t-shirt and backwards cap. A 30-something black male in a collared shirt and jeans.
 
There is a Kansas man, who has been working as a contractor in New Orleans for seven months, taking a break. And a young girl named Kat, who is taking lessons from Jane Rosen.
 
And then there is Louis Stewart. Stewart, a 65-year-old black male, is hitting balls for the first time in over a year. He used to caddie in the old New Orleans Open, working for the likes of Billy Casper and the Herbert brothers. He wears a hat that reads, Just Golf, and says that todays caddies are making grand-theft money compared to what he used to earn.
 
Its going to get better, he says. It just takes time.
 
Time, however, is not on City Parks side. September is less than five months away. The uncertainty of recouping FEMA and insurance monies is troublesome.
 
In A Streetcar Named Desire, a movie set in New Orleans, Blanche DuBois says that she has always depended on the kindness of strangers.
 
Such is now needed by City Park officials.
 
As a park that was unfunded before Katrina, this really wiped us out, Deviney says. Any donations on behalf of golfers would enable the people to come back and play City Park.
 
Just seeing a park like this, adds Rodrigue, one with so much history ' and not a thing has been done to it since August 29th.
 
New Orleans is rebuilding from the inside out. Those who can make money for the economy are reborn first. City Park lives to support itself, something it can no longer do.
 
'I hope they don't forget about us,' says Deviney.
 
There are people in the park this Friday. Men and women tossing Frisbee, jogging, walking their dogs.
 
People are here; they want their park back, Deviney exclaims. And were going to fight. Were not going to go away.
 
Normalcy is a big part of whats gone. And people want that back.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
Related Links:
  • Recovery: Professional Golf Returns to New Orleans
  • Rebuild: The Resurrection of Metairie C.C.
  • Golf Channel Airtimes - Golf Chronicles: After Katrina
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