Friday, September 30, 2011


When I go to New Orleans, one of my favorite places to go is actually not Bourbon Street (though I do end up there, eventually), but I can be found in the park named for my idol, Louis Armstrong.

Now, since Hurricane Katrina, the park has been open off and on, partially due to construction and whatnot. I think I read somewhere that it is in a high crime area, and that a woman was recently raped and killed there.

Those are topics for a different post, but I want to focus on this

With Louis Armstrong's birthday festival less than a month away, jazz fans and art lovers were distraught to hear that a careless contractor had damaged his statue in Armstrong Park.

Michael DeMocker / The Times-PicayuneRutted mud and puddles lead from the promenade to the park's iconic statue of Louis Armstrong, which had been fronted by a newly poured plaza for the garden's unveiling in April.
"I'm so disturbed, I can't tell you, " said Phoebe Jacobs, vice president of the Louis Armstrong Foundation and a close friend of the Armstrong family.
Jacobs said that when she helped raise money for the statue during the mid-1970s, the largest donation came from Armstrong friend and fellow singer Bing Crosby, who turned over the proceeds of an all-star concert he gave in San Francisco.

Since then, Jacobs and others from the foundation have organized park cleanups and made sure the statue is cared for.

"This is like our baby, " she said. "How could this happen?"

Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced Thursday that he has ordered contractor A.M.E. Disaster Recovery Services off the job after the city found that, in addition to the countless other mishaps, A.M.E. crews had cracked part of the Armstrong statue. Observers said workers continued to lift the bronze even though crooked bolts set in its base were stuck, stretching the bronze and separating Armstrong's left shoe from the statue's base.

Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, 95, lives in Mexico and couldn't be reached for comment.

But New Orleans gallery owner Stella Jones, who represents Catlett's work, said she believes Catlett would be quite unhappy, as she was when a man twisted off the statue's trumpet in 1988.

"I know she was upset that it had been disfigured, " said Jones, noting that Catlett quickly recast the damaged part of the trumpet, which was cracked in five places and missing its mouthpiece. Three weeks after the incident, a photo in The Times-Picayune showed two men welding a new 80-pound horn into Armstrong's left hand.

This time, that sort of swift response by the artist herself is nearly impossible, given her age and distance from New Orleans, Jones said.

Catlett felt a bond with Louis Armstrong, said Catlett biographer Samella Lewis, who was Catlett's student when they first met in the 1940s at Dillard University, where Catlett founded the art department. The sculptor loved New Orleans and its music, was a good singer herself and was a friend to many jazz musicians here and in New York, Lewis said.

Lewis said black residents weren't allowed in City Park at the time but Catlett was determined that her students see a Pablo Picasso show at what was then the Delgado Art Museum.

Michael DeMocker / The Times-PicayuneArmstrong Park's Rampart Street entrance arch overlooks a muddy mess. Brand-new concrete walkways began cracking last month, days after Mayor Ray Nagin's grand unveiling of the park's sculpture garden.

"So she rented a bus with her own money and drove us to the steps of the museum, who let us in, " said Lewis, a New Orleans native. "I had never seen anyone act like that in New Orleans, to defend their rights."

Over the years, Lewis said, Catlett turned down many artistic commissions but always wanted to create a bronze of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, which the city commissioned last year for Armstrong Park's new Roots of Music sculpture garden. Her only other public work is a 2003 commission in Manhattan's Riverside Park that honors writer Ralph Ellison, a Harlem Renaissance contemporary of Catlett's, Lewis said.

City officials are now consulting with art-restoration specialists to decide what should be done about the Armstrong statue, said mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni. "Obviously after what this park's been through, we're committed to restoring the statue using qualified art experts and expert art movers, " he said.

New Orleans sculptor Sheleen Jones-Adenle said she's seen the damage and it can be repaired. "That area down by the shoe is the weakest part: It's mostly decorative and not as thick as the piece itself, so it gave before any other piece did, " said Jones-Adenle, who often works with bronze and created the Rev. Avery Alexander statue in Duncan Plaza and two works for the new Armstrong Park sculpture garden, a statue of Tootie Montana and another of a New Orleans brass band.

Jones-Adenle said anyone repairing the damage will likely heat the bronze to make it malleable, gently push the shoe back into place and then finish the area in a way that the repair can't be seen. The hardest part will be getting the finish right, "the way Ms. Catlett wanted it to look, " she said.

In early August, during SatchmoFest, crowds typically second-line from the statue to the grounds of the Old U.S. Mint, where the festival is held. Jacobs predicted that ardent jazz fans will be in disbelief at the damage to Armstrong's statue.

"Louis Armstrong put New Orleans on the map and sang about it every place he went, " Jacobs said. "How could the city do such a thing?"

Isn't that depressing to see? You should see it in person!

I was last there for Satchmo Summerfest back in August and the park was closed. Granted, it was past the hours, but it looked as if it hadn't been open in years.

I ask you....what kind of way is this to treat one of the city's greatest citizens who helped put it on the map? On top of that, when the place isn't a dilapidated shell of its former self, it is really quite beautiful. If I lived in NOLA, I'd be sure to make my way there every chance I got.

This is very disconcerting, though, especially considering how these pictures were taken last year, and nothing has really changed.

I guess it should be mentioned that somewhere during the park's restoration, the statue was severely damaged by incompetent contractors hired by the former mayor of New Orleans (the same guy that was in charge during the hurricanes).

He apparently hired some second rate contractors and they screwed everything up. I'm not sure of the damage exactly, but as you can see, it is enough that no one is allowed near it until further notice.

The new mayor and former Lt. Governor has since fired those contractors and, last I heard, things were moving along to get things back open. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible that the park will be back open in time for next year's Satchmo Summerfest (which I actually think should be held there instead of the old U.S. Mint, but that's just me).

So, what are your thoughts on this, dear readers? Can you believe that they let such a beautiful place fall into such disarray? What about the fact that the statue honoring one of the greatest musicians of all time was damaged by incompetent contractors?

1 comment:

Lin said...

It is very sad on many levels. I'm appalled that the city didn't take more precaution to make sure this area was safe and maintained. I'm disgusted at the society that destroys for the sake of destroying. I'm sad that inept contractors had no pride in their work or themselves to do what was right. I'm frustrated and disgusted with those that have no respect for the people in our history.

I hope there is a good follow-up to this story.