By Melanie Carbery
Pontchartrain Park is quiet on weekend mornings. The neighborhood, wrapped around a sizable park and located just south of the lakeshore, feels surprisingly like the quintessential suburb despite the fact that its footprint lies fully within city lines. The midcentury architecture is quaint and modest, a comfortable background for the golfers who swing their clubs with ease and their kids, who play noisily on the playground at the south end of the park. Nothing immediately betrays the neighborhood’s history, but for its residents and their partners at the Preservation Resource Center (the PRC), it is the history that makes Pontchartrain Park worthy of a three-year long effort to get it placed on the National Register.
To understand why Pontchartrain Park is so significant, you must go back to 1892. Homer Plessy, a mixed-race man, violates the Louisiana Separate Car Act when he boards a whites-only car on a train in New Orleans in protest of segregation. For this, he is tried and convicted, sentenced to a $25 fine by Judge John Howard Ferguson. Plessy appeals Ferguson’s decision until his case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896. When the court decides in favor of Ferguson’s initial ruling, a phrase that originated in the Louisiana Separate Car Act is permanently seared into the greater American lexicon: “separate but equal.” This doctrine will actively shape communities in America for decades to come.
Cut to the early 1950s. The United States has emerged victorious from WWII, the economy is flourishing, and the (white) people are moving to the new-fangled ‘burbs. New Orleans mayor, Chep Morrison, is set on keeping spaces like City Park, Audubon Park, and the new, suburban-style neighborhood, Gentilly Woods, for whites only. Morrison knows that, in the dying years of “separate but equal,” he’s going to have to do something to bolster his segregationist agenda, so he sets to work on developing a neighborhood exclusively for black residents of New Orleans.
A newly drained piece of land directly north of Gentilly Woods is selected. A public/private deal between Morrison and developer, Crawford Homes (what would later become Pontchartrain Park Homes Incorporated), is made. Morrison builds a public park that sports a golf course and a baseball stadium. Crawford Homes wreathes the park with a neighborhood full of midcentury homes, strikingly similar to those in Gentilly Woods. The word ‘equal’ rolls easy off the tongues of the project’s proponents, yet only three entrances to the neighborhood are built. According to Austin Lukes, future author and compiler of the Pontchartrain Park National Register application, this is no coincidence. “The surrounding neighborhoods did not want residents of Pontchartrain Park to have access to their neighborhoods.”
Pontchartrain Park opens incrementally as sections are completed, welcoming black families, newly financed through the G.I. Bill. Nathan Lott, Advocacy and Public Policy Research Director at the PRC, notes that, for this community “not considered credit worthy by the private banking industry” at the time, home ownership means everything. The neighborhood fosters “this sense of real, deep identity for the people who were living there…in a city that did not offer them that everywhere they went.” Families flourish. Kids grow up with great friends, great community, and a stable foundation. They go on to do great things for their city. The neighborhood built by a white segregationist mayor of the 1950s becomes, for a time, the home of the first black mayor of New Orleans, Dutch Morial. Dutch’s son, Marc Morial, grows up in the Pontchartrain Park. In 1994, he becomes mayor, too.
Skip to 2017. The Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, led by Gretchen Bradford, recognizes that their community is something worth preserving. They approach the PRC, and together they decide to go for a spot on the National Register, an honorific designation that won’t constrain what residents can do to their homes but will distinguish the neighborhood as a place of national historic significance.
On a shoestring budget supplied by a small grant through the state, they team up to do what is usually done by for-profit firms, like developers. They organize the community, meticulously photograph and document each property in the neighborhood, conduct extensive historical research, and ultimately compile it into a narrative for presentation. After nearly three years of work, in winter of 2019, they go in front of the State Historic Preservation Office in Baton Rouge. Gretchen Bradford organizes a bus full of Pontchartrain Park residents to come out and witness it. From there on out, the application will be taken by a representative from the state to the National Parks Service. Hopefully, the Parks Service will accept Pontchartrain Park as early as Spring of 2020. Until then, they wait.
As the city reckons with the scars of its past dealings with race, as statues of Confederate generals and screens that denote racial lines within street cars disappear, there is something about the preservation of a neighborhood that is emblematic of segregation that may seem to be against the grain. However, for those that are working on the project, it is clear that preservation is imperative, largely because of the community that the neighborhood created and continues to support today. As Luke’s points out, members of “the same families, in many cases, are still there,” flourishing in the homes that their grandparents purchased sixty years before. In the end, the main hope is that placement on the National Register will encourage stewardship for the modest homes of Pontchartrain Park, keeping them from being demolished or left to detriment, maintaining the neighborhood both as an environment for community to grow in and a reminder of past community resilience. As Lott says, segregation “is a part of our story in New Orleans, and by recognizing that, we hopefully foster some deeper appreciation for the totality of our history, the good and the bad, and that sometimes good things come out of how people respond to injustice.”