Mardi Gras Indian Cultural Campus Project: Eyes on the Park


FFL program fellow Matty Williams served as the project manager for a joint proposal that resulted in a half-million dollar investment by ArtPlace to create a Mardi Gras Indian campus in uptown New Orleans. Click to read his explanation of the project's vision and impact.

History is embedded into the fabric of every New Orleans neighborhood, especially Uptown (Central City). In the early years of the civil rights movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in New Zion Baptist Church on 3rd Street & LaSalle, across from A.L. Davis Park.[1] In 1963, the largest civil rights march in New Orleans history started from the park.[2] In recollection of that march Mr. Bertrand Butler, Director of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, said:

“To me as a boy in my early years, it was amazing to see that many black people come together for a common cause. It was a beautiful quiet gathering. It was [also] beautiful because I did not know then that I was looking at history.”

Nearby the park, in the middle of the Magnolia Projects, is Lafon Burial Ground, a sacred Native American Burial Ground, formerly two cemeteries, and the former site of two Thomy Lafon Schools, a prominent public school in the black community. On the other side of the Magnolia Projects sits the Dew Drop Inn, the pinnacle of black entertainment in the city from 1945-1970. During that time period, Ray Charles, James Brown and Little Richard were some of the familiar faces at the Dew Drop Inn.[3]

From the late 1800s to present day, Mardi Gras Indians have drawn crowds from all over to Central City during Super Sunday, St. Joseph’s Night, and Mardi Gras Day as they parade while communicating to each other with traditional signals, wearing ornately hand-crafted suits. Those celebrations are, in part, out of respect for Native Americans and also homage to African heritage. It’s not just locals celebrating Mardi Gras Indian tradition either; more national and international tourists visit New Orleans each year during Mardi Gras season and Super Sunday.

In 2014, the Livable Claiborne Communities Study[4] was published by the Mayor’s office. The comprehensive analysis identified vacancy, blight and low economic competitiveness as areas of focus in Central City. In response to the LCC study, the Mardi Gras Indian Council, in partnership with Foundation for Louisiana, have developed an arts-based strategy for place-making; a cultural campus located in Central City, with “Eyes on the Park” – A.L. Davis Park. Through this campus the Mardi Gras Indian Council would provide a resource to the community in order to preserve history, educate others about their traditions, and create economic opportunities for themselves through their art.

The strategy for the campus is the adaptive reuse of a series of vacant properties which will serve as the campus grounds. The Mardi Gras Indian Council are committed to being stakeholders in the development of their community. To that end, the Mardi Gras Indian Council is actively building capacity, and engaged in project update meetings and all other phases of the design/development process to date.

In July 2015, ArtPlace America awarded $500,000 to this Cultural Campus project. Part of the project is about equipping the Mardi Gras Indian Council with tools to bridge technical and generational gaps, with respect to cultural art production. It’s also about providing a community-based resource that is architecturally sensitive to the neighborhood and developed in response to needs expressed by the community. Lastly, it’s about ownership and identity; the Mardi Gras Indian Council members are making a strong claim as leaders within their community. Ideally, the next generation of leaders within this culture will utilize the campus to enhance and preserve this rich cultural legacy.


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