McDonough Playground gets welcomed makeover

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--  O. Perry Walker honor society senior Gushonda Lewis paints the sign for McDonough Playground in Algiers during a NOLA for Life event in New Orleans Saturday.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- O. Perry Walker honor society senior Gushonda Lewis paints the sign for McDonough Playground in Algiers during a NOLA for Life event in New Orleans Saturday.

McDonough Playground received a makeover Saturday morning, with close to 200 volunteers painting bright colors onto structures and signs and constructing wooden benches and a new baseball diamond at the Algiers park.

The event was part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s NOLA FOR LIFE initiative, an effort to reduce murder and violence through blight eradication and other safety and aesthetic improvements to high-risk neighborhoods.

The park, which is close to the Mississippi River and boasts a spectacular view of the Crescent City Connection and the downtown skyline, was the third area to be revamped as part of the mayor’s initiative.

Over the course of several days, the city’s effort in the surrounding neighborhood also has included clearing garbage, repairing streets and street lights, removing abandoned cars, replacing street sings and performing code enforcement sweeps.

Erroll McKenith, who lives near the park and stumbled on the volunteer event when he showed up to play basketball, said he thought it was wonderful that the place was getting a spruce up. He said the park is well-used on the weekends, serving as a gathering place for that community as well as a place for playing sports.

The NOLA FOR LIFE revitalization project was held in conjunction with the first of four “Play Street” events, made possible by a $50,000 grant as part of Partnership for a Healthier America and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

The grant was awarded to the New Orleans Health Department as part of the national push to provide safe places to play and fight childhood obesity based on the idea of working with the city permitting process and law enforcement to close off neighborhood streets for a period of designated play time.

Christy Reeves, executive director of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, said streets are blocked off regularly at certain times of the day by police in some cities to provide an expansive and safe play space for kids.

Reeves said that the four Play Street events will help create awareness and engage communities to explore working with the city to implement similar long-term programs.

While the street next to McDonough Playground was permitted Saturday to close for jump rope, hula hooping and hopscotch, Karen DeSalvo, New Orleans health commissioner, said the focus there was on utilizing the existing “luxury of greenspace” at the Algiers park.

DeSalvo said Saturday’s event was intended to encourage the neighborhood to take advantage of, and take care of, the parks.

And it’s a reminder that play is easy in any space, DeSalvo said.

“If you’ve got chalk and a sidewalk, you’re good to go,” she said.

McKenith said he’d like to see more parents and older siblings and relatives getting outside and active with the younger kids — starting programs like father/son or mother/daughter basketball teams. He said that would help to children be healthier.

Ashhakeet Owens, one of the volunteers helping to carve out a new baseball diamond at the park, said he was volunteering with some of his high school football teammates “to help the community and make change and come together as a whole.”

Owens said he grew up playing football at the McDonough park and lives and attends school nearby.

A running back, Owens said playing football not only has kept him physically healthy but has provided him the opportunity to meet people and get into college.

“It makes you want to work harder in school and get somewhere in life,” he said.

The next Play Streets events will be held April 27 at A.L. Davis Park at Washington and LaSalle streets and June 15 at Joe Brown Park, 5601 Reed Blvd. The fourth event will be held in the fall and will focus on a community bike ride.