N.O. ready to rehabilitate shabby St. Roch Playground

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Rehab work is about to begin at St. Roch Playground in New Orleans. Basketball courts will be redone, as will the concession stand and playing fields. The swimming pool will be torn down and not replaced. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Rehab work is about to begin at St. Roch Playground in New Orleans. Basketball courts will be redone, as will the concession stand and playing fields. The swimming pool will be torn down and not replaced.

Time hasn’t been kind to St. Roch Playground.

At the play spot in the neighborhood that shares the same name, children play field sports on grass pockmarked with dips and ruts. Others play basketball on a neglected court without an even number of hoops. A swimming pool sits empty and beyond repair, making it an invitation for trouble, officials say.

Meanwhile, parents and athletes share one portable toilet that isn’t cleaned nearly enough, some park-goers say.

All of that will soon change, though, as the city prepares to pump $1.8 million into the park. The end result will be a smooth, new field; a revamped basketball court; the removal of the old pool; repairs to falling fences and gates; upgrades to the rest room facilities and concession stand; and a new brick plaza that will cross the width of the playground and include benches and picnic tables.

The rehabbed space will bookend work down the street at St. Roch and St. Claude avenues, where the old neighborhood market is under renovation. Meanwhile, the St. Roch neutral ground that runs the length between the park and market has been upgraded with new landscaping and lighting.

Contracts for the playground have been executed and work should be completed by May 15.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will contribute $1 million to the project. The rest of the money will come from $495,807 in community development block grant funds and $270,000 in bonds, according to C. Hayne Rainey, a City Hall spokesman.

While neighbors said they welcome the coming changes, they also have some concerns.

Among them: the loss of the neighborhood pool, alternate locations for New Orleans Recreation Development Commission leagues while the park is closed for the work and community input for the project.

The pool, according to Rodney Dionisio, project manager in the city’s office of capital projects, was beyond repair and would cost too much to replace.

The pool and its dressing-room building will be bulldozed and sodded over, Dionisio told a crowd of about two dozen neighbors who gathered Monday night at the St. Roch Community Church to discuss plans for the park.

While some neighbors said they are worried that the park’s temporary closure will prevent NORDC teams from taking the field, alternate locations have been secured, city officials told the crowd.

Meanwhile, others said they were concerned that work was actually starting earlier than they planned and that they didn’t have enough time to provide their input for the final plans.

Roy Frischhertz, the project’s contractor, disputed that and said that the sooner the work gets done, the quicker the neighborhood can get back its playground.

“The city is committed to this area,” he said. “You’ve got to have a mess before you have it nice.”

Bernard Dyer is a St. Roch native who now lives on the West Bank but returns every day as the park supervisor. He said he’s excited about the work.

More than 100 young people participate in NORDC programs at the park, he said, and for too long they’ve had inadequate facilities.

Dyer said he expects the coming improvements to help the neighborhood at-large since the rehabilitation could do everything from restore pride to help prevent crime in an area often in the headlines for that reason. He said he expects more and more people to come out to enjoy the new amenities.

“You come out here during football season, and there’ll be cars wrapped around here,” said Dyer, who is known to the young athletes as “Coach Bee.”

“It’s a real big outlet for the neighborhood,” he said.