by Ashley Rouen
For the past five days, protestors occupied a tree in City Park to oppose the new construction of a championship golf course that recently began. They splattered the words “Wild is Free” across a giant sheet hanging in the tree, suggesting that the plan diminishes City Park’s natural environment. One of the protestors eventually came down this afternoon.
Yesterday authorities built a small fence around the tree where the protestors were perched. Activists following the story claim that police shined lights on the occupied trees at nights so they couldn’t sleep, and that access to water was restricted by the fence.
Around the construction site, City Park has constructed a long fence complete with dark green tarp to obstruct any view inside. Video crews mounted their cameras on tripods, but still were unable to fully capture what was happening behind the fence. Some journalists started to peel away at corner sections of the tarp, but City Park security was quick to correct their mistake. Ultimately, stools were bought in to provide media access.
A woman who wished to remain anonymous questioned the civil rights element, but stressed that she was in support of the cause.
“What are their civil and human rights beyond the fenced area on public land?" she wondered. "The fence they built around them, is that legal or is it a fire hazard. I guess they’re resisting arrest by being in the tree and not coming down when they’re ordered to…so then they build a jail around them."
While rumors circulated of the fire department coming to extract them down, the trucks never showed. Media and citizens gathered to observe the scene. Many spectators admired the protestors' efforts to make a statement.
“I really support civil disobedience if it’s done in a nonviolent way and for a good cause,” said Tony Sce, who was passing out flyers for the City Park for Everyone Coalition, an alliance working to halt construction, which has gained momentum since the protest began.
From the step stool, one could see the section of land where bulldozing already began. It was empty and bare compared to the rest. The scene evoked something that the City Council members say frequently when they talk about blight. “A house is worth a lot more than an empty lot.”
According to City Park’s website, the reconstruction of the golf course has been a discussion in the City’s Master Plan since 2006, when the park faced massive destruction post Katrina. The last time the Master Plan was amended was February 18, 2014. The CZO has since been amended to fit the Master Plan, and the two are about to be finalized within the next month.
City Park’s statement on their site reads: "To fully utilize the FEMA funds, they must be spent on the golf course." Since prior to the Storm, a golf course occupied this space, the park may be obliged to replace it per insurance guidelines. Regardless, it's now creating a stir in the community.
NOLA Defender reached out to City Park, but officials were unable to comment before press time.
“If they’re removed by force," said Vice President of the City Park for Everyone Coalition, Chris Lane (pictured above.) "I think it says that City Park is not interested in listening to the people who are concerned about their public ability to use this wild space.”
Lane explained that golf courses across the nation are losing money. The trees represent the lungs of the city. And, they "don't grow back very fast," said Lane.
"The people who are really in favor of this," continued Lane, "are such a small group. Our plan is to work two fronts. So we’re pursuing legal action very vigorously, and can’t talk exactly about that but we hope to have some good news soon. We’re also working with public action to keep people aware and motivated. And we’re hoping that at some point if we can make those two cross that there will be no construction going on and the city will have to have a much larger genuine conversation about how this space is being used and what the future is. "
While City Park claims that they had ample time for public comment, perhaps this incident is a testament to the fact that change doesn't hit the heart until it hits the eyes.
"They’ve had public comment periods and people have offered a lot of different ideas," added Lane. "City Park has ignored those comments. If you actually go and look up their minutes, which we have, they didn’t even record that they were taking public comment when they said they were supposed to be taking public comment.