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Volunteers Restore 100-Year-Old Carousel in New Orleans

Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still faces an enormous challenge in restoring houses, businesses and city landmarks. Government funds back much of the work, but private companies and citizen volunteers are also playing a role.

Restoring New Orleans is a process that often proceeds in small steps and part of what needs to be restored is the spirit of a wounded city. That is why Hampton hotels, through the company's "Save A Landmark" program, has donated $20,000 to support citizen efforts to restore the wooden carousel in City Park.

The carousel, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was partly submerged in floodwaters last August and some of the wooden figures on the lower part were damaged. An expert in restoration of such material is now working with volunteers to reclaim the 54 painted wooden animals, half of which are fixed to the rotating platform and half of which are flyers, which go up and down on a pole as the carousel turns.

Among those overseeing the project is Beau Bassich, 80, the Executive Director of the City Park Improvement Association. Speaking to VOA by telephone from New Orleans, he explained the attraction this old amusement has for young and old alike.

"We had one of our band leaders say, 'Let the little kids use it during the daytime and let the big kids use it at nighttime,' which we do. We have dinners out here sometimes that people will put on for 400 people around in the carousel itself," he said.

Bassich says the carousel became an immediate attraction for New Orleans families as soon as it went into operation in 1906. He says generations of people have come to enjoy it since then and he hopes many more will after it is fully restored.

Also on hand at the park in New Orleans is popular culture historian and author of eight books on American landmarks Chris Epting. He says the restoration of this New Orleans landmark can have a powerful effect on the general effort to revitalize the city.

"So many people have come by and said, 'God, I was on that carousel when I was a kid, my kids were on it, my grandkids.' This place has meant so much to so many for so long that I think if you can get it going here, hopefully, it resonates," he noted.

This restoration project is also an example of how corporations are contributing to the city's recovery. When Mardi Gras organizers, for the first time ever, sought corporate sponsors for their parades and events in February, only one company, the Glad Bags company, came forward. But city officials say that was partly a result of a late start in seeking corporate help.

Hampton Hotels' Marketing Vice President Judy Christa-Cathey says she believes many more private companies will follow her company's lead in helping New Orleans get back on its feet.

"I think a lot of companies will start coming, identifying areas that resonate with their corporate mission, if they can help," she said.  "We have seen that in the past when Hampton has restored landmarks. We have actually seen other companies come forward and contribute additional efforts for other area landmarks. We have seen that type of synergism occur."

City officials say corporations have given significant support to projects to aid people displaced by Katrina and to carry on with the Jazz and Heritage Festival, which starts this weekend, and other events that draw people to the city and help with its economic recovery.

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