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New Orleans Rosenwald Center, Opened For African Americans During Segregation, To Be Rebuilt

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(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Jan. 14, 2013 edition.)

On South Broad and Earhart in New Orleans, the Rosenwald Center--the city's only major recreation facility for African American youth during racial segregation--was torn down last week to be replaced by a new one next year. The Katrina-damaged center was built in 1950 during the four terms of Mayor Chep Morrison, who supported recreation but not integration. The city's white youth, with access to ten such facilities in the1950s and early 1960s, were better served. Desegregation got under way in the South in the late 1950s but didn't start in the Crescent City until 1960.

Decades later, Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA said the Rosenwald gymnasium, destroyed in Katrina, was eligible for replacement with federal dollars. Mayor Mitch Landrieu included Rosenwald in his list of a hundred recovery projects, announced in late 2010.

The old center, run by the New Orleans Recreation Department on the site of the former Lincoln Playground, had a gymnasium and outdoor swimming pool. The land, owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, is in the Marrero Commons area--the new name for the recently rebuilt B.W. Cooper Housing Development.

The City and FEMA have been lining up funds for a new Rosenwald Center for several years, and last week some observers said the old, rotting eyesore should had been replaced by now.

"Rebuilding Rosenwald is long overdue, and I'm glad they've gotten started on it," said Lisa Fitzpatrick, executive director and founder of APEX Youth Center on Dryades St. She said "Mid-City and Central City are in great need of recreation facilities, and South Broad at Earhart is a well-utilized corner. The center has been a blight and a hazard to the community since Katrina. Children were breaking into it. The pool had standing water."

Fitzpatrick, who is also a pastor at First Street Peck Wesley United Methodist Church, noted that the Boys & Girls Club-NFL Yet Center on South Broad near Earhart had to look at the decrepit Rosenwald.

Construction is slated to start this summer on a new, 24,000-square-foot Rosenwald Center, with a gymnasium, stage, activity rooms, pool, pool house and snack bar. The project is funded at $6.3 million from a combination of FEMA recovery dollars, city bond funds, insurance money and state outlays. The city is leasing the property from HANO for $1.00 a year under a ten-year agreement.

Last week, Cedric Grant, the city's Deputy Mayor of Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development, said "the architects and engineers of record for the Rosenwald project are WDG," a local firm on Baronne St. "The Rosenwald project is scheduled to go out for bid this spring."

After Katrina, WDG prepared a damage report on Rosenwald for the city and FEMA, and then worked on the new center's design. According to WDG, the new Rosenwald will exceed building-code requirements for durability so that it can be used as a hurricane shelter.

Danatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, last week said he hopes minority contractors and African American workers are employed in the Rosenwald rebuild.

King, an attorney, said Afro-American workers have been bypassed as the city recovers. "I'm sitting in my office looking out on construction of the new, downtown medical complex," he said, referring to the Louisiana State University and Veterans Administration medical centers. "A majority of the trucks and equipment at the site are from out of town."

He said "it's just as important to hire fathers and mothers of our African American youth as it is to build a recreation center." He added "had the city's DBE or disadvantaged business enterprise laws been enforced, our black middle class would be in a better position today."

The city's Office of Supplier Diversity monitors DBE participation in city contracts. City ordinances set a goal of using 50-percent local businesses for both public and private projects that depend on public funds and incentives. A related goal is to see that 35 percent of businesses in public construction projects are "socially and economically disadvantaged" firms.

King said the new Rosenwald Center is needed, and he hopes it's properly staffed and equipped. "Some of these facilities around town don't have the basics, like lights after dark," he said. "We don't have enough recreation centers, and many of the ones we do have aren't open long enough in the day and evening with enough staff to keep our youth engaged."

Under Mayor Marc Morial's two terms from 1994 to 2002, NORD was well run and set an example for other cities, King said. But he isn't a fan of the NORD public-private partnership that voters approved in late 2010. "The money we were told would flow in from the private sector hasn't to the extent expected," King said. "And you can't blame it on the recession, which was already well underway when were assured that these funds would materialize."

In late 2010, nearly three-fourths of those who went to the polls favored a public-private partnership for Orleans Parish recreation facilities and programs. The thirteen-member NORD Commission was created, and so was a private New Orleans Recreation Development Foundation, or NORD Foundation, to support the commission.

But King said "it's hard to hold anybody on the commission or within the foundation accountable since they weren't elected by the people."

At APEX, Lisa Fitzpatrick said it's too soon to judge the NORD partnership, and she's taking a wait-and-see attitude.

According to Cedric Grant, the city had ten operating, recreation centers before Katrina. They were Behrman, Cut Off, Gernon Brown, Joe Brown, Lyons, Rosenwald, Sanchez, Stallings St. Claude Community and Treme centers and the St. Bernard Gym.

Since Katrina, FEMA has committed $32.6 million to NORD recreation facilities and parks. FEMA decided to replace three centers--Rosenwald, Sanchez and Stallings St. Claude. In 2010, Sanchez, along with Stallings St. Claude, were demolished. The new Stallings St. Claude Center should be finished late this year, Grant said.

The city, the New Orleans Super Bowl XLVII Host Committee and local nonprofits are planning a "Super Saturday of Service" on Feb. 2, the day before the bowl game in New Orleans. At least a thousand volunteers, mostly football fans from out of town, are expected to help renovate five NORD playgrounds, repair ten homes and provide other rebuilding services. Anyone interested in participating should take a look at www.NolaSuperBowl.com

As for the Rosenwald Center, it gets its name from local, civic leader Edith Rosenwald Stern, who died in1980. She was the daughter of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears Roebuck and Co. in Illinois. end

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