Ten years ago, a family headed by two doctors owned a row of three houses along a strip of Chantilly Drive in New Orleans East.
The homes were bordered by a canopy of trees and a neat brick wall with lights on the top. Often, the air would be filled with the sounds of neighbors laughing and splashing in a swimming pool behind the fence.
But the houses and the wall were torn down after the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The trees died after sitting in the salt water that covered this part of eastern New Orleans for weeks after the storm.
So when Lawrence and Barbara Banks returned from Katrina exile and looked out their front window, they saw nothing but devastation. The lots were empty and quiet. Often, the foliage was wild, Barbara Banks, 65, recalled.
“After Katrina, it was nothing but a big sea of grass and weeds,” she said. “And every day, I’d walk outside and think of what used to be there.”
Every month, Banks, a former schoolteacher, would get on the phone for hours to determine if the lots, sold to the state’s Road Home program, had changed hands since the previous month and if the same management companies were in place.
“Please, can someone come cut the grass?” she would beg, to the point that the receptionists would know her voice when she called.
Now she can put that memory behind her.
“It’s a thing of the past,” she said as she strolled across the street to take a closer look at the urban forest that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority recently installed, at her husband’s request.
NORA will dedicate the small neighborhood park in a ribbon-cutting ceremony today at 10:30 a.m.
About two years ago, Lawrence Banks, 69, called NORA to pitch officials there on his plan. Banks, a former school social worker, said that in his travels elsewhere, he’d observed that other cities devoted much more public land to greenery than New Orleans does.
He wanted to remedy that and replace the blight in his neighborhood by buying the lots across the street and creating a small, tidy forest.
In his mind, his woods were peaceful and replete with trees that turned yellow, red, purple and orange every autumn, he said.
Banks also saw the proposal as one that could pay homage to his former neighbors who had once owned the land, the Allain family, who had always taken special care of their canopy of trees.
Jerry Graves, NORA’s director of land stewardship, listened to Banks and liked the idea.
It didn’t fit neatly into any of NORA’s programs, but he saw a way that they could roll it into the agency’s alternative-maintenance project. Under the project, NORA keeps ownership of the land while the Bankses maintain it.
Some of NORA’s 2,500 other lots have made their way into the agency’s Growing Green program, which, for $250 a year, leases certain NORA lots from the Road Home program to approved applicants, who may be offered an option to purchase after two successful years.
NORA’s properties also have been turned into vegetable and flower gardens, pocket parks, landscaped walking paths, citrus orchards, rain gardens and a memorial and educational exhibit at the site of the London Canal levee breach in Gentilly.
NORA has overseen the planting of a few other small urban forests and wildflower meadows, complete with birdhouses, that are part of a partnership with LSU’s Urban Landscape Lab, which works to create environmentally sustainable landscapes.
Because Graves and his team felt that the forest was too large for one person to water by hand, the agency installed an irrigation system that Lawrence Banks will turn on when needed. Then came the trees.
NORA’s contractors planted 216 trees: swamp red maple, bald cypress, nuttall and willow oaks, gingko, forest pansy redbud, southern and sweetbay magnolias. The Bankses watched from across the street as each hole was dug and each tree planted.
Finally, contractors installed two signature reddish-orange NORA benches on a raised area and built a wooden picket fence along the property line where the brick wall used to stand.
Lawrence Banks, who has promised to mow the grassy strips between the trees, often stands at his home’s front windows to gaze at the new forest.
“It’s what I’d hoped for, for some time,” he said, with a proud smile.
“It’s magical,” said his wife. “I can’t wait until the fall comes.”