When neighborhood children gather to play basketball after school or on weekends in the Vietnamese community of Hung Dao in Lower Algiers, they do it on a concrete island in the cul-de-sac of Kathy Court, under the shadow of St. Joseph Mission Church.
The space also functions as a football field and volleyball court, when it’s not being used by the children’s parents as a parking lot.
“It is all-purpose cement,” joked James Nguyen, whose four boys — ages 16, 15, 12 and 9 — play regularly on the spot, which is in the heart of the Hung Dao neighborhood of about 80 homes just north of the western end of the Woodland Highway bridge over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Soon, though, the children could have a better place to play. A movement is underway to turn the nearby site of a blighted apartment complex torn down by the city in January into a 7-acre park that would allow children to play sports, the elderly to tend a community garden and residents of all ages to reflect on the culture that spawned one of the oldest Vietnamese communities in the metro area.
The Hung Dao Community Development Corp. expects to take over the mostly empty site of the former Southwood Apartments from the Louisiana Land Trust next month.
It is working with the Tulane City Center program at the Tulane University School of Architecture on designs for what neighborhood leaders hope will become the home not just for casual recreation but also for the community’s annual festival.
“Some of the younger generation, they are passing by there and asking, ‘Can we go in there and play?’ ” CDC board member Van Pham said of the site, which is now vacant except for a single building that it is hoped will become a community center. “We’re saying, ‘Soon, when we have the property into our hands.’ They say, ‘Can we have a picnic day?’ and we say, ‘Yes, we can, when we have it done.’ ”
Pham said the city, led by then-District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, moved quickly with the demolition after the community began talking last summer about putting the site to use. Before that, however, the apartments there had languished for the better part of a decade and had been completely empty since 2010.
“For years that property was just like an eyesore,” Pham said. “It was blighted for years, and after Katrina, it was even worse. It just needed to go away.”
The group has begun to work with Tulane City Center, which organizes collaborative efforts between the university’s students and faculty and community groups looking to create and improve public amenities.
On Tuesday, four representatives of the Tulane group met with roughly two dozen members of the community to go over a plan of the park featuring green space, a walking path, a picnic and play area, a garden, the community center and a covered pavilion that would function as a basketball court and a home for the annual Vietnamese cultural festival.
Public comment was modest, but the community members said they would spend a couple of weeks going over the plan among themselves and make suggestions. One change that appears likely is upgrading a proposed rectangular heritage garden into one that is shaped like Vietnam, with northern, central and southern portions that would include replicas of regional landmarks.
Money, however, will be the next hurdle. The final plan, which will be completed later this year, will include a list of potential funding sources. Dividing the project into several phases is expected to improve its chances of attracting grants and other funding.
The total cost is still unclear and will depend largely on how ambitious the plan is, though Pham and Tiffany Lin, a Tulane assistant professor of architecture, noted elements in the proposed first phase of work, including the community garden, are relatively inexpensive.
Pham said the group may work with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority in the meantime to fence in the property. The former apartment complex’s office building has already been stripped by vandals.
Lin said Tulane has programs that use landscape architecture students to help build projects, noting the popular Grow Dat educational community garden in City Park was built by students working on a project that reused large building containers.
The Hung Dao CDC also will hold fundraisers, beginning with a pair of Sunday pho sales on April 27 and May 4 that will bring in some money by selling the popular Vietnamese noodle soup.
“Mainly, we want to have the community aware of the property and what’s going on,” Pham said. “We want to get everyone’s support.”
He said some of the neighborhood’s elderly residents are still a little skeptical that anything will happen because Southwood was allowed to remain in deplorable condition for so long.
The children, however, are understandably excited.
“They were playing on concrete. Now they will get to play on real grass,” Pham said.