Less than half a block from the stern visage of Jefferson Davis, the Civil War Confederate leader whose statue still towers over Canal Street, a monument of a different kind was unveiled Sunday.
Called the Equity Circle, the new monument — a set of four circular benches in a landscaped setting at Jefferson Davis Parkway and Cleveland Avenue — is described as a "landscaped gathering place and conversation circle."
It is one of eight projects being created through Welcome Table New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s citywide initiative focused on race, reconciliation and community building, with a mission of promoting social change.
The circle not only contributes to the revitalization of New Orleans, organizers said, but it has a much deeper goal: to help right the wrongs of the city's past and promote healing, peace and justice, by providing a place for residents to share stories, build relationships and learn from each other.
"Potential project ideas we floated around, around the theme of race and reconciliation, were fairly wide-ranging, but eventually brought us to zero in on one fundamental idea: that one of the hallmarks of a truly civil and just society is the ability of people to talk openly with each other," said Michael Batterman, the leader behind the Uptown-based Carrollton Circle group that envisioned the project.
Although an Uptown group created it, the Equity Circle was placed in Mid-City because of that neighborhood's diversity, Batterman said.
The idea, he said, is to encourage open communication among residents with diverse backgrounds, in a safe and neutralizing space, in order to promote the idea of a "level playing field."
"We plant a seed here and maybe it will grow," Batterman added.
Joined Sunday by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, members of the New Orleans Fire Department and several performers and community members, Batterman said the design of the monument was as intentional as its placement.
Flanked by crape myrtle trees, the centerpiece of the Equity Circle is a blue and white tile "compass rose" embedded in concrete. At four equidistant points from the center of the circle are tile signs reading "lakeside," "riverside," "uptown" and "downtown."
"The space needed to be attractive and inviting to the public, to the community," Batterman said, adding that it "also has a universalizing effect, because the presence of a compass rose always seeks to connect a place with somewhere else."
A diverse crowd gathered Sunday to celebrate the unveiling. Older people danced as children played with the group Roots of Music, a band that offers local young people music education, academic support and mentorship, while teaching them about the city's unique cultural heritage.
Michael Joseph Hoard, a member of the Carrollton Circle, the Welcome Table group that designed the monument, sang "Deep River," a spiritual of African-American origin, to recognize New Orleans residents whose family histories in the area were rooted in slavery.
"This was a vision I saw — everyone being in unity," Hoard said of the project and its goal.
Florentina Staiger, a 35-year-old Mid-City resident, said the monument "substantiates" that hers is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. "It's beautiful," she added.
Landrieu not only praised the Mid-City project but lauded the entire Welcome Table initiative, which was launched in April 2014 and is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
He said the monument does not only physically "reflect the city's soul" but also is "a concrete manifestation of that vision for the world."
"While we are all different in many, many ways — we all have come from different races, creeds, backgrounds and religions — we all share something really special, and that’s our humanity," Landrieu said. "And when we put that first, there’s no reason why we can’t do anything that we want to do as a peaceful and a just nation."