NEW ORLEANS – About three years ago, Susan Taylor met Bob Becker for the first time. He was the CEO of New Orleans City Park, the sixth-largest urban park in the country. She had just taken over as director of the city’s Museum of Art, located just inside the 1,300-acre park.
They chatted for a while and suddenly, something registered with Taylor. It was something in Becker’s mannerisms, perhaps, or the inflection of his voice. Maybe it was a simple matter of intuition.
“You’re from Buffalo, aren’t you?” she said.
For the next few minutes, it was as if no one else in the room existed. It was one of those special Buffalo moments, a fond exchange of remembered places and connections, of shared childhood memories.
“I had no idea,” Taylor said. “It was, ‘Where did you go to high school? Where did you live?’ It was great, a true coincidence.”
That it was, and a happy coincidence that should make their hometown proud. Really, what are the odds that the people in charge of two of the fondest institutions in New Orleans, both of them located in that great urban park, would call Buffalo home?
Becker hails from the Delavan-Bailey section of Buffalo. He graduated from Kensington High and the University at Buffalo, then got a master’s in city planning at the University of Iowa. Taylor grew up in Snyder and graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy. She went off to Vassar College and, eventually, to Italy, where she mastered the field of fine arts and met a native Italian who would become her husband.
This evening, New Orleans will host Super Bowl XLVII in the shiny, refurbished Superdome, culminating a weeklong celebration of this great city’s remarkable comeback from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina more than seven years ago.
New Orleans is not without its problems, but people are moving back and the economy is growing. The city population, which was cut by about half after the hurricane, has rallied to around 360,000. No city in America has grown faster since the 2010 census. An estimated 8.75 million tourists spent a record $5.5 billion here last year.
In recent days, the French Quarter and downtown have been a vibrant expression of the city’s recovery. But a few miles to the North, walking through the vast green space of City Park, you get an even more profound sense of a city’s destruction and rebirth.
Becker and Taylor live the renaissance every day in the park – Becker leading the rebuilding of the large natural expanse outside, Taylor guiding the museum to a more expansive cultural future, as a place where all the arts, including music, theater and film, converge.
There were skeptics who felt New Orleans wasn’t worth saving, that it was a sinking, tragic bowl of a place that wasn’t worthy of major investment. But Taylor saw it as a cultural treasure. She jumped at the chance to be part of New Orleans’ rebirth.
“It was a huge part of the decision we made to come here,” said Taylor, 54, who ran the Princeton University Art Museum for eight years. “I was intrigued by the sense of possibility that this city represented, the trajectory that the city was on.
“There are just so many components, plus this rich history, cultural history, with layers of tradition – the French, the Spanish, Creole, so many different histories that inform the complexity of the city.”
The park was well into its recovery when Taylor took over NOMA in 2010. The museum suffered significant structural damage in the flood, but it was spared greater harm because it was built on the park’s highest point of elevation. The paintings, which include works by Monet, Rodin, O’Keeffe, Picasso and Renoir, had been moved into storage as a precaution before the flood struck.
There was no way to protect the park itself. Becker, who became CEO in 2001 after stints as the zoo director and head of city planning, got his first look at the damage a week after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Following a public order, he had evacuated to his daughter’s home in Dallas. He’ll never forget what awaited him in the park.
“When I got back in here, it was total devastation,” said Becker, 65. “Total. It was unbelievable. In that moment, I thought, ‘It’ll be 25 years before we can bring this back.’ We had no money. We had to lay off all but 23 out of a staff of 150.
“We had no equipment, nothing,” he said. “Everything was destroyed. Every piece of lawnmowing equipment, every tractor, every backhoe. Rakes, chain saws – everything was gone. When we got back, we had to get past the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne. There was no electrical, no phone, no cell. We started working out of our cars. We slept in our cars.”
The entire park was under water. Keep in mind, this is a huge park. City Park is nearly four times larger than Delaware Park, 50 percent larger than Central Park in New York. The water was 8 to 10 feet deep in spots. The amusement park was destroyed. The four golf courses and driving range and clubhouse were ruined. The botanical gardens, too.
It was close to a month before the Army Corps of Engineers pumped the water out. They had more pressing concerns, of course, like people’s houses and neighborhoods. Human beings were dying. Trees were a less urgent concern. Thousands of trees died in the park.
The situation seemed hopeless at first. The park was self-sustaining, one of the few in the country that didn’t get public funds. Their revenue-producing attractions were under water. Becker went to state and city officials and pleaded for help.
“We said, ‘If you don’t help us, we’ll walk away from this 1,300 acres and leave it be a pus pit in the middle of the city, because we can’t maintain it.’ Fortunately, they understood and gave us $1 million that first year, which helped us hire staff, fix more things and get more things going.”
It helped to be prepared. In early 2005, the park had completed a Master Plan for the future, with an eye toward the 300th anniversary of New Orleans’ founding in 2018 (the city wants the Super Bowl back that year). So when he sought public assistance after Katrina, they already had a blueprint.
“That was very important to us, because when funders would come, we actually had a plan,” Becker said. “We garnered a lot of funding that otherwise wouldn’t have come to us. It worked out incredibly well for us. People said there was no way we could raise that kind of money. We used the plan to raise over $100 million.”
Rebuilding the park was a grueling task, and it’s not finished. But the park survived and thrived. The amusement park and botanical gardens were restored. They’re building a 7,800-yard championship golf course, designed by Rees Jones. There’s a new dog park, jogging and bike paths. The park’s schedule is chock-full of events.
Becker said it was largely because of the volunteer spirit of New Orleans people. Once they began returning to the city, they gravitated back to City Park. In the midst of despair, it was a place people could congregate, where they could feel useful and connected.
“New Orleanians love this park,” Becker said. “They have tremendous memories. So we’d see them coming into the park, carrying shovels and rakes and lawnmowers and stuff. We had regular volunteer events. People from less-devastated areas would adopt sections of the park. For almost three years, volunteers maintained big parts of this park.
“So it was a very difficult time,” he said, “but it was very inspiring, too. We managed to pull together our annual Christmas display that first year. We found our stuff floating in neighborhoods and rounded it all up. We made about $250,000, which got us past Christmas.”
Becker said he still gets emotional when he thinks about those days. He said it was like the Wild West in the park for a while, with no police presence and people camping out. But the essential character of the people won out, and it reminded him of a place he knew long ago.
“This city and Buffalo have a lot in common,” Becker said. “In many ways, this is a blue-collar city. I don’t know if we thought of New Orleans as having a tough character prior to Hurricane Katrina. It’s more seen as a fun-loving place, Mardi Gras festivals. And it is that.
“But after Katrina, everyone here was forced into a survival mode. So if you couldn’t cut it, you left. You got out. Those who stayed and fought are a tough group, a resilient group.
“That’s what I remember about Buffalo,” Becker said. “My aunts and uncles, people who worked in Bethlehem Steel. My dad worked at American Optical. I remember hard-working people. So the people here have balanced joie de vivre with a real resilience.”
Ted George, a New Orleans attorney, can vouch for that. George is another Buffalo native. He grew up near Bidwell and Chapin parways, and graduated from Calasanctius School. His father, Ed Don George, wrestled for the U.S. in the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 and became a pro wrestler and promoter.
George went to law school here at Tulane and never left. He served for three years on the City Park board after Katrina. His wife, Julie, is on the museum’s board of trustees. He’s had the “Buffalo moment,” when he realized he shared the same roots as Becker and Taylor.
“It’s funny, when you put two and two together,” George said. “It’s like the Albright-Knox and Delaware Park. I suppose it’s the same kind of relationship. Bob has done an excellent job of bringing the park back. Hard-core management and persistence are his strengths.
“Susan replaced a 30-year director and has breathed a lot of new life into the museum, reaching out to different and younger audiences, rebuilding connections that were lost as people moved in and out.”
Taylor is a strong proponent of art in education. She wants to have students of all ages visit the museum. She has even created programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“I enjoy introducing children to art,” Taylor said. “Demystifying the museum experience, making children feel comfortable in museums and listening to what they have to say. They have the most original perspectives, unfiltered perspectives. It’s very gratifying.”
She can trace it back to those visits to the Albright-Knox in Buffalo when she was just 5 or 6 years old.
“Buffalo was a great place to grow up,” she said. “I say that to everyone. I love the four seasons, the fall, the winters. I mean, I know how to deal with snow better than I know how to deal with hurricanes. I’m really comfortable with snowstorms.”
Becker has fond memories, too. He remembers going to Bills and Sabres games as a kid. He was a big baseball fan and recalls seeing Luke Easter play for the Bisons in the mid-1950s. He was a Bills fan, of course, and carried his allegiance with him.
“I had this serving tray from their first year in the Super Bowl,” he said. “It had Buffalo and the Giants on it. Every year, my friends here held a Super Bowl party, and every year I’d bring out this tray. And every year, people would say, ‘Do you have to bring that Buffalo Bills tray?’ Finally, the tray gave out.”
Since arriving in New Orleans, Taylor has been talking about having a party with all the Buffalo people, featuring all the local favorites like chicken wings and beef on weck. Last year, she sent Becker sponge candy for Christmas.
Hey, next season the Bills play in New Orleans for the first time since 1997. Their game in 2005 was moved to San Antonio because of Katrina. Maybe they could have the Buffalo bash then.
Becker could even bring back the old Bills tray. He’s salvaged bigger things, after all.