Forget about those confederate monuments for just a moment. If you really want to generate some controversy in New Orleans, try talking about directions.
Case in point: the new Equity Circle installation down on Jeff Davis Parkway.
You may have seen this when passing by recently. It was constructed toward the end of last year and officially dedicated in December. It’s kind of low profile, so you really have to get out of your car to appreciate it.
The design is simple, symmetrical, almost minimalistic. Four benches around a compass rose, surrounded by eight newly-planted trees. A plaque declares it to be a space for “conversation and community.”
The compass rose is beautiful, with those distinctive street-tile letters calling out the four directions: Riverside, Lakeside, Upriver, Downriver.
But there’s a problem. The directions are 90º off.
It points to the river being in the direction of Jeff Davis Parkway headed uptown. Yet the river is down Canal Street. Every right-thinking New Orleanian knows that!
The madness doesn’t stop there. The compass rose also points to the way to the lake along Jeff Davis toward the bayou. What?!? Every sane person knows the shortest way to get to the lake is exactly perpendicular: take Canal Street to Canal Boulevard.
When I saw the workers pouring the concrete and putting the tiles in place, I was so distraught I almost stopped them to plead for a correction. Instead, I kept my mouth shut, but I can remain silent no longer. I had to know who was responsible.
My detective work led me to Michael Hoard.
My lunch with nobody
He agreed to meet me at the site of Equity Circle. It was the last day of March, a glorious day. A cold front had just swept through the night before, and the air was dry and cool, even as the sun showered south Louisiana with radiation. We get half a dozen days like this each spring, if we’re lucky, and they must be relished. I was happy to be out of the office for a few minutes.
Only the minutes kept piling up, and Michael Hoard was nowhere to be seen.
As I ate my lunch, I examined Equity Circle more closely. With its perfect eightfold symmetry, it could easily serve as a site for Neo-Pagan rituals. Would these be allowed? I wondered.
The perimeter is paved with pervious concrete, an option which is becoming more common in New Orleans lately. It’s permeable, letting rainwater soak through into the ground rather than merely run off. The more of this stuff we use, the better off our water table will be. For over a century, we’ve been pumping so much water out in our efforts to drain the swamp (no Trump reference intended) that we’ve exacerbated the sinking of the land.
In fact, just next to Equity Circle, the Jeff Davis bike path offers a striking visual example of subsidence. The bike path is actually the top of a box culvert for stormwater drainage, constructed in the 1970s. The culvert has stayed in place while the land around it has sunk. With the previous night’s rain, this was especially evident. It was like a miniature temporary pond. I’ve seen ducks swimming in these.
This section of the neutral ground contains several other points of interest. There’s Serpent Mound, that colorful sculpture by Steve Kline which doubles as a playground of sorts. There’s an actual playground that is in pretty sad shape. It’s an embarrassment, really. There’s that old massive flagpole which recently received a much-needed penectomy. And of course there’s the statue of Jefferson Davis himself, the subject of so much furor lately.
It occurred to me that Equity Circle might have made a fine replacement for the statue. Its circular footprint would fit neatly inside the circular sidewalk surrounding old J.D.
I looked up at the trees which had been planted around Equity Circle. Eight of ’em. Skinny and tall with huge mitten-ish leaves. They don’t provide much shade yet, but give them a few years.
What kind of trees are those? I wondered. Tulips, maybe?
I finished my lunch and Mr. Hoard still hadn’t arrived. I’d been stood up again. Not for the first time! Perhaps he was afraid to face my tough line of questioning. I got on my bike and prepared to head off.
We meet at last
I’d gotten less than a block away when I heard somebody hollering after me. There he stood, with a massive camera around his neck. Michael Hoard: artist, musician, actor, chef. Over 65 years of life, he’s done it all, and I think he told me about half of it. Equity Circle is just one of his most recent exploits.
He was quick to emphasize that Equity Circle is a community project, yet his pride in coming up with the design was abundantly evident. The concept was vetted and approved through Welcome Table New Orleans, a mayoral initiative which aims to further racial reconciliation through facilitated dialog. Michael participates in one of the Welcome Table circles, and he’s found the experience to be transformative and “enlightening.” His idea for Equity Circle was inspired by the circular model of those meetings. The benches invite people to sit and talk. The compass represents the idea of coming and going, which is essential to any meeting. We come together to find a shared sense of direction.
Aha. I sensed my opening. I had to confront him about the controversy. I sprung it on him suddenly, hoping to throw him off guard. Michael laughed. He said that he’d proposed a compass with the traditional cardinal points. Those are North, South, East, and West, in case you’re wondering. But he was told that New Orleanians wouldn’t understand that, which came as a bit of a surprise to him, since he was born and raised here.
The streets of Mid-City are at a 45º angle to the traditional compass points, after all. Streets like North and South Lopez actually run northeast and southwest, which is confusing. We do indeed orient to the river and the lake.
“Yes, yes,” I said impatiently, “but come on. Which way is the river, after all?”
Michael pointed out that the river bends like a crescent. In some parts of the city it practically surrounds you. Opinions differ. Probably half of New Orleanians would point in one direction, half in another.
This guy had an answer for everything.
What about Pagan rituals, I asked. Would they be allowed here?
“Good for you,” he laughed. “Stonehenge!” And he told me a secret about the summer solstice in New Orleans. Well, I may have been sworn to secrecy, but I see that Michael has in fact put the photographic evidence online.
Finally, I wondered how he came to the Welcome Table in the first place. It seems he was upset about the drive to remove Confederate monuments. He opposed the removal. He wanted to talk about it, and he thought the Welcome Table would provide that opportunity. He was right. And through this dialog, he discovered other perspectives, other points of view, other ways of looking at the issue.
“It’s an inspiration for people to be considerate of the needs of the community,” he told me.
What could be cooler than that? We need more great public spaces for conversation and community — spaces like Equity Circle.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.