The evolution of Monkey Hill, and why New Orleanians still go ape over it
Everybody knows the story behind Audubon Zoo’s Monkey Hill: The Depression-era Works Progress Administration built it so the children of flatland New Orleans would know what a hill was like, right? Well, not exactly. In actuality, the hill was started in 1933 by the short-lived Civil Works Administration — a forerunner of the WPA — as a dump site for the dirt excavated during the building of lagoons in what is now the Audubon Zoo’s Louisiana Swamp, Jaguar Jungle and South American Pampas exhibits. It’s not clear if the CWA intended it to be a place for children to play, but by spring 1934, local kids were flocking to — and rolling down — the unnamed hill that would soon become known to generations as Monkey Hill.
After an overhaul in the 1980s that added a pride of lion statues, a sculpted rock water feature and other amenities, Monkey Hill is one of the more popular spots in the zoo. With a snowball stand conveniently located near its base, there’s no better place to cool off while watching your little monkeys expend their pent-up energy by running up and down and up and down and up and down …
- It’s widely believed that Monkey Hill represents the highest point in New Orleans, but that’s not true. Higher points include the levees along the riverfront, as well as Laborde Mountain in City Park, according to Tulane geographer Richard Campanella in a 2014 column for The Times-Picayune.
- So how tall is Monkey Hill? It measures about 27.5 feet from bottom to top, but it starts at a base elevation of 11 feet below sea level, meaning its peak is an underwhelming 16.5 feet above sea level.
- Nobody’s really sure how Monkey Hill got its name, although many credit it to the propensity of children to scamper up and down it like a troop of monkeys.
- In the 1930s, adults called it “the Indian mound,” presumably for its resemblance to prehistoric sites such as those found at Poverty Point — and for a time, many believed it to be an authentic Indian mound. Children, however, called it Monkey Hill, “but why I cannot say,” Times-Picayune columnist Pie Dufour wrote in 1955.
- For the first three decades of the hill’s existence, only part of the city got to enjoy it due to segregation, which legally didn’t end until 1964.
- By 1975, zoo officials decided to fence off the hill — which by then was in fairly worn condition — and let goats graze on it while a new mound was built on the batture area known as The Fly. The protests were immediate and vocal, and by the early 1980s the site was returned to the city’s children.
- On Oct. 2, 1982, Monkey Hill became a double oddity. Not only was it a rare hill in New Orleans, but it was also covered in “snow,” as zoo officials trucked in a load of the cold stuff and hosted a day of skiing. Guests who brought their own skis were given free admission for the day. The event was so popular, the zoo made it an annual happening for a time.
To some, it might seem like “just” a hill. But to longtime New Orleanians, Monkey Hill is much more than that. It is a touchstone to the past. It is a place of nostalgia. It is ground zero for getting back in touch with one’s faded youthful enthusiasm. How much do locals love it? In 1986, Monkey Hill became the namesake of an orchestral piece written by Jay Weigl and played by the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra to mark the 100th anniversary of Audubon Park. “Monkey Hill may be an amusing quirk in the geography of New Orleans,” Campanella wrote in a 2014 column for The Times-Picayune, “but it is a veritable Everest in the geography of a New Orleans childhood.”