How the lakefront was transformed from swampland to New Orleans’ favorite hangout
In the beginning, there was marsh. And not much else, except for a few scattered fishing camps. Conditions along the New Orleans lakefront were hardly healthful, and there wasn’t much protection from flooding. Inroads came in the early 20th century, with the development of West End Park and the area around Spanish Fort as entertainment destinations. Then, in 1930, work began on a plan that called for pumping and draining the swamps, reclaiming the land, and building a seawall and roadway — present-day Lakeshore Drive — running for about three and half miles along the shore. That was followed by establishment of a public park, complete with picnic shelters and parking spaces for those seeking to enjoy the lake, and nearby residential developments that eventually became Lakeshore, Lake Vista, Lake Terrace and Lake Oaks subdivisions.
Although Hurricane Katrina-related flooding was disastrous for most of New Orleans, homes in the Lakefront area, closest to Lake Pontchartrain, fared relatively well — better than in neighboring Lakeview and Gentilly — because it is on higher land that had been reclaimed 75 years earlier. Plans have been discussed to bring people back to the Lakefront in numbers with a $12 million entertainment complex at South Shore Harbor and the former Bally’s Riverboat Casino site — as well as, perhaps, the redevelopment of Lincoln Beach, which was built for African Americans during the Jim Crow years.
- Before the time of air conditioning, the Lakefront was a big draw on muggy summer evenings because people could catch breezes and enjoy rides, food and other entertainment at amusement sites that no longer exist: West End Park, Spanish Fort, Pontchartrain Beach and Lincoln Beach.
- Lake Vista was designed with convenience and safety in mind. Instead of the traditional linear alignment of streets, the subdivision comprised an arrangement of cul-de-sac streets leading to a central community center, and diagonal parks were accessible to all residents. Houses were designed to face lanes or parks, with kitchens facing the streets and living rooms fronting on the parks.
- The Mardi Gras Fountain on Lakeshore Drive was built in 1962, surrounded by plaques of nearly 100 Carnival organizations. The latest addition to this group is the Krewe of Nyx’s plaque, which was added in February.
- The fountain was the brainchild of Mardi Gras mogul Blaine Kern. Damage from Hurricane Katrina forced the fountain to go dark, but it started working again in 2013 after the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided $1.3 million for repairs.
- Lincoln Beach in the eastern part of the city started welcoming black New Orleanians to its beach and rides in May 1954, when segregation was the rule. Its reason for being ended 10 years later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination in places of public accommodation. People who would have gone to Lincoln Beach headed to the better-equipped Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, which closed in 1983.
- During World War II, much of the Lakefront area was occupied by military installations, stretching from West End Boulevard to the present-day Lakefront Airport, including Camp Leroy Johnson as well as a German POW camp near present-day Franklin Avenue.
- The Pontchartrain Beach site, where people used to enjoy such attractions as the Zephyr roller coaster, the Wild Maus and the Ferris wheel, is now occupied by the University of New Orleans’ Research and Technology Park.
Ever since the reclamation of marshland that began in 1930, the Lakefront has been a magnet for New Orleanians to run, bike, swim, picnic or simply watch the boats zip by. For visitors, as well as people who live in the adjoining neighborhoods, it has always represented a restful escape from the crowded parts of the city.