Duncan Plaza has always been more than just a green space in a concrete jungle. 

For decades, the park has served as the backdrop for protests and gatherings. Now, city and state leaders have struck a tentative deal to construct a new City Hall on its grounds.

On Tuesday, the New Orleans City Planning Commission okayed the plan for a land swap so that the city can reacquire the portion of the park owned by the state of Louisiana.

Duncan Plaza was first designed as part of a sprawling 15-acre complex of government buildings built after World War II. Those structures, which surrounded the park, included the current City Hall building, the main public library building and the Civil Court building. 

The city acquired the land that would become Duncan Plaza and the Civic Center for the project. It sold a portion to the state in 1955, which would become a new home for the State Supreme Court building and the State Office Building, both of which were demolished after Hurricane Katrina

The plaza was named in honor of Brooke H. Duncan, a city planning director who spearheaded the project to move various city and state government operations, then housed in several buildings across town, to a more centralized location.

A 1938 photograph shows the neighborhood that would later be demolished and replaced with Duncan Plaza and the Civic Center. Credit: Courtesy of the Louisiana Division-City Archives / New Orleans Public Library

The site was once a Black neighborhood forming part of “Backatown,” which the scholar Richard Campanella has described as a “bustling, diverse neighborhood that included grocery stores and restaurants, hotels and jazz-fueled honky tonks.” This was also where famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong grew up — Duncan Plaza sits on the site of the trumpeter’s boyhood home at 1303 Perdido St. 

The neighborhood was flattened in the 1950s to make room for the project. According to the Society of Architectural Historians, the site was chosen for various reasons: “The land could be acquired cheaply; the plan would clear a section of slums considered too close to an expanding downtown business sector; traffic circulation could be expanded with the construction of Loyola Avenue; and abandoned railroad tracks could be used for new expressways. Instant urban improvement was the goal.”

While Mayor Chep Morrison championed the plan as a beacon of development, critics found the complex — built mostly of glass and beige limestone — at odds with the city’s local architecture, as the architectural historians wrote. One critic, the architecture professor Ethel Goodstein, described the park as an “anonymous plaza of grass and concrete” and the whole complex as “an isolated public realm alien to the dense and diverse fabric of the city.”

“The ambitious plaza opens towards the central business district across Loyola Avenue as if to offer the city it serves a front yard,” she wrote, “but it is an empty gesture.”

This 1951 City Planning & Zoning Commission plan shows how the street grid would need to be adjusted to accommodate Duncan Plaza and the Civic Center. Credit: Courtesy of Louisiana Division-City Archives / New Orleans Public Library

At the time, city planners envisioned the plaza as the first in a chain of landscaped parks stretching from the Union Passenger Terminal to the Municipal Auditorium, decorated with fountains and statues. 

Efforts to transform the park have dotted its more than 60 years of existence. Observers have called it everything from a “true oasis in the city’s concrete jungle” to a “litter-strewn wasteland.” In January 1980, the city received nearly $30,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts to turn the park into a sculpture garden.

Duncan Plaza went through its most significant makeover in 1986 when architect Arthur Q. Davis decided to reshape the flat terrain with grassy raised berms. The overhaul, which cost $800,000, also included a pavilion based on a slave hut from the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the park temporarily became a landing place for people who had lost their homes, evolving into a high-profile homeless encampment. Though the city eventually disbanded the camp, Duncan Plaza remains a place to stay for homeless individuals today.

Plans to revamp the plaza began again in 2017 when the New Orleans City Council approved a $5 million redesign, but discussions by city leaders on possibly relocating City Hall to the park emerged the following year.

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...