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Parks over Pasture: Enclosing the Commons in Postbellum New Orleans

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 November 2021

Steve Gallo*
University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


This article examines the enclosure of the de facto commons that surrounded New Orleans during the final decades of the nineteenth century and argues that public parks were crucial tools deployed by civic elites on behalf of that initiative. As the regulatory efforts of reform-minded mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare failed to eliminate the persistent “cattle nuisance” that emanated from the undeveloped suburbs, he turned to parks as a means of fundamentally transforming the character of the land. By physically enclosing large swathes of acreage, conditioning the public to be urban subjects, and associating the area with leisure rather than agrarian production, the parks made it possible for the city’s modernizers to push dairy farmers out of the area and initiate a process of residential development. By examining this strategic use of greenspace in Gilded Age-era New Orleans, this article seeks to shed new light on the ways in which the urban environment was manipulated in service of the broader New South movement.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE).

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1 “Symptoms of a Riot,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 24, 1884.

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4 Hahn, Steven, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 253–54.Google Scholar

5 For more on the role of the commons in the American South, see Kantor, Shawn Everett, Politics and Property Rights: The Closing of the Open Range in the Postbellum South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Hahn, Steven, “Hunting Fishing, and Foraging: Common Rights and Class Relations in the Postbellum South,” Radical History Review 26 (1982): 3764 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Giltner, Scott E., Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

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7 For more, see Woodward, C. Vann, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951)Google Scholar; Gaston, Paul M., New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970)Google Scholar; Doyle, Don H., New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860–1910 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Ayers, Edward F., The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Hillyer, Reiko, Designing Dixie: Tourism, Memory, and Urban Space in the New South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015)Google Scholar; Cardon, Nathan, A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World’s Fairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 For more on the process of urban enclosure in Boston, see Michael Rawson, , Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2274 Google Scholar; in New York, see McNeur, Catherine, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 134–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and in American cities, generally, see Robichaud, Andrew A., Animal City: The Domestication of America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Brown, Frederick L., The City Is More Than Human: An Animal History of Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 69102.Google Scholar

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12 For more, see Rosenzweig, Roy, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 127–52Google Scholar; Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992); Dorceta Taylor, “Central Park as a Model for Social Control: Urban Parks, Social Class and Leisure Behavior in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of Leisure Research 31 (1999); Germic, Stephen A., American Green: Class, Crisis, and the Deployment of Nature in Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001)Google Scholar.

13 Sevilla-Buitrago, Alvaro, “Central Park against the Streets: The Enclosure of Public Space Cultures in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York,” Social & Cultural Geography 15 (2014): 152–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McNeur, Taming Manhattan, 3 & 203–12; Nate Gabriel, “The Work That Parks Do: Towards an Urban Environmentality,” Social & Cultural Geography 12 (2011): 124.

14 Cobb, James C., Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 64.Google Scholar

15 As of 1880 New Orleans suffered from a variety of issues which negatively affected both the quality of life for its residents and its reputation for visitors. It was extremely wanting in terms of infrastructure. Its streets were unpaved and turned to muddy quagmires in the rain, it had no sewer system, and its waterworks produced an undrinkable liquid that left residents reliant on cisterns. The city’s colossal debt, which stood at $24,000,000 by the time Shakspeare took office, made addressing these issues particularly difficult. Furthermore, the ubiquity of gambling establishments throughout the city, and the violence which frequently occurred therein, caused many outsiders to associate New Orleans with immorality. Joy J. Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age: Politics and Urban Progress, 1880–1896 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press for the Louisiana Historical Association, 1969), 60–65; and Nystrom, Justin A., New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 192–93Google Scholar.

16 Correspondence from Gilbert Shaw to his parents, June 18, 1863, MSS 278, folder 4, Gilbert Shaw Letters, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

17 Crescent (New Orleans), Oct. 10, 1866.

18 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 16, 1870.

19 An internal division existed within New Orleans between the older European settlement, or “French Quarter,” and the newer American sector established after the Louisiana Purchase. The two groups rarely mixed and, as a result, the Creole population remained largely confined to the French Quarter while the Americans continuously pressed upriver along the levee. This process was accelerated in 1874 when the city annexed the upriver town of Carrollton. Lewis, New Orleans, 37–40.

20 Bulletin (New Orleans), Aug. 25, 1875; Daily Democrat (New Orleans), Apr. 6, 1878; Democrat (New Orleans), Oct. 1, 1881.

21 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Aug. 9, 1879.

22 Democrat (New Orleans), Jan. 18, 1881.

23 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Feb. 6, 1874 and June 16, 1874.

24 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Sept. 3, 1889.

25 Democrat (New Orleans), Aug. 9, 1881.

26 There are several reasons for the lack of park development prior to 1880. The land that would become City Park was part of a defunct plantation estate owned by John McDonogh that was jointly bequeathed to New Orleans and his home city of Baltimore upon his death in 1850. By the time that New Orleans’s leaders gained full title to the property and formally designated it as a public park in 1859, few had any interest in devoting city funds to its improvement. Development of Audubon Park, alternatively, was tainted by the legacy of Reconstruction. The park was secured in 1871 as part of a land scheme carried out by Republican Governor Henry Clay Warmoth. The move, which involved the city purchasing the property from Warmoth’s allies at a drastically inflated price, struck many as blatant corruption and fueled the stereotype of the greed-driven carpetbagger. As a result, the park was neglected until it was selected as the site of the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition.

27 Reeves, Sally K. Evans and Reeves, William D., Historic City Park, New Orleans (New Orleans: Friends of City Park, 1982), 10.Google Scholar

28 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Apr. 2, 1880.

29 Democrat (New Orleans), Mar. 10, 1881.

30 Times-Picayune (New Orleans) July 26, 1881.

31 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Mar. 29, 1882 and Apr. 5, 1882.

32 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Sept. 26, 1883.

33 Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age, 75 & 86.

34 Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age, 93–97.

35 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), June 30, 1888.

36 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), July 7, 1888.

37 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), July 18, 1888.

38 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), July 17, 1888.

39 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Aug. 2, 1888.

40 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Dec. 8, 1888.

41 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Dec. 8, 1888.

42 The Audubon Park commissioners succeeded in getting a new property tax of one-quarter of one mill, the revenue from which would be used solely for park improvements, placed on the ballot for a public vote during the election of 1888. The measure was soundly defeated, 603 in favor and 2,056 against. Its supporters blamed the tax’s failure on sectional tensions between the Creole Downtown and the American Uptown. Downtown residents, they claimed, did not want to be subjected to taxation for the apparent benefit of those who lived Uptown, where Audubon Park was located.

43 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Jan. 25, 1890.

44 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 23, 1890; “Year Book, 1907” by Audubon Park Association, 1907, R. Pam. SB483.N5 A7 1907, p. 35, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

45 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 23, 1890.

46 Louisiana Review (New Orleans), July 16, 1890 and Oct. 1, 1890; Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 7, 1890; Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Dec. 4, 1890.

47 Louisiana Review (New Orleans), June 18, 1890.

48 Reeves, Historic City Park, 10–12.

49 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), July 16, 1891; Louisiana Review (New Orleans), Aug. 12, 1891.

50 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), July 17, 1891.

51 Reeves, Historic City Park, 12.

52 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Aug. 31, 1891.

53 Gabriel, “The Work That Parks Do,” 123-25.

54 Reeves, Historic City Park, 16.

55 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Sept. 10, 1891 and Sept. 17, 1891.

56 New Orleans City Park Improvement Association, Annual Reports of Officers for Year 1903-’04 (New Orleans, 1904), 26–29, and “Year Book, 1898” by Audubon Park Association, 1898, R. Pam. SB483.N5 A7 1898, pp. 76–77, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

57 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Apr. 12, 1891.

58 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Apr. 30, 1892.

59 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Sept. 26, 1892; Times-Picayune (New Orleans), May 28, 1894 and May 2, 1896.

60 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Apr. 12, 1891.

61 Louisiana Review (New Orleans), Sept. 16, 1891.

62 “Year Book, 1891” by Audubon Park Association, 1891, R. Pam. SB483.N5 A7 1891, p. 10, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Sept. 17, 1892 and Nov. 16, 1893.

63 Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar have noted how Central Park, by promoting particular leisure activities, became a space governed by elite conceptions of public conduct in the second half of the nineteenth century. Working-class visitors were forced to either conform to this code of behavior or face exclusion and/or punishment. A similar dynamic took place in New Orleans’s parks. Rosenzweig and Blackmar, The Park and the People, 211–59.

64 New Orleans City Park Improvement Association, Annual Reports of Officers for Year 1903–’04 (New Orleans, 1904), 2629; and “Year Book, 1898” by Audubon Park Association, 1898, R. Pam. SB483.N5 A7 1898, pp. 76–77, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

65 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Apr. 26, 1891.

66 Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans, 95.

67 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), May 21, 1893; Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Mar. 25, 1894.

68 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Jan. 31, 1898.

69 Lewis, New Orleans, 53–54; and Starr, S. Frederick, “St. Charles Avenue: New Orleans, Louisiana,” in The Grand American Avenue, 1850–1920, eds. Jan Cigliano, and Bradford, Sarah (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), 167.Google Scholar

70 Times-Democrat (New Orleans), May 21, 1893; Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Jan. 31, 1898.

71 New Orleans: A Descriptive View Book in Colors (Denver: H. H. Tammen Co., 1913), 8.

72 Winter in New Orleans, Season 1912–1913 (New Orleans: Southern Pacific Company, 1912), 41.

73 Lewis, New Orleans, 37–40.

74 Mary Louise Christovich, Evans, Sally Kittredge, and Toledano, Roulhac, New Orleans Architecture, Volume V: The Esplanade Ridge (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1977), 124 Google Scholar.

75 Letter from City Park Improvement Association to Mayor Paul Capdevielle, July 17. 1903, AA512 1900–1904, box 2, Correspondence—New Orleans City Park Improvement Association, Mayor Paul Capdeville Papers, 1900–1904, New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

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