By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |
A long-vacant lot in Central City is now home to the giant legume more commonly known as Mr. Peanut, the iconic logo of the Planter’s brand of peanut products, a subsidiary of Kraft Foods.
The small plot of land, on the corner of Simon Bolivar Avenue at its junction with Euterpe and Felicity streets, has been transformed into “Planter’s Grove.” It’s “part art, part urban revitalization,” according to a Planter’s website.
Also part billboard, to be blunt about it, and as such just the latest defeat in a decades-long struggle to keep corporate sponsorship from disfiguring New Orleans landscapes and festivals.
Carnival floats are still forbidden to follow Jefferson Parish’s lead and carry ads. But no one ever took a sledge hammer to the schlocky Cancer Survivors Park that sprang up 20-plus years ago on the Loyola Avenue neutral ground near City Hall, courtesy of H&R Block and an acquiescent Sidney Barthelemy, then mayor.
This go-round, City Hall seemed entirely uninterested in curbing or upgrading Planter’s maneuver to disguise a billboard as an art installation, perhaps because the neighborhood in which Mr. Peanut has planted his walking stick is low-income.
From City Planning to Parks and Parkways to the mayor’s office to the office of City Councilwoman Stacy Head, no one seems to have a view, or even a clue, how this peculiar peanut park took root in our midst, evidently without Planning Commission approval. It wasn’t required, according to mayoral spokesman, Ryan Berni.
Limitless Vistas, the non-profit that scored money from Planter’s and provided a crew of work-study young people to implement a design by landscape architect Ken Smith, took out a permit for the Grove at a cost of $600 (though the lighting stipulated in said permit is nowhere in evidence.)
Overall costs? Smith couldn’t say. Or wouldn’t. And neither could Patrick Barnes, of Limitless Vistas. We just sent invoices to Planter’s and they got paid, said Barnes. We never added them up.
Barnes seemed startled to learn that the property where Mr. Peanut now squats is an adjudicated parcel in hock for back taxes. We’ll pay the taxes, Barnes hastened to add.
Still in search of the project’s financial underpinnings, we got in touch with Planter’s, only to be told that they won’t quantify their gift to the people of New Orleans in dollars and cents — “for legal reasons,” according to a spokeswoman.
While an adjudicated lot along Simon Bolivar may not be coveted real estate, architect Smith is no slouch. The New York-based landscape architect’s credits include the hugely admired Highline linear park on an elevated railroad trestle that snakes along the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. To somewhat less acclaim, he also did the rooftop garden at the revamped Museum of Modern Art, an installation heavy on plastic rocks and impermanent plantings.
“They didn’t want a typical playground park, they wanted something unique,” Smith said of the New Orleans project.
What we got is a park unique enough to be in part off-limits to children. Signs are on order that will forbid them from climbing on the window sashes that surround the place, a feature that beckons like a jungle gym.
Much heavy breathing about the environment and sustainability accompanied the run-up to the park’s completion in late March. The original plans call for the Grove to include a parking slip for Planter’s Nutmobile, peanut-selling’s equivalent of the Goodyear blimp. “Inspired by how peanuts naturally give back to the earth, the new biodiesel Planters Nutmobile uses environmentally-conscious materials and harnesses the power of sunlight and wind,” according to Nutmobile brochures.
With or without the parking pad, the Peanut Grove falls somewhat short of a cure for global warming. A visitor is funneled over an elevated walkway of irregularly cut planks, kind of like the duckwalks that keep humans and water moccasins apart at a swampy nature center. The walkway disgorges the pedestrian in a peanut shaped space coated in coarse gravel.
Pity the child who thinks the area is for anything other than quietly sitting, though seating is also at a minimum with the large and already chipped Fiberglas statue of Mr. Peanut hogging most of the available space.
Surrounding Mr. Peanut and his peanut shaped bench are those old window frames. Just remember: they’re “art”, according to Barnes. No climbing allowed.
“This has never been done before,” he said of the Grove, echoing a post-Katrina refrain raised in many different settings. The project, he added, will serve as a prototype for similar efforts in other cities.
If local support is a measure of success, the prototype may need tweaking.
“Why don’t they give us something we can use,” a resident in the area of the Peanut Grove muttered as she herded her toddlers past the installation.
Area adults are equally non-plussed.
On a musky spring evening, a group of eight men gathered at two tables on the neutral ground across Simon Bolivar near — but definitely not in — The Grove. “This is the real New Orleans,” one of the men offered, stubbing a cigarette to take snother slug from a can of beer. The men had no real objection to the Peanut Grove. Neither did they have any intention of moving the real New Orleans into its odd confines.
But if companionable to neither children nor adults, Mr. Peanut is not without value. For lack of financial data from anyone involved, we turned to local advertising professionals for an estimation of comparable worth.
A billboard in New Orleans currently brings upwards of $12,000 a month, not a bad return on a load of gravel, a plastic ad logo and some salvaged window frames.