In southern Louisiana heat, teenagers joke back and forth while sinking their gloved hands into the dirt on a two-and-a-half-acre sustainable farm, nestled into New Orleans City Park. 

Grow Dat Youth Farm was founded in 2011 on a former golf course not far from Pan-American Stadium. Youth workers are paid to participate in the Grow Dat program, where they learn to grow and harvest vegetables, cook, talk through their emotions, and study local history. Through the work of 70 employed teens each year, the farm’s soil has produced nearly half a million pounds of food – roughly 50,000 pounds each year – for local tables; it donates 20% of its harvest and sells the rest via subscription boxes.  

Now, an asphalt paver could be headed its way.

If City Park’s proposed $200 million redesign is approved, a new road will be cut through Grow Dat, in place of its fruit trees and neatly tended rows of chard, collard greens, tomatoes and okra.

But to destroy Grow Dat is to destroy a place of self-determination and belonging, say teens, describing the peace – the “safe haven” – that teens from different backgrounds have found at the farm, despite documented rises in teen anxiety in New Orleans and across the nation.

“It’s a huge mistake not to keep this farm where it is,” said Ava Kreutziger, 17, who describes Grow Dat as “an environment where you feel like you can finally breathe.”

The City Park Conservancy’s proposal drew fire from youth and from City Hall, where Council President JP Morrell decried the move, saying: “It is beyond me why a non-profit such as the City Park Conservancy who claims to prioritize conservancy measures would plan to construct a road that would decimate this popular and sustainable youth program.”

Morrell emphasized the work that had gone into the space, since 2011. “A conservancy should be aware it takes years to cultivate soil for farming, and that a relocation will destroy years of work and would reset all the effort made by this organization and the hundreds of kids who have worked there,” he said.

Kreutziger also decried the idea of a road destroying Grow Dat, because last year, the road – and its fast-moving traffic – sparked a life-changing tragedy. Kreutziger believes that the death of friend Belle Adelman-Cannon, killed by a bus outside Grow Dat, makes it eminently clear why motor-vehicle traffic should not be increased within the bounds of City Park. 

Ironically, the new road, if built as planned, would cut directly through a memorial garden dedicated to Belle.

Below the surface of Grow Dat

This section of Grow Dat’s land was not being cultivated for farming but has since become home to a memorial garden for Belle Brock Adelman-Cannon. Photo by La’Shance Perry | The Lens

The story of the Grow Dat farm and its land, a total of seven acres, is nurtured by its staff and youth leadership. To understand its modern configuration, they learn about Bulbancha – in Choctaw, “a place of many tongues,” one of the original names for the land now known as New Orleans. Before the French took over the market, and long before the Crescent City became a port, drawing ships and visitors from around the world, the banks of the Mississippi River served a similar regional role, as a seasonal trading post for dozens of Indigenous communities across the Gulf South. Bayou St. John, which runs through the park, was part of that trading network, serving as a route for traders moving goods from Lake Pontchartrain to the river.

The 1,300-acre City Park was once home to 14 different plantations; enslaved people held on those plantations built canals to drain the swampy land for sugarcane cultivation. 

In 1891, City Park was officially established as a park for white citizens of New Orleans. In 1958, it became a park for all, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered its integration, after World War II veteran Mandeville DeTiege fought his arrest for sitting in the shade in City Park, represented by civil-rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud.

Last summer, in July, the planning process for City Park’s new master plan began. The proposal, developed after an initial survey of more than 5,000 people and a series of public meetings, reimagines two design features from a 1933 master plan: a park promenade and a wooded island. 

The Wooded Island is a 180-acre stretch of former cypress swampland in the middle of City Park that 20,000 workers carved out during the Works Progress Administration as part of the Second New Deal. The land boasts a forested park, separated by bayous from the larger City Park, that could be opened for recreational activities, in a restored native Louisiana landscape easily accessible to the inhabitants of New Orleans. 

But was it accessible enough? Conservancy planners asked. If people wanted to immerse themselves in this Louisiana landscape, could they easily drive there from their homes?

Critics say that the Conservancy over-states the need for people to arrive, with haste, to a natural destination. But from the beginning of the planning process, the City Park Conservancy offered three designs for a new road, which they say is necessary to facilitate traffic across the vast 1,300-acre park. Two of the road designs were rejected because they would have directed traffic onto the new Wooded Island. 

The third proposal, which became part of the current design, directs traffic around the island and creates pedestrian bridges to access the park within the park.

But that new road would cut through Grow Dat’s seven acres. 

In April, Grow Dat hosted a People’s Planning Forum, featuring a dinner of red beans and rice with salad grown on the farm, to discuss the legacy of the land and share hopes for the future of City Park. 

As it turned out, that evening, City Park Conservancy announced that it would extend its master planning process; its fourth public meeting was postponed indefinitely. 

One of the key questions raised by critics involved citizen input. City Park Conservancy contends that it has hosted more than 25 meetings, to deepen engagement with park users. 

The City Park Conservancy has met with Grow Dat Youth Farm leadership multiple times and says that meetings with focus groups and park partners will continue through June. While all public meetings have been postponed, “the Conservancy team continues to work with neighborhood-association leaders to present throughout the community over the summer, as well as the continued development of the Ideas Youth Committee,” said Cara Lambright, City Park Conservancy President and CEO. 

The second part of the master plan, the Park Promenade, will follow existing park roadways but will outfit them with pedestrian and bike traffic protection. This update is aimed at giving more people equitable, protected access throughout the park. 

The park’s unprotected roadways have contributed to previous accidents including the tragic death of Kreutziger’s friend, 17-year-old Belle Adelman-Cannon.

Healing within a memorial garden on the farm

Ava Kreutziger sits among the memorial garden she and fellow Grow Dat youth leaders built for her best friend Belle Brock Adelman-Cannon. Each plot in the garden represents a planet in the solar system. Photo by La’Shance Perry | The Lens

Belle, a student at Benjamin Franklin High School and well-known LGBTQ+ advocate, had been sitting in Ava’s car parked on Zachary Taylor Drive outside Grow Dat. As Belle’s father, C.W. Cannon, drove up, Belle said goodbye and walked toward the car, only to be struck by a passing school bus. 

Ava held Belle’s hand, in a last moment that was both special and acutely painful. “It’s painful every time I come back here [to Grow Dat],” Ava said. “Knowing that spot may become a road where more traffic can drive by quickly is deeply ironic and horrifying.”

The accident happened exactly one year ago today.

After the accident, Grow Dat youth leadership created a garden in Belle’s honor. 

Ava would like to ask City Park leaders to visit Grow Dat, to sit in Belle’s garden and listen to the young voices who have found a safe space there. 

“I know City Park wants to nurture diverse voices,” Ava said. “That is exactly what we’re doing at Grow Dat.”

Belle loved to spend time in the Grow Dat field which has since been turned into Le Petit Jardin de Belle, a memorial garden handbuilt by members of the Grow Dat community. The lush space features a sign bearing Belle’s image and a line from Belle’s poetry, “to be golden among green.” 

Belle’s book of poetry, Every Time They Call Me She, was published posthumously by Lavender Ink. Belle spoke three languages and was gender-fluid, an identity they discussed through poetry. They flourished at Grow Dat in a way that co-workers described as constantly joyful.

C.W. Cannon wrote about his grief toward the loss of Belle in the book’s afterword. He “would much rather these poems remained buried on Belle’s iPhone while the child still lived,” he wrote. “But fate had other plans. If Belle has to be dead, then I suppose it is a relative blessing that their mom discovered this treasure trove of Belle’s consciousness.”

When Ava decided to build a memorial garden for Belle, she arranged the flower beds in the pattern of the solar system – because Belle was everyone’s sun in their community. 

Students find solace there, even on a day like this, said Grow Dat Program Manager Kevin Connell. “On this painful anniversary, we are grateful for Belle’s memorial garden and the ecosystem of the whole farm, where we see the insects, flowers, and animals Belle loved.” 

“We are in relationship with this land, we are in relationship with each other,” Connell said. “And this is where we can draw strength in challenging times.”