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NEW ORLEANS — A grove of trees and flowers that will soon be built is anchoring hopes of transforming a down-on-its-heels New Orleans neighborhood that's been plagued by crime and poverty.
Meet Ken Smith, a prominent New York City landscape architect who's put a roof garden atop the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, greened up Malcolm X Plaza in Harlem, designed a massive metropolitan park in Orange County, Calif., and made gardens flourish inside trash bins at Ohio State University.
He's taking the concept of urban oases to four cities in a public-corporate project that's won the blessing of the Obama administration. The first of the groves will be built over the next month in New Orleans.
"There is something beautiful about trees planted in a grove formation: It has a real strong sense of order and beauty," Smith said. "Planting trees is a sign of hope and optimism."
Similar groves will be planted in San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The New Orleans grove is being planted in an empty trash-strewn lot in Central City, a neighborhood that's fallen on hard times.
Central City is rich with civil rights history, most prominently its role in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, an organization of ministers led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During segregation, Central City was a bustling shopping district for blacks excluded from Canal Street and home to many early jazz musicians, including Buddy Bolden.
But the past few decades have been tough on Central City.
"We have a lot of blighted properties in the community, too many!" said Bertrand Butler, a leader of Mardi Gras Indians and a lifelong Central City resident.
Along with the blight has come brutal crime.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, several of the city's worst moments go back to Central City.
A few blocks from where the new grove is being built, five teenagers were shot dead inside an SUV in June 2006. The killings prompted the deployment of the Louisiana National Guard to patrol hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
And a few blocks in the other direction, a 24-year-old police officer was shot to death in January 2008 by a rape suspect with a long history of psychiatric problems. The murder exposed the damage done to the city's mental health system by Katrina.
The new grove is going to be a bold break from the blight.
It will rise up from an empty lot at an intersection on Simon Bolivar Boulevard, a sweeping oak-lined boulevard that's seen better days. Along it you find homes with roofs so overgrown they look like they've grown thick weed braids. Sidewalks along the boulevard are unkempt and broken.
Over the next month, the 80-foot-by-80-foot lot will be transformed.
It will be planted with 16, 18-foot bald cypress trees. And its new lease on life will come in the shape of a bog garden with irises and rushes, a jasmine vine, a circular enclosure — a "trellis," as Smith calls it — made from reclaimed window sashes from New Orleans salvage yards, a bamboo hedge and solar lights.
"It will serve as an anchor within the urban context," Smith said. "I don't think it has to be a big place to have a big impact."