This nearly five-acre park, which dates to the mid-nineteenth century, has loomed large in the cultural life of Central City for generations. Besides offering precious green space for children, the park was a gathering place for black New Orleanians of all ages who were barred from other public amenities by segregation laws — it was the site of several major civil rights and anti-violence demonstrations.
The Dew Drop Inn, less than a block up LaSalle Street, was a center of African-American cultural life before integration, serving as a performance venue, rehearsal space, informal booking agency, barber shop, restaurant, and temporary lodging for visiting artists like Ray Charles. The C.J. Peete public housing development — commonly called the Magnolia Projects — used to stretch along Washington Avenue across from the park. Scores of musicians lived here over the years, from jazzman and producer Harold Battiste to the rapper Juvenile.
Shakespeare Park earned a mention in the lyrics of bandleader Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s “Marie Laveau” in 1954, a song that has been covered widely in the decades since. More recently, it showed up in in the video for Juvenile’s 2004 chart-topper “Slow Motion,” which featured Soulja Slim — another resident of the Magnolia — who was killed before it was released.
The following year, Hurricane Katrina and the flood damaged the park, which for a while afterwards was filled with FEMA trailers. The basketball courts were eventually renovated with assistance from NBA star Chris Paul, and Cash Money Records, founded by the Magnolia’s own Williams brothers, resumed its annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway here.
The park’s uptown corner, Washington and Lasalle, is a fixture of second-line parade routes, well trod by the city’s best-known brass bands and uptown social aid and pleasure clubs. Every spring, the park is home to Uptown Super Sunday, when Mardi Gras Indians take a relatively orderly walk around the neighborhood, while “King of Bounce” DJ Jubilee emcees live musical performances. The event is a spectacular showcase for the stone and beadwork on Indian suits, which can be hard to observe in detail on Mardi Gras Day or St. Joseph’s Night, when tribes pass here as their Big Chiefs see fit.
A note about the name: the park was dedicated to Mayor Joseph Shakspeare in 1900, though its name was commonly written as Shakespeare Park (like the Bard). This should have been moot after 1979, when the park was rededicated as Reverend A.L. Davis Park in honor of New Orleans’ first African-American city councilperson. In practice, however, many locals still call it Shakespeare Park and spell it with the extra “e.”
The video for the hit "Slow Motion" features footage of the Magnolia Projects and Shakespeare Park.
"Spirit Leads My Needle: The Big Chiefs of Carnival," a half-hour documentary from the Mardi Gras Indian Council.