Deep Dives

Notes on Process: Designing a Visual Identity for the Gentilly Resilience District


Collection of Collections


January 29, 2023

Jeremy begins his retelling of a childhood memory with a couple deep belly laughs.

I was in 7th grade at Thurgood Marshall. I had just started catching the bus by myself. My mom drove me the route I needed to take and which bus stops to look for, and she told me if I had questions I could just ask the driver. So I was at school, and you know those days where it just rains and rains, it was wild because people were getting checked out the whole day. (laughs) I listened for my name to be called all day to check out. Next thing I know it’s 3:15 and by this time it had stopped raining. 

I remember I had to catch the Canal St. bus close to where it becomes Canal Blvd. I could catch any Canal bus and it’d take me to Broad. At that time there were different high schools on certain buses and the kids just seemed extra big. The bus took off and you could see some puddles, then I got off at Broad and Canal to catch a bus to Franklin Ave. that would take me home to Gentilly. There was just a crowd of people at the bus stop. I remember the bus taking forever, then when it did arrive it said the route was cut off because of water and flooding. 

At this point a lot of people were getting upset and I’m just like WHAT, I gotta get home! A big group of people started walking in the direction I needed to go so I followed them. I grabbed a stick like my mom told me to check for manhole covers, potholes, debris and walked on the neutral ground. I also remember my mom saying don’t go near any brown clumps floating because it’s most likely ants. We got to Broad St. pumping station and just saw water e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.

This was before kids had cell phones so I couldn’t call anyone. I just knew I needed to get home. Mind you I had on some brand NEW black suede Nikes and shorts, I had to walk through knee-high water to around St. Aug before I saw a bus again. Just as I got on the bus it started raining. It’s probably a little after 5pm by the time I got home. My whole family was home, dry and warm. I was upset they didn’t come get me but they knew I’d be ok because they’d taught me how to read street signs and always know where I’m at.

Gentilly Resilience District Map (Image: City of New Orleans Office of Resilience and Sustainability)

Luckily, Jeremy was equipped with the skills he needed to navigate his way home, but how often are you aware of your surroundings, without having to reference your phone? We’re talking about whether you would be able to navigate throughout New Orleans or any place without Google Maps, Waze, etc. When thinking about water – how much do you know about our pumping system? Where does rainwater go once it’s reached the hopefully unclogged drains on your street? How much do you know about stormwater mitigation and local ecosystems? If we knew more about how things functioned, would we be more inclined to help envision the future of these systems or demand more maintenance and action from the city? These are a few questions we started asking ourselves as we looked for answers and thought about solutions during our research process for our work on the Gentilly Resilience District.

A.J. Reisz’s Chilly Gentilly: The History and Stories of a Great New Orleans Neighborhood, 2017

Since the fall of 2022, we’ve been working as design consultants in collaboration with Waggonner & Ball, a local architecture firm, and the city of New Orleans’s Office of Resilience & Sustainability to create a visual identity for the Gentilly Resilience District (GRD). As with all our work, we’ve spent months, weeks, hours researching the history and culture of Gentilly and its water infrastructure.

An abbreviated history lesson. (We are not certified historians, but we love to research and share what we find.) 

Before French colonists and brothers Mathurin and Pierre Dreux set up shop along Bayou Sauvage in 1727, Gentilly was considered inhospitable because of the swampy terrain. A 1937 soil study revealed that beneath New Orleans and Gentilly, sea shells and fine white sand are the remains of a coastal barrier island called the Pine Island Beach Trend. It was formed 4500 years ago as the Pearl River deposited quartz sand into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River then lept eastward and became blocked by Pine Island to the north. Wherever the river traveled, it deposited fresh sediment and created new land, forming ridges wherever it flowed. Because of this Gentilly follows a topographic ridge (Gentilly Ridge / Gentilly Boulevard) to the south, where early buildings were raised on piers. Gentilly is bounded to the north by the lakefront levee.

For more information about the topographic history of Gentilly, read this article by geographer Richard Campanella. 

Images from left to right: Gentilly Terrace - Steven J. Hoffman, Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 2016; Pontchartrain Park - Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans; Gentilly Woods - photo taken by Collection of Collections at City Archives, New Orleans Main Library

In the early twentieth century, Gentilly Terrace was built on the higher elevation of the ridge along Gentilly Boulevard. Homes were built by piling up earth to create terraced land for houses. Realty firm Baccich and deMontluzin printed 20,000 copies of a colored map advertising the new subdivision using the tagline “Where homes are built on hills”. 

In 1955, Pontchartrain Park was developed in the midst of strictly enforced segregation. Redlining and racial covenant laws banned Black people from moving into most neighborhoods in Gentilly. Pontchartrain Park became one of the earliest planned Black subdivisions in the United States. Houses in Pontchartrain Park were built similarly to homes in the whites-only neighborhood of Gentilly Woods. Both neighborhoods were developed by the Crawford Corp, but the Dwyer Canal separated them. The vision for both neighborhoods encompassed verdancy, car-centricity, pedestrian friendliness, and encouragement of neighborhood interaction and activity. 

Both mid-century developments used advertising to sell real estate. They represented a new step in New Orleans’ architectural landscape. A century prior, the cypress swamp the homes were built on were dredged up for mechanical pumping. The land was then drained, without putting into account its general sogginess. Developers and residents had faith in the progressive, infallible infrastructure - a system of pumps, canals, and levees. The connections between inside and outside were spotlighted in the domestic landscape. Pontchartrain Park promoted its vast recreational space. Both subdivisions were idyllic examples of modern postwar urban design. 

With the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965, New Orleans was forced to integrate housing developments, as well as parks and other public facilities. By the 1980s, as white flight transformed the city, Gentilly Woods’ population shifted to become predominantly Black, and residents of both Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park formed the Pontilly Neighborhood Association. 

While researching the abundant history of Gentilly, we stumbled upon the Pontchartrain Park + Gentilly Woods Landscape Manual in the City Archives at New Orleans Main Library, produced by the Pontilly Disaster Collaborative and Longue Vue House & Gardens. The 2009 manual is part history book and part guidebook for landscape rehabilitation in Gentilly neighborhoods. What stood out to us the most was the idea of not only helping residents understand their landscape but also how they can play a role in shaping its future. “We believe that the future of Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods must be rooted in their unique history, and so the manual seeks both to explain the past and to make proposals for renewal.” (Pontchartrain Park + Gentilly Woods Landscape Manual, p.6) 

Photos taken by Collection of Collections, clockwise from top left: Joseph Bartholomew Golf Course in Pontchartrain Park; First site visit to Mirabeau Water Garden; Walking to the levee; Site visit to St. Bernard Neighborhood Campus

The goal of the GRD is to design environmental projects that work naturally and sustainably with Gentilly’s swampy terrain. The stated benefits of the District are: reduce flood risk, slow land subsidence, improve energy reliability, and encourage neighborhood revitalization. (City of New Orleans Office of Resilience and Sustainability) Our goal as graphic designers is to tie all of the GRD projects together to create an inviting and cohesive visual identity that increases local and global awareness. Well-designed signage and wayfinding will support residents and visitors in exploration, engagement, and learning. And it helps you better understand the space you’re navigating. It makes you more equipped to understand how systems work and how the infrastructure is set up. The goal is to encourage a look beneath the layers. Once you’re equipped with the knowledge, you can share it – just like Jeremy’s mom. 

Photos taken by Collection of Collections, clockwise from top left: Site visit to Mirabeau Water Garden; Behind the London Avenue Canal floodwall; London Avenue Canal floodwall; Prentiss Avenue Drainage Pumping Station

Research is a major part of our creative process. We’ve spent a lot of time in Gentilly doing site visits, at the New Orleans City Archives, walking around the city making note of signage, and reviewing prior community engagement efforts. Research runs through all aspects of our design process from beginning to end. And throughout, we’ve been asking ourselves the following questions:

How will people learn about the Gentilly Resilience District? How can we connect all the projects together? Where should maps be incorporated? What does sustainable signage look like? What does signage look like in harmony with nature? What are the best locations for signage to be visible to drivers, pedestrians, cyclists? How can typography be both nostalgic and futuristic?  

What’s behind the levees and floodwalls? When and why were these systems put in place? Can we create sustainable ecosystems to mitigate water? How do native plants assist in water mitigation? Is there space for recreation within water infrastructure? 

How can the community both explore and enjoy the spaces created by the GRD? How will these spaces help in emergency events? How do we involve ALL of the community in this work? What’s the best way to reach a wide audience? How can we make this information accessible? How do we get people excited about this? How do we hold ourselves accountable for facilitating community involvement? In what ways can we apply insights gleaned from community members? 

How do we add space for the truth-telling of history and ways for us to learn from it? How can signage honor and acknowledge indigenous and Black history? In what ways can signage pay homage to a place, a people? Does the design reflect the community’s feedback, knowledge, and personal history in Gentilly? Does the past hold the map to our future? 

We look forward to sharing our work and more of what we’ve learned about Gentilly.

Early sketches of visual possibilities by Collection of Collections


Kurston Melton and Jeremy Paten are the people behind Collection of Collections, a New Orleans studio that offers creative solutions through art and design. When not in their studio, they are cultivating their garden, growing food, and designing their own botanical ecosystems. They are also the curators of