Along a stretch of Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive in Old South Baton Rouge, a colorful sign denoting a “Garden of Champions” sticks out between crumbling buildings that once were historical hot spots.
The large garden is a small sign of the redevelopment East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker is pushing for throughout the neighborhood.
Plan after plan to revitalize the neighborhood has been drawn up but most have never come to fruition for one reason or another, usually a lack of funding. Wicker and others are now trying to convince developers to build townhouses, restaurants, gardens and more.
Among the glimmers of promise: The East Baton Rouge Housing Authority should start construction in September on 46 single-family homes and duplexes in the area. The city-parish also is working on sidewalks for a back entrance where children can walk to the under-construction Knock Knock Children’s Museum.
The strides may be small, but Wicker said they are working.
Old South Baton Rouge, once a thriving black community before Interstate 10 was built through the heart of it in the 1960s, needs to be a place where families and seniors can live and once again feel safe, she says. She wants to create a “senior village” in the northern half and a “children’s village” in the southern half, where people can easily walk around, find business and entertainment offerings and not have to face blight.
Wicker says a children’s village would be a place where kids would be able to safely gather or ride their bicycles without fearing drug dealers or other criminals in the area.
And to signify the safety of the community, she wants to use existing state laws to create harsher punishments for those who commit crimes within the villages.
She said the redevelopment of Old South Baton Rouge should be spurred on by the continued growth of the neighborhoods it borders in downtown and Mid City, particularly with the redevelopment of the old Entergy site on Government Street.
“We have planned and planned and planned, and we want to see something active,” said Christine Sparrow, the president of the Old South Baton Rouge Civic Association.
Wicker says the redevelopment finally is happening. She said plans from a coalition of city-parish agencies, nonprofits and community members are starting to come to life.
“The whole issue becomes how do we get private sector engagement in actually doing some of these things?” said East Baton Rouge Parish Planning Director Frank Duke, about a recent meeting for the proposed children’s village. “And hopefully there will be some private sector interest in trying to address some of these needs.”
Wicker said she has received some interest, but hopes to gin up more by hosting a developer’s tour through Old South Baton Rouge later this summer. On a recent drive through the hilly neighborhood, she stopped in what she calls the “fruit street” area and gushed about its potential.
Fig Street, Pear Street, Apple Street and others are hard to find behind overgrown foliage, narrow drives and railroad tracks just west of City-Brooks Community Park. Few inhabitable houses can be made out amid the greenery, so dense that it’s earned the nickname “the jungle.”
“I know y’all see overgrown stuff,” Wicker said as she drove through the slopes. “I see houses and community gardens.”
She wants townhomes overlooking City Park, and she said persuading developers to build them will be her highest priority when she takes them on a tour.
The Housing Authority should be ready soon with its plans to start construction of the single-family homes and duplexes in September. They should be completed next year, by late summer or fall.
The Housing Authority has over the past few years purchased the property on which the new homes will sit, and that property is concentrated in the Terrace Avenue, Washington Street, Nicholson Drive, Highland Road and Thomas H. Delpit Drive areas.
Housing Authority Executive Director Richard Murray said the demand for affordable housing in Baton Rouge far exceeds the supply, and that the agency has not determined whether it will use its current waiting list or open a new waiting list for the homes. The homes are being paid for via Section 42 federal housing credits.
He said the relatively small number of them means the houses and duplexes cannot, on their own, be the only catalyst for revitalizing the neighborhood. But combined with other signs of life and redevelopment, Murray said, they should become part of the larger picture.
The Housing Authority already built a small neighborhood off Thomas H. Delpit Drive as one of its more recent projects.
Murray said he expects the new houses in Old South Baton Rouge will mirror the shotgun styles the neighborhood is known for, rather than the classic Americana styles in the Thomas Delpit development.
Wicker said she is in talks to bring a two-story restaurant near the intersection of Thomas Delpit and Swart Street. She also wants to turn a liquor store on the corner of Thomas Delpit and Terrace Avenue into a sports bar.
Furthermore, she sees potential for creating a walking path through an old, easily overlooked Lutheran Cemetery off Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive and Fannie Street. The graves and greenery stretch east to Dalrymple Drive near the Knock Knock Children’s Museum site and LSU lakes.
Some of Wicker’s ideas for the children’s village have been inspired by the museum, slated to finish construction by year’s end. She is worried about kids from the neighborhood trying walk to the museum from East Washington Street, and said something as small as the city-parish’s plans to build sidewalks to a back entrance should make it safer for the neighborhood children to walk to the museum.
Sparrow, from the civic association, said she has watched neighbors and friends flee over time as they worry about their safety, and look for neighborhoods with more business development. She grew up in Old South Baton Rouge and would never want to leave because “it’s home.”
Wicker hopes her senior and children’s village concepts will quell fears about safety, and Sparrow believes they could help bring families back into Old South Baton Rouge.
Wicker wants the boundaries of the senior village to be Government Street on the north, Thomas H. Delpit Drive on the west, East Washington Street on the south and 18th Street on the east. For the children’s village, she wants the borders to be East Washington Street on the north, Thomas Delpit on the west, Roosevelt Street on the south and the Knock Knock Children’s Museum on the east.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney’s Office has been working with Wicker to determine ways to stiffen penalties for those who commit crimes in Old South Baton Rouge. The abundance of schools and churches helps.
Assistant Parish Attorney Ashley Beck said a state statute calls for inflicting harsher penalties onto people who commit drug-related crimes within 2,000 feet of schools, churches, day cares or public housing properties. The law allows for their sentence to be multiplied by 1.5 times the maximum length of time served for a crime, and it makes offenders pay the maximum fines for drug crimes.
But Beck said the law hinges on signs being posted to declare the space a “drug-free zone.”
Wicker said she would want to tailor the state law for local enforcement, and bring it before the Metro Council to help raise awareness about its existence.
As Wicker aims for re-election in the fall, she said she hopes to make Old South Baton Rouge the focus of her third term as a councilwoman.
“I really envision seeing Old South Baton Rouge being back, the breath being breathed back into that community as it was before,” she said.