Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance’s first executive director, was honored by the nonprofit organization Thursday for her commitment to the midcity area and Baton Rouge.
Thomas, who received the Rev. Mary E. Moody Medal of Lifetime Achievement from the alliance, recounted the early days of the organization created by the Baton Rouge General Medical Center in 1991 to help revitalize the midcity area.
Thomas told attendees at the luncheon about her first day after being asked to head up the new nonprofit, sitting in her cubicle at the hospital’s administrative offices feeling like the proverbial dog who caught the car it was chasing.
She talked about meeting with hostile crowds in public meetings, with neighborhood residents who saw her as an interloper there to help gentrify their neighborhoods and drive them out.
But Thomas said it was community leaders such as the Rev. Moody and the Rev. Charles Smith, on whose sofa she cried one evening after a particularly difficult meeting, who helped her and the alliance fulfill its mission.
“Today’s really not about me, it’s about you,” she told the audience. “All of you in this room have given so much to make Baton Rouge what it is.”
Thomas said the number of abandoned and blighted homes is a fraction of what it was when the organization first began, and said calls to the police from the midcity area have fallen from 400 per month to 40.
Thomas said the early days were all about finding funds and volunteers any way she could, and getting her hands dirty often. She described a weekend in which she and volunteers picked up 350 tires in a four-block area and 28 tons of trash.
It was only at the last minute, she said, that the city-parish changed its mind and didn’t charge them for the dumpsters.
But Thomas said the hard work paid off. For every home she and other volunteers painted, five others would soon be fixed up voluntarily by their owners.
One of the main lessons she learned in her eight years at the alliance, before leaving to head up Plan Baton Rouge and now the Center for Planning Excellence, was that community reinvestment work has to put the needs, desires and considerations of the residents who live there first.