Sometimes when I ride through my neighborhood in Old South Baton Rouge, I have to stop and think about what I am seeing and recall all of the political promises of whole loaves of bread, yet this area barely got crumbs.
I hear the current candidates for mayor-president and Metro Council talking about the need for economic development in north Baton Rouge. Lord knows there is a crying need for all the incentives to bring businesses and better healthcare to that area. I have written about it.
But years ago I wrote about the dying economy in Old South Baton Rouge, where I was reared and graduated from high school. Head down Thomas Delpit Drive, once the business mecca of the community, and you will see vacant lots and long abandoned graffiti-scarred buildings. Certain sections look bad even on beautiful sunny days.
Sure, there are the McKinley High Alumni Center, the YMCA and Butler Center, nice buildings that give the impression of a thriving, yet old community. Local government officials point to those buildings and say: “See there. See what we’re doing.”
Go around the corner of the buildings and the neighbors can say: “See there. See what they’re not doing.”
The residents of the area are proud and deservedly so. They live in a historic part of town. But history, no economic development and no plan of action can’t buy you a cup of coffee with chicory.
When I drive to 908 Howard Street, the place I was born, I see an empty lot. There was once life there. Now there are a couple of houses. The car repair shop is gone, the pecan trees, children, Mary Lee Pinkney’s little girl house are all gone.
If I stood on what used to be the front porch or the “garry” as my grandmother called it, of my old house, I’d see a shabby edifice that was once a pristine stucco house that was across the street. It’s a mess now. There are no kids playing in the streets, teenagers throwing footballs, or guys talking trash on the corner.
There are many proud people in Old South Baton Rouge that was made of areas called The Bottom, The Top, Frogemore (gone now), and the Levee Dogs.
Oddly, what helped to kill the area was this hard-fought thing called integration. There was no plan for what happens when there is integration. Once African-Americans could shop and eat anywhere, we raced into the other areas of town. There was no reciprocation. Whites did not visit our restaurants, grocery stores, shoe shops or call our cabbies. And so it goes.
Another cause was self-inflicted. Drugs, crime and the short-lived Southside Wrecking Crew tore through the area in the 1970s and early 1980s, providing the impetus for those who could to get the hell out.
But also in the mid-1980s McKinley High, the historic African-American school in Louisiana, was fully integrated for the first time. It seemed to give the community new life.
East Baton Rouge Parish School System even “renovated” the school, but shortchanged it on the amount expended. A true investment in the school could have meant a lot to the community. Instead the school board invested many millions more on Baton Rouge Magnet High (twice) and the recent rebuild of Robert E. Lee High School. I wonder why.
At the same time, city-parish government did little. There are some new low-cost housing blocks in the area, but walk across the street from them and there is a block of ghost buildings.
Is there a mayoral candidate or Metro Council candidate who will discuss and develop a real plan that will improve the neighborhoods and the business community just miles from the mayor’s office? Sometimes it just takes people, creativity and dedication.
There are discussions about a $170 million tram system that will take people three miles from LSU to downtown. Is it really that difficult to get from LSU to downtown? Just a fraction of those misguided millions can be used for business and community development in Old South Baton Rouge, and even in the Park and Easy Town areas.
It would be great and revolutionary for the new mayor and city leaders to develop a plan to be inclusive of the entire community. Baton Rouge will not be a great city until we’re all better.
Email Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, at email@example.com.
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