For years, an overgrown thicket of shrubs and trees, discarded Sheetrock and tires crowded the vacant lot off Plank Road and Erie Street, an eyesore neighbors said attracted unseemly activity. 

Today, all that remains is a vibrant, red-budded camellia bush. The rest of the abandoned property — including nearly 20 truckloads of debris — has since been cleared. 

That's thanks to the hundreds of volunteers with Baton Rouge's Walls Project who have worked since Friday to paint blighted buildings, clear vacant lots and help beautify property along the Plank Road corridor. 

The initiative, now in its sixth year, is part of a four-day festival of service known as MLK Fest, which concludes Monday with a final day of volunteering and a block party featuring speakers like Gov. John Bel Edwards and East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

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The celebration is open to the public and will take place at the parking lot on the the corner of Chippewa Street and Plank Road. BRPD officers are slated to serve up hamburgers and hot-dogs and local nonprofits and service providers will have booths set up to connect with the public.

The NAACP’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, which is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. at Star Hill Baptist Church, will end at the block party.

Started in 2012, the Walls Project uses hands-on public art experiences to revitalize blighted and overlooked neighborhoods. The nonprofit recently turned its focus to Plank Road, an under-resourced thoroughfare in north Baton Rouge that is now the subject of an expansive redevelopment plan.  

“We’re going to keep going inch by inch down Plank Road helping to reactive it as much as possible,” said Helena Williams, an organizer with the Walls Project. She said they will spend the next two to three years working on properties along the corridor between Choctaw Drive and Hollywood Street. 

On Sunday, nearly a hundred volunteers with the project fanned out to eight sites along Plank Road. Tress Allen, 19, a junior at Southern University, spent the morning applying a fresh coat of beige paint on the Busy Bees Learning Center day care. 

“When the kids come here and see that their school is looking a little better than it did the last time they were here, I’m sure they’re going to be excited," said Allen, who volunteered alongside Southern's NAACP chapter.

Nearby, a crew of sixth graders from Glasgow Middle School took a brief break from volunteering to snack on a bag of Cheetos. “It’s definitely different than the parts of Baton Rouge that we’re used to,” said Ivy Luo, 11. 

A few blocks south, Langston Alston, 28, a New Orleans-based painter, got started on a two-story mural spanning the front of the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on the theme of "love thy neighbor as thyself." He expects to finish the mural by the end of the week. 

Around the corner, two dozen volunteers painted white primer over campaign yard signs, old poster boards and plywood sheets. On Monday, MLK Fest attendees will have the opportunity to decorate the surfaces, which will then be affixed over broken windows and abandoned store fronts. 

MLK Fest prides itself on bringing together volunteers from across the parish. Organizers expect at least 1,000 residents to show up on Monday to offer a hand. 

Two volunteers who participated Sunday are from far beyond the parish's boundaries. Carine Le Gall and Cristina Manzanares, two teachers at Westdale Middle School, are on visas from France and Spain, respectively. They showed up, in part, to learn more about the foreign city they now call home. 

"We wanted to be more involved with the community," Manzanares said. "To help people that are not as lucky as us." 


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater