On a pleasant early evening in April 2018, I rolled through the “Bottom,” the part of Baton Rouge referred to as Old South Baton Rouge. What I saw hurt me. The slow decay of part of a once-bustling area was now hard to look at even though the problem had been in plain sight for years.
It was like the slow drip of a faucet where you wonder when someone is going to turn off the spigot while the water continues toward overflowing.
A Baton Rouge group called the Center for Planning Excellence described the area this way: “A historic, but disinvested community between downtown Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University was once a place the capital city’s African-American community was proud to call home.”
There are a lot of people who live there who want to say they are proud to call it home right now. I know this area well because I attended McKinley High School, the virtual heartbeat of OSBR.
That April day, I was caught up reminiscing and wound up walking around Virginia and Maryland streets. (A side note: In almost every major city in America I’ve been, the streets named for states are in Black communities.)
At some point during my walk, I was overwhelmed by a cloud of gnats and whatever other tiny flying annoyances are in that group. I saw abandoned homes in various states of ill repair, along with overgrown lots accented with various kitchen and bathroom items.
I was so saddened about what I saw that I wrote a column about it, hoping it would spur change. Well, it didn’t.
Last week, I took another visit. The situation is still bad with no turnaround in sight.
For a different sight though, you only have to travel a few minutes north and you can see all the new stuff happening on a major swath of Government Street. There are new stores and restaurants and fancy turn lane changes along the newly overlaid street. Now that’s progress. You can’t see OSBR from Government Street, so that’s a good thing for some folk around town, I guess.
There was a recent news report about OSBR that drew my attention after my latest foray there.
The media account cited a report by folks at LSU that said some of the blight in the Bottom could be harboring little varmints carrying serious diseases.
LSU researchers at the College of the Coast and Environment found Asian Tiger Mosquitoes, which are known for carrying Zika and Dengue. There were more Asian Tiger Mosquitoes in Old South Baton Rouge than the Garden District, a few miles away, and the reason why is because they nest better in blighted areas.
Wait, were some of those mosquitoes in the swarm that wrapped around me in 2018?
I’m not a health expert, but the fact that not only are people living there, there is an elementary school and high school just a few bites away could pose a need to do something both quickly and into the future.
Brittany Zeno, executive director of the Old South Baton Rouge Economic Redevelop Group, is trying to bring changes to the area, including a cleanup.
She told a media outlet that change “can’t be accomplished with one organization. It’s not going to be accomplished in one day, one week, one month or one year. It’s something that is going to have to happen and progress over time.”
She and I talked briefly a few weeks ago. I like her fire and dedication. Maybe our city planners will work with her, like Councilperson Carolyn Coleman and other groups who may do something about the abandoned houses, buildings and lots. Hopefully.
Maybe with a little help from the city and others, this statement assessing OSBR by the Center for Planning Excellence will come true: “Despite these current struggles, the legacy of the neighborhood is strong and many residents are committed to bringing their community back to prosperity.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at email@example.com.