It was a little after 6 p.m. one recent evening, and I was walking through the East Buchanan-Virginia Street area of old South Baton Rouge. It’s familiar territory for me. I was one block from my high school.
Gnats swarmed my face, and I heard the buzzing in my ear. I swept them away, and more returned as I walked into a trash-choked vacant lot. Years ago, these streets were teeming with teenagers, but not now. There are a lot of burned-out houses and boarded-up residences. Others look like they are on life support.
There was a portable toilet, standing like a sentinel, in a trash-filled lot. As I started to move on, a voice rang out, an old friend from high school. McKinley High, our alma mater, was visible from where we were standing.
I walked over to meet the military veteran. His brother, also a veteran, is a friend of mine. I am a classmate and friend of his brother’s wife. For several weeks, I had planned to look at the area to write about blight in Baton Rouge. There’s nothing particularly different about this area. You can see this all over the parish — and in other communities in Louisiana. It’s just that my heart is here.
My friend was happy and excited to talk to me, as long as I didn’t use his name. He was sad about what had happened to his neighborhood.
From his porch, you can see the shell of a burned-out house, a boarded-up house next to it, a junked lot next to that and yet another boarded-up house next to that. To the left is another boarded up, burned-out house.
Diagonally across the street is an overgrown lot where he says the owner “talks about putting in a garden.” Step past that, and there is another battered house and another rundown residence next to it.
Buchanan Elementary is less than 30 yards away. I asked my friend about the toilet down the street. He didn’t know it was there. We walked by, and from about 30 feet away, we could smell it.
There is a ray of hope, though. At least three of the damaged houses have a sign on them that read: “Underground gas service has been severed and disconnected to this location.”
“That means that any day now, (the city) could come down here and tear the house down,” he said with a smile. “You could come by here tomorrow, and that house could be gone.”
The signs, he admitted, have been up for a while. But even if the houses are gone, the property could become like the one where the portable toilet rests.
The city has a Blight Court and Blight Committee to fight the problems. But property laws, along what some might say is not a real dedication to dealing with the problem, as well as a lack of money, are hindering progress. Dilapidated housing is usually in economically distressed areas where the population is older and disappearing. The residents are not a powerful voting bloc or economic driver, so they can be ignored or pacified by token offers of help.
The finances needed to address the issue will require dedication by city leaders. Remember the gusto exerted when the previous administration tried to raise $170 million for a tram from LSU to downtown that no one was really begging to have?
Maybe the same creativity and gusto could be used to find half of that to fight blight in these troubled neighborhoods. Improving the living conditions of the citizenry will help the whole community. It could lessen crime, keep communities intact and provide a strong environment for schools in those areas, among other things.
My friend and I talked a few minutes about several other things. He is very proud of the way he has maintained his family home, and he wants better for the neighborhood where he learned to walk. When people abandon houses or leave lots to overgrow, “they don’t know how it affects people like me,” he said. “But you have to be careful how you talk to people about it,” he added.
Living on his island of stability in the neighborhood, my friend said, “It’s like living in the country. I’m used to it now. I’ve lived here almost all my life. But it’s got to get better.”
He continues to hold out hope that those houses with the yellow signs could be a start. “I might come home tomorrow, and they could be gone,” he stressed, laughing. “It can happen just like that.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.