|Why B.R. is stressed, and who will relieve the strain|
The stick was bathed in blood and hung with pelts pulled and pressed off the bones—but still marked by camouflage made for a wilderness.
The Houmas and the Bayou Goulas called this place Istrouma. A gumbo of European settlers called it Baton Rouge, French for “red stick.”
And every settler wanted a little bit.
Now times have shifted. Or have they?
Education. Crime. Quality of life. These are three of the bloodiest fault lines that run jagged through Baton Rouge in 2012. How we respond to them will determine our city's future.
The game-changing question remains: Will Baton Rouge continue to be defined by division and pressure, or will a new crop of leaders respond with the ingenuity and ideas that have long sparked the best cities in America?
Tara High School teacher Andy Chapman has awakened early on a stifling August Saturday, the last weekend of summer break, to walk the buckled streets of one of the most violent parts of Baton Rouge and knock on doors. He wants to remind parents to register their children for school.
Chapman isn't having much luck on this road that runs between Winbourne and Mohican. It's in an area coined the BRAVE district, short for Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination. Here, police are applying extra weight to stamp out crime before it escalates.
Why have busloads of teachers shown up to canvass these neighborhoods? When children drop out of school, they commit crimes. Today, teachers and law enforcement are working together.
Chapman's raps come up empty at several houses.
One address yields a barking man who's disgusted that Chapman woke him up so early, and no, he doesn't have young ones. It's 10:30 in the morning.
A girl, all of 9 years old, leans against the doorframe of a pastel bungalow, a toddler in diapers tugging at her shirt.
“The kids who live here are all registered,” says a man from inside. He adds, “They're not my kids.”
Chapman's close-cropped black hair and pressed polo grow damp. His purposeful stride slows a bit.
This is the stuff they don't teach you how to do when you major in education. This narrow asphalt drive that never had a sidewalk has had more than enough strain—murders, drive-by shootings, fires, thefts.
As Chapman peeks in a dark window, a jay shrieks overhead, the sound splitting the hot, wet air.
“I was hoping to catch parents and make them aware,” Chapman says, pausing. “It's on us now to keep the kids coming every day.”
Optimism Against All Odds
Chapman is the coordinator of sophomore academy, a retention initiative at Tara High School. He teaches civics, coaches wrestling, and is about to earn his master's degree from Southern University. He'll probably go into school administration.
“I've realized maybe I can affect more kids in a leadership position,” he says.
He describes his approach in the classroom as businesslike. The Baton Rouge High grad wears a suit and tie every day. He's tough, but he cares.
“I want you to know how serious I am about education,” he tells his students. “I was a product of the East Baton Rouge Parish School system, and I was rambunctious coming up. East Baton Rouge Parish schools helped me.”
Tenacity is Chapman's response to the daily grind of being a public school teacher in Baton Rouge.
“You have to get the kids to want to come and work,” he says.
This is the kind of classroom leader who will make a difference, says the parish school system's new superintendent, Bernard Taylor.
Parents are leaning on the Michigan transplant to deliver a new era of education.
He says enthusiasm and successful role models transform the classroom as much as the most sophisticated teaching techniques or equipment.
“How do you help kids develop a sense of optimism?” he says. That's the query that keeps him awake at night.
Taylor's job is to foster an unflappable, upbeat attitude in his teachers. He hopes for a positive ripple effect. “Being a teacher here can be daunting,” he says.
He's encouraging teachers to overcome their own inertia, to become brilliant in the face of mounting pressure—from the state, from political leaders, from bureaucratic idiocy and budget woes, from their own grief when a student gets shot or a school gets shuttered—and show children how to stay positive against it all.
“If I want adults to affirm children,” Taylor says, “I have to affirm adults.”
Absolute Achievement of Scores
Like many who work in this system, Chapman's got his share of classroom war stories. He used to teach at Istrouma High, which was recently taken over by the state of Louisiana.
Every time the state takes over a school, a diaspora of teachers and students fans across the city. Bonds painstakingly knitted by instructors and their charges are broken. And an unknown future floods in on a dark tide of anxiety. Parents, children and teachers are tapped out by that point.
Young educators who came out of college jazzed about reaching urban children find out how difficult that is to pull off.
Then they meet what feels like the saw teeth of a state accountability system defined by hard, sometimes arbitrary-seeming lines. It cuts schools that don't meet certain standards with no regard for inherent growth.
At LSU, budget cuts have had the same effect. No matter how well you do to educate people, professors and leaders say, the budget keeps getting smaller.
Wall Street doesn't play this hard.
“I haven't worked in a state where progress has to be so absolute,” says Taylor.
EBR Parish schools are improving, he adds. Each year, its magnet schools draw more students. More parents are starting to believe in public education in Baton Rouge again.
But there is a lack of patience. They want great schools with high-performing children on every corner in the city. And they want it now.
And why shouldn't they? Their little ones are growing quickly, and five years is far too long to wait.
A year before Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holden launched his $600 million Green Light Plan in 2005, the first car drove down the wide, four-lane Bluebonnet Extension. Traffic could now easily flow from Nicholson Drive all the way down Bluebonnet to Coursey. No longer would drivers have to jog down Gardere and turn back down Burbank to reach Bluebonnet.
This shift in flow came as a relief for residents of such neighborhoods as University Acres, who no longer had to traverse a part of Baton Rouge that has high crime and high poverty.
Some of the yards that border Gardere Lane in South Baton Rouge are filled with rubble. Others are tenderly pruned by the hands of motivated homeowners who want to see this part of the city shape up.
On a buggy August evening, Nikki Green watches her 8-year-old son Chris play football at BREC's Hartley/Vey Gardere Park. The team is part of Gardere resident Darin Fontenette's Gardere Youth Alliance initiative.
Chris has wanted to play football for a long time.
“He's my baby boy,” Green says.
This program, she believes, will help offset some of the daily stress she and her family are feeling. She wants her son, a gifted student at Buchanan Elementary, to grow up to be a good man, even though they live in one of the worst areas of the city.
Green, a teacher at Park Forest Elementary, also has two daughters, Danielle, 9, and Grace, 13. On hot summer days, she sets up the sprinkler in the yard and prays her children can have fun without getting hurt.
“It's kind of rough around here.”
Green couldn't swing the payments for housing in another part of town. Gardere was a last resort.
“There are positive things here,” she says, taking a moment to hug her son, now soaked in sweat. Fontenette's youth alliance is one.
But for all its recent infrastructure improvements, Green says, it seems Baton Rouge doesn't want to accept her neighborhood.
She gazes toward the glimmering towers of the stately baseball academy known as Cypress Mounds, where parents pay upwards of $1,250 per season per child for their little athletes to play. Do those parents see the poverty-stricken children so close by?
“We almost have our own area code,” Green says. “Gardere is separate. It's hurtful.”
As the vision of Baton Rouge is drafted and poured out around town, many residents put up with more gridlock in hopes it will lead to less of it. But the pressure of the city's total dependence on the interstates for commuting became glaringly apparent on Aug. 22 when a single, multi-vehicle accident and isobutane leak on I-10 threw the entire city into massive, widespread congestion, closed businesses and canceled classes.
Baton Rouge has the worst traffic in the U.S. for mid-sized cities, studies show. But the FutureBR's Major Street Plan pushes for an intelligent approach.
Baton Rouge's roads should flow and connect, it says. They should take people places, and not just behind the wheel, but by foot, pedal power and bus, too. Whether future taxpayers agree, and what effect a plan like that might have on the social relationships in Baton Rouge, remains to be seen.
Life on the Edge
Kevin Serrin can't tell 225 his partner's name.
When Serrin rallies for gay rights, he can't bring his partner with him. His partner can't put Kevin's picture on his desk, either. He might lose his job if anyone finds out he's gay.
Serrin, dressed in a suit and tie with a conservative haircut, says even so, he is attracted to a lot of what Baton Rouge has to offer.
He and his partner moved here from the Northeast so that they could enjoy the city's slower-paced, southern lifestyle. They love their home and neighbors in a manicured golf course community. They bleed purple and gold.
“LSU football had a lot to do with it,” the health care consultant says when asked why he wanted to move to Baton Rouge.
Serrin and many others like him find life stressful living on one of the Capital City's sharpest and least acknowledged cultural edges.
As director of the Capital City Alliance, Baton Rouge's all-volunteer lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist organization, Serrin works to promote understanding and create a better existence for all of Baton Rouge's citizens.
Many of Serrin's smart, talented LGBT friends have moved away, taking their educations and ideas to places like Atlanta, Austin or L.A.
It's a hate-driven brain drain, and one that shouldn't happen in a city that's up-and-coming, Serrin says. Many in Baton Rouge's LGBT community don't feel they can be themselves here.
Baton Rouge is backwards, Serrin says, because the city doesn't promote civic protection that might discourage businesses from firing individuals based on sexual orientation. Businesses in the area have been known to refuse service to individuals based on their sexual orientations.
Why should this matter?
A progressive city, Serrin explains, strives to provide a high quality of life for each and every one of its residents. He wants his organization to approach the issue in the best way possible.
“I just want people to accept me and respect me,” Serrin says.
Regardless of your personal views or the recent clashes over a particular chicken franchise, Serrin's view is worth considering. If local culture is not comfortable for his community, how great is it for anyone?
Painting the Stick Red—and Adding New Colors
Their chic North Boulevard office comes complete with a chew toy-wielding office dog named Coal. Casey Phillips and Kathryn Thorpe, the co-curators of the BR Walls Project, believe that large-scale art might be the most powerful way to relieve the city's pressure.
Public art helps people move past the way things have always been, they say. It opens the mind so it can adjust to the cultural changes that take a city from ho-hum to radiant.
“Public art is like a Trojan horse,” Thorpe says, pausing. “Or—a piñata.” She explains, then, that big, colorful art pieces can easily transport the questions and ideas that change cultures.
Thorpe grew up in Miami, moved to Los Angeles, then followed Phillips, a Louisiana boy, to Baton Rouge. When she first walked the streets of our downtown, she says, one word came to her mind: vibeless.
Instead of moving away or complaining, Thorpe and Phillips got down to business. In L.A., artists are always bringing paint into the city. Pop-up museums dot the downtown landscape.
They imagined Baton Rouge with that vibe and started BR Walls.
A city with murals, Thorpe says, is a place where people are talking.
“It makes people want to live here,” Thorpe says.
Working with private business owners who have large buildings—the pair sees any big building in any part of town as a potential canvas—the organization will help the city look more interesting while tackling big issues such as racial divides, class discrepancies, educational notions, historical wrongdoings or legislative debates. All issues that generated their own pressure points.
Their first mural by painter Saliha Staib, a calming but vibrant geometric tangle, scintillates on the western wall of the Main Street law offices of McGlynn, Glisson and Mouton.
Owner Danny McGlynn has been an active, vocal supporter of BR Walls, as well as Circa 1857 and other cultural developments he is planning for Government Street.
Colorful buildings, he agrees, make cities better.
“Baton Rouge lacks pizzazz in some ways,” he says. Art also helps people change more gradually, he adds, and that's for the best. “Change that's not gradual is revolution.”
But what are a city's walls and art events without the elected leadership to help move it forward as well?
Encouraging an Active Middle
Alison Gary is stepping down as District 11 councilwoman because she didn't relish the thought of campaigning this fall with a 3-week-old baby on her arm. The new mom says the job of a Metro Councilmember is one of the toughest out there. Politics is stressful in Baton Rouge, she explains, because the local government's bureaucratic approach in an area made up of such a vast array of individuals.
This could explain why multiple council candidates will appear unopposed on next month's ballot or why only one financed candidate from each major party is running for mayor-president. Those who have shied away from candidacy say they did so because they see little chance of creating change.
“We have extreme wealth and extreme poverty,” Gary says over a cup of coffee at Highland Road Coffees one quiet Friday afternoon in July. “Rural, urban and suburban, retirees and college-aged people.”
Sometimes the Metro Council appears to be arguing among themselves and with the city's leaders, she says, because they are hashing out viewpoints forged in vastly different environments and backgrounds.
She has felt pressed to stay aware and get out and talk to less active residents. People with strong opinions in one direction or another can stymie growth.
An astute politician seeks out and amplifies the quiet middle voices, even if that spells trouble for a political career.
“It's really easy to hear the loud voices,” she says. “The loudest voices are also the ones to call you out or recall you.”
Gary voted to tear down and rebuild the downtown library. That earned her some vocal enemies who incorrectly believed it would siphon funds away from the Goodwood Library, in her own district, to fund the downtown building.
She thought it would be good for the city to have a strong downtown library, and she stands by that belief, even though it prompted a group to attempt a recall of her council seat.
It can be difficult. But in the end, she says, “You have to do what you really think is right. I want to be able to sleep at night with the decisions I've made.”
Politics in Baton Rouge will improve for everyone the more people get involved, Gary says, even though getting active can be stressful, too.
Over a DJ's speakers, Katy Perry's “Wide Awake,” an anthem of getting broken and healing stronger, shakes the trees at top volume. It's July at the City-Brooks Community Park Showcase. It's a Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation-sponsored evening that draws families to the park.
On grounds that are usually reserved only for the lobbing of golf balls, squealing children grab squares of cardboard and hurl themselves down a grassy knoll.
Next to Baton Rouge Gallery sits an innocent-looking square of lawn.
It covers what used to be the city's most celebrated swimming pool. And it smacks of a shameful history many would like to shake.
In 1964, the nine public pools in Baton Rouge closed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of park facilities was unconstitutional.
Race is still a conversation that many around Baton Rouge would rather avoid having altogether.
Instead of talking, in many cases, Baton Rouge has chosen to build. Fences, roads and gates rise up more easily than discussions do.
In this city, strident arguments over buildings or buses often point to deeper divisions that wrest people apart.
But couldn't they also point the way to healing and connection?
Sometimes taking down a fence and putting up a playground pushes people to change their course. Sometimes digging a goofy water park right at a point in the city where wealth and poverty meet yanks people out of their ruts. Liberty Lagoon at Independence Community Park can do this, one splash, dive and smile at a time.
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight says she's highly aware of how social change is shaped by recreational facilities, and vice versa.
“We recognize the importance of play and physical activity in building the lives and increasing the self-esteem of young people,” she says.
Joshua Rosby rolls to a stop on City Park's Picnic Hill and looks around, wordless.
Rosby is a cyclist and bike mechanic at The Bicycle Shop who has ridden throughout Europe. He's just come back from his evening bike ride on River Road to blow off steam and finds a revelation.
Before tonight, Rosby, who's African American, didn't figure that he could get from Dalrymple to Louise Street on his bike on a wide, sculpted path. There used to be a high fence surrounded by thorny scrub here. It kept the golf course neighborhoods of the LSU Lakes separate from the poorer neighborhoods to the west known as The Bottoms.
“This will be a big revival for that community,” says Rosby, who grew up in Baton Rouge, graduated from Baton Rouge High and went to LSU. “We had all these pockets. Now, all of a sudden, you have access. I didn't know this park connected the two neighborhoods. This is beautiful. This is what every neighborhood wants. This is integration.”
He is cut short by a clap of thunder. Rain is coming. The nearby snowball stand slaps shut its small window. The syrups get shelved. The laser show is cancelled.
Artists scurry to clean up papers running lime, magenta, cobalt. The papers serve as reminders of that thing that happens when pressure systems beat and bruise themselves, break light, then naturally turn broken light into spectral shows so brilliant we beg them to stay.
We'll try this again. And we'll get it right.
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