A look at the many efforts to save Old South Baton Rouge while still preserving its cultural heritage
High school seniors Cidni Rabey and Malik T. Smith gaze up at an expansive mural splashed on the side of a vacant building on East Boulevard and Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive in Old South Baton Rouge. Large images of young people, many of them gripping their own small works of art, look down at the two McKinley High School students, while the mural’s purple background contrasts sharply against the rundown building’s faded bricks.
The mural was conceived over the summer by a visiting national graffiti artist and created with help from teenagers like Rabey and Smith who participated in an East Baton Rouge Parish summer employment program. It is one of more than a dozen public art installations that adorn exterior building walls and even blighted houses throughout this historic but depressed part of the Capital City.
Smith, the recently elected student body president at nearby McKinley High, speculates on how public art could benefit the neighborhood—a high-crime, high-unemployment area that was once a hub for the African American middle class.
“This is an incredible neighborhood,” says Smith, whose great-grandmother lives nearby. “It’s right by LSU, it’s full of history, and it could be great. We just need to make if feel safe again. This could be the jumpstart.”
Read more stories from our series on arts-based projects in Old South Baton Rouge:
• Museum of Public Art: Art goes viral across the neighborhood thanks to international artists
• Love Our Community: Youth help beautify Baton Rouge’s struggling neighborhoods
• New Venture Theatre: Cultural outreach at inner-city community centers has a big impact
Or, continue reading the cover story below:
THE ROOTS OF HOPE
In Old South Baton Rouge—a three-square-mile swath of land sandwiched between downtown and the LSU campus—a partial renaissance seems to be underway. Since 2012, the edgy Museum of Public Art, run by orthodontist Kevin Harris, has made the neighborhood its canvas. Most of its work is at the corner of Myrtle Walk and Eddie Robinson Drive in a roofless building that holds a collection of changing interior and exterior murals. They have been painted by some of the world’s best-known graffiti artists, many of whom also created murals with the summer employment program students.
Across the street, the shuttered Lincoln Theater—once a lively cultural focal point that hosted Nat King Cole, James Brown and other high-profile entertainers—is finally seeing progress toward restoration. State and federal funds allowed the nonprofit group that owns the building to complete roof repairs and asbestos removal this summer—key steps to reopening it as a functioning arts venue.
But challenges abound in this neighborhood, many of them the result of diminished investment over the past half-century. Despite its once-pedestrian-friendly streets and rich architecture, the neighborhood has languished, even as the neighborhoods that border it have flourished. Many of its charming bungalows and shotgun-style houses are abandoned or blighted. The area grapples with a 50% poverty rate, and only about one-fifth of the homes are owner-occupied. Crime is so high that the parish’s experimental gang-eradication program, BRAVE, recently incorporated the 70802 ZIP code, which includes Old South Baton Rouge, in its target area.
The decline notwithstanding, neighborhood pride runs deep here, says Gwen Hamilton, a former Plan Baton Rouge organizer and a 41-year resident of the neighborhood. The area was home to a long list of successful entrepreneurs, civic leaders and artists.
Standing in the Dr. Leo S. Butler Community Center on East Washington Street, Hamilton eyes dozens of framed photos of Old South Baton Rouge residents who made significant contributions to the community. The Hall of Fame exhibit is curated by Butler Center Assistant Director Helen Rutledge, who reminisces with Hamilton about the impact made by many of those whose images hang on these walls. One of them is a lifeguard named Elvin K. Dalcourt Sr., another is Dr. Leo S. Butler, one of several prominent physicians who helped establish an independent society in Old South Baton Rouge alive with businesses owned and run by African Americans. Names or pictures of politicians, entrepreneurs, educators and entertainers line the walls as well, including Lynn Whitfield, the Emmy award-winning actress, and American Idol’s Randy Jackson.
“That’s where the pride comes from,” says Hamilton. “And it’s really important that young people in the neighborhood understand this.”
Once boasting an 80% home ownership rate, Old South Baton Rouge started to decline in 1963 after Interstate 10 construction cut through the middle of the neighborhood. That is one of several conclusions reached by LSU researchers Petra Munro Hendry and Jay Edwards, whose 2009 book, Old South Baton Rouge: The Roots of Hope, documents the historic relevance of the neighborhood. The interstate overpass created a zone of blight below it where many small businesses and private properties had existed.
“There was not anyone among us who did not have a relative displaced,” recalls Hamilton.
By the mid-’90s, things had gotten so bad in the neighborhood that LSU—with its close geographic ties to the area—and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation began to pay serious attention. LSU formed the Community University Partnership, which led to numerous faculty-led projects throughout the area. BRAF, working closely with then-Congressman Richard Baker, helped the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority secure an $18 million Hope VI grant to create attractive, scattered-site housing for low- to moderate-income residents in the neighborhood. Those homes, along Colorado Street, are still a bright spot in Old South Baton Rouge.
“A smaller city had never received that level of funding before,” says Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president and CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge.
Then in 2005, BRAF funded a comprehensive plan for Old South Baton Rouge that identified ways the neighborhood could help generate new investment, including small business development. That plan was completed by CPEX in 2006 and is still used as a guide for the neighborhood association, says District 10 Metro Councilmember Tara Wicker, who represents Old South Baton Rouge.
“Anytime something comes up, I pull out the CPEX plan,” Wicker says. “It’s important to stay true to it.”
But unlike downtown Baton Rouge, which also undertook a comprehensive planning process, Old South Baton Rouge didn’t see the same level of subsequent public and private investment. It lacked large numbers of businesses, and it wasn’t home to an agency like the Downtown Development District that could drive the planning process forward.
“We don’t have an organization or an individual who wakes up every morning doing this work,” says Hamilton. “This is a process that has to be coordinated.”
THE ARTS-BASED APPROACH
New investment has happened on the neighborhood’s western edge, including the Water Campus, a 27.6-acre riverfront research park, and the 40-acre River District housing and retail development, both on Nicholson Drive. But thus far, no sustained investment has happened in the neighborhood’s interior.
One proven way to ignite business interest in an area is through the arts. Old South Baton Rouge’s artistic heritage inspired the most recent efforts to restore hope and attract investment in the community, and this time, it was the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge taking the lead. The focal point would be the empty Lincoln Theater.
In 2012, the Arts Council was awarded two highly competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kresge Foundation, totaling $250,000. The grants were intended to study the neighborhood’s storied cultural heritage and figure out a way to preserve that history while making it the catalyst for new investment. The process for applying for the funds had been put in motion by the late Derek Gordon, then the president and CEO of the Arts Council. Gordon had been a nationally renowned arts leader who returned to the Capital City, his hometown, to finish his career. He grew up in Old South Baton Rouge.
“Derek had worked for the Lincoln Theater, and his idea was, ‘Let’s use the arts to inspire the revitalization of Old South Baton Rouge,’” says CPEX’s Thomas.
Eric Holowacz, hired to replace Gordon in 2013, says it became an important objective of the organization to finish the work Gordon had begun.
“I wanted to see his last project fulfilled,” says Holowacz. “He wanted to ensure [the neighborhood’s arts heritage] did not go away. The threat was the impetus for putting the grant sources together. He knew that if the neighborhood didn’t revive from within, it would be all too easy for it to be replaced with something completely different.”
It was an obvious role for the Arts Council to do such work—its niche being to promote the cultural life of the community—and using the neighborhood’s cultural history to spark future investment made sense.
“It’s ambitious thinking, but if you look around the country, the arts are often there first,” says Holowacz. “Artists generate that new identity and recapture that old identity.”
Led by the Arts Council, CPEX and a handful of partners, including Lord Cultural Planning, Mosaic Urban Partners and Baton Rouge-based Franklin and Associates, the project was named Community Dreaming Old South Baton Rouge. Active planning took place over more than nine months in the neighborhood and involved 300 community participants, according to the final report issued in May.
The results include a Lincoln Theater feasibility study, a market analysis of the neighborhood and an implementation plan that prioritizes certain action steps, including a cost-effective restoration of the theater.
PLANNING FATIGUE HITS
During the planning process, the Arts Council and its partners started hearing rumblings from community members about the slow pace of activity and revitalization. This was, after all, the latest in a string of attempts to resuscitate Old South Baton Rouge. In response, the Arts Council launched a handful of short-term projects meant to provide something tangible the neighborhood could rally around. This included a photography project led by local youth that temporarily displayed charismatic black-and-white portraits along Expressway Park, underneath the Interstate 10/110 split.
But before the Community Dreaming project concluded, it hit a serious road bump. On Feb. 5, a group of Old South Baton Rouge community leaders sent the Arts Council a letter requesting the organization and its partners cease and desist any future grantmaking in the name of the neighborhood.
The letter was signed by councilmember Wicker, McKinley Alumni Center Director Garrick Mayweather, the Museum of Public Art’s Kevin Harris, Sadie Roberts-Joseph (Odell Williams Now and Then African-American Museum founder), District 67 State Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, and Christine Sparrow, president of the South Baton Rouge Civic Association.
“The community … collectively will determine the programs that we want to see implemented in our community, and we take the leadership role to partner with all organizations to ensure this happens,” reads the letter. “If any organization wishes to partner with the Old South Baton Rouge community … then that organization must submit a detailed proposal to South Baton Rouge Civic Association for the community to review prior to submission for funding.”
Wicker says the letter represents deep frustration that outside agencies were proceeding without the full support of the neighborhood. According to these leaders, there was resentment that outsiders presumed to know what was best for Old South Baton Rouge.
“The way the process unfolded was not in a way that allowed for active buy-in from the community,” says Wicker. “Before you utilize the neighborhood’s name, we’re just asking that you simply call and have a conversation. It was just a matter of simple respect for the community.”
Organizers were blindsided, having spent hours in community meetings building rapport and connecting with numerous key players. Holowacz says they were trying to be sensitive to a neighborhood that may have been experiencing planning fatigue. The Arts Council’s response to the letter asked for the names of people they should consult with prior to future projects. They did not receive a response.
Wicker says it’s more complicated than that. “There’s not any one list,” she said in September. “It’s different groups of people associated with different things. If there is a project in the future, let’s figure out who are the partners who want to be at the table, and let’s develop the plan around those partners.”
The cease and desist letter came while the Arts Council was preparing to request another $300,000 in funding for the next phases of the project. It did not proceed.
Despite the setback, the Arts Council and CPEX wrapped up the study in May, with its report now available on the Community Dreaming website. Holowacz says the Arts Council has since shifted its role in the community from a proactive partner to a resource, should neighborhood organizations need its help.
“The Arts Council is there to provide arts opportunities and support in building a creative infrastructure. We don’t have any other motives,” says Holowacz. “Our goal was to see a plan through that Derek had initiated. We’re still here to respond to the needs of any part of the community … and we will try to be as generous as we can.”
Wicker is eager to put the issue behind the neighborhood. “I think both are ready to move forward,” she says. “There were things that happened, but it’s water under the bridge.”
Wicker says the neighborhood association is considering applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, which would enable it to apply for grants independently.
STAGING A COMEBACK
One of the most promising projects in Old South Baton Rouge is the revival of the Lincoln Theater, which could serve as a draw not only for the neighborhood but also for patrons from across the city. The theater could be a magnet for music fans interested in live blues and other forms of entertainment, speculates Brenda Perry Dunn, founding board member of the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame, which owns the building.
The site has particular cultural resonance for Old South Baton Rouge residents. Hamilton, for example, remembers going on her first date with husband Leo Hamilton at the theater. LBHHF board member Evelyn Dumas, who grew up in North Baton Rouge, says she recalls going to the Lincoln for Saturday matinées in the late ’60s as a reward for good grades.
“One of the mothers would volunteer to take a group of us,” Dumas says.
The LBHHF board of directors has been trying to raise money to revive the defunct space since 2009, when the nonprofit purchased the building. About $300,000 in mostly state funding allowed the group to buy the site, and a $70,000 EPA grant supported efforts to remediate asbestos and repair the roof earlier this year. The group has another $250,000 in state funds that will be used for interior repairs, says Dunn.
Future plans include a complete overhaul of the space that will reclaim the 600-seat theater as a working performing arts venue. Dunn says the group also plans to restore the lobby area, reopen the onsite barber shop and install a Black History Hall of Fame exhibit in a space adjacent to the lobby. Among other exhibits, the Lincoln could include the history of the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, which served as a model for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery. Baton Rouge’s protest was planned in the upstairs offices of the Lincoln Theater.
Recently, Shiloh Baptist Church agreed to serve as the theater’s operating partner, says Dunn. The LBHHF has launched a Name Your Seat campaign to raise money for the interior restoration. Patrons can donate $250 to $1,000 to have a plaque installed on a seat. Meanwhile, the Arts Council is providing $10,000 to help restore or reproduce the Lincoln Theater’s broken neon signs.
The overall price tag to completely renovate the theater and its existing spaces alone is estimated at about $4.9 million, according to the feasibility document produced by Lord and Associates.
Holowacz says the Lincoln has the potential to become a successful entertainment venue, particularly if a Baton Rouge-born performer with national traction were to put his or her name behind it. Lettsworth, Louisiana, native Buddy Guy, who lived and worked in Baton Rouge before moving to Chicago, opened the popular blues club Legends in Chicago in 1989, attracting dozens of famous performers to play there.
A big revenue-generator could sustain the performing arts center for the long term and help it create community-based programs, including arts classes and workforce development programs for neighborhood youth.
Despite the short timeline, Dunn is hopeful that part of the renovation can be completed by December. Then, just the act of lighting up the old neon signs and opening the doors of this legendary theater might help bring the neighborhood back to life from within.
“This is a landmark and jewel,” Dunn says. “We have to bring the spirit back and make this a destination.”