Monday, February 24, 2014

Residential Neighborhoods North of Government Street

A February Day and a Tall Tree and Cleared Spaces (DSC_1290)

I. The Enclave between Government St and North Blvd, between 19th Street and Eugene.

The word 'enclave' is used, because here it was four-lane surface thoroughfares running parallel to the minor railway, the Louisiana & Arkansas, not heavily used today (but watch for its signals and, if you're sleepless, listen for the night-train whistle at about 2:00 am), North Blvd. changing from a parkway to a plain throughway (and to be distinguished from North Street, to be grouped rather with Spanish Town Road), several important cemeteries and two old and important schools, Dufrocq Elementary and Baton Rouge High School, one of two Magnet High Schools.  Major churches are farther downtown, most of the First churches west of the freeway, Interstate I-110.  The 'enclave' I studied first also is characterized by recent and ongoing renovation, as are its two old schools, and by its alignment to Roseland Terrace and Drehr Place, the two first tracts (19th Street was the city limit then) of the Garden District, some of whose contractors very evidently also worked in the 1920s for owners of lots north as well as south of Government Street.  There were no utilities alleys, however, which are characteristic of whole tracts which a major realtor like Zadok laid out and installed in advance, and there may have been some other conveniences lacking that I don't know of (City Park was being developed, the new LSU campus, too, and the late, great mid-city department store, Goudchaux (later Maison Blanche), like other features related to Main Street, was begun only in the 1930s.

The new images on which today's Post is based are stored in: 
https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/102498681030579488308/albums/5983162009021212385

I became interested in these characteristics only after I had seen Louisiana Public Broadcasting's  documentary for the 1950s successful and non-violent bus boycott in the early 1950s.  They say that it did not eventuate like the infamous events a decade later in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, because of the large, rooted middle class of African Americans here and the strong leadership of the Rev. T. J. Jemison, of Mt  Zion First Baptist Church, who died only recently.  I wondered which church that is, since Scotlandville, plainly, is mostly later, and in fact First Baptist is just a block south of First Methodist, which most of us know because it's the one we see on crossing under I-110.  But more of the First churches in another Post.  Here just what documentaries don't tell you, where the "power churches" (of whichever denomination) are (again, Taylor Branch taught me that importance in Atlanta), and where it was that people were waiting for buses (compare the populations of 1950 and 2000!).  I came here in 1981, and I knew from Oakland, CA, not to generalize about ethnic and social groups in a city of a quarter million.  My mother was working, c. 1950, for Stanley Home Products (cf. Tupper Ware), and we went (I assisted her) in homes where we were invited, so that we gained a network of Likes (yes, as in Facebook, et al.) all over neighborhoods (barring VanAstorBilt) from S. F. Bay some 30 miles over the hills as far as Livermore, in all the variety that implies.
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Wherever possible, Baton Rouge retained its street names and address numbers, so the enclave I was in on Friday is numbered from 100 to 499, N-S, and from 2200 to 2399 W-E.  One is grateful, because, what with cemeteries and railroads and, later, with intervening non-grid freeways, they are useful.
I admitted that three decades ago, when I first saw the Garden District, there were some houses up for sale that weren't selling; they not only hadn't been mowed and trimmed and painted but they had some of those spray dipinti that are so alarming when you're house-hunting.  There are none today.  Commercial contractors (and occasionally do-it-yourself improvers) have bought those that needed help, and they have been selling for as much as five times their price in the 1980s.  I was right to assess the GD as too good to perish.  What about across the street?  Zoning permitted lawyers and dentists and insurance agents and the like to buy up bungalows which rush-hour traffic on Government Street deterred young families from buying.  And obviously there are still some zoning restrictions.  Evidently, though, if you want a house as good as in the Garden District, it can be had less expensively, and you won't have hip-flasks thrown in the gutters or dipinti sprayed wherever a dog could reach or broken-down window air conditioners, either.  Even better, when a six- or eight-room house has been maintained only on the make-it-do principle (the English used to mock our "do-it-yourself" cult in such terms), you won't have the expense and trouble of undoing bad "improvements" from the 1950s or 1960s.  In my post for January 16, above, "What Evergreen Drive Tells Us", you can see how rewarding the results can be.
Similar rewards can be seen on the next street to the west, Delphine, but there, once a block away from Government Street, there will also have been numerous lots for houses one room wide and three or four rooms long : "single shot guns".  There are some in Beauregard Town, and I know of one in Roseland Terrace in the Garden District (in downright poor parts of town they are the rule, as the four-room cube of brick with stucco is in California—neither is to be confused with rural shacks).  Now, in the greater part of two blocks on Delpine Street, they come in rows, for a good reason: the lots on the city plat are measured for them and have been sold and owned as such.  There are other good reasons, too.  Though they usually (like all brick-pillar houses) need to be leveled and given new joists, they are really well built; some may have been so neglected, of course, that they have to be wholly rebuilt.  We have such things as dry rot and powder post beetles hereabouts.  Houses need to be lived in, and past a certain point you can't even rent them (which of course is itself a kiss of death for a century-old wooden house).  But somehow, and I congratulate the couples and singles who have realized it, a "single shot gun" in good  condition is easier to care for, more pleasant to live in, and MUCH closer to your place of employment (and no freeway driving) and far more neighborly, than some suburban ranch on a slab, badly built to begin with, with no trees or persons that share your culture.  And so Delphine should get a medal for urban renewal.  I photographed one house, a shot-gun duplex (two front doors) that is raised in order to be leveled and have the joists replaced.
Finally, the first thing I noticed, when I left that first block of Evergreen, in the enclaves north of Government Street is openness: not just the bareness of the deciduous trees or the use of several house lots for law offices' parking.  Often you have one or more lots empty, but even more often (and unlike what hurricanes may have done) a whole corner once with three houses today is perfectly flat, flattened I think.  In these 1920s blocks the corners or other grouped lots, on flood-free, on-the-bluff land, the last choice land—not requiring flood insurance, where within a mile or two to the south or southeast you are on alluvium, riddled with minor tributary streams that flood at least a little every year, empty lots on every side demand an explanation, despite the effect of the N-S thoroughfares and the Louisiana & Arkansas railway tracks, this should be the most fully built up neighborhood in the city.  Empty corner lots that are meant to take the large houses?  I haven't found an explanation in histories of Baton Rouge, but deliberately I want to see if I, an outsider till recently, can read the evidence truly.  The model of Oakland, CA, where most of the 19c large, proud houses (costly to maintain) got chopped up into the smallest possible apartments, got hopelessly abused by tenants who couldn't afford to take care of them (and who had no means to borrow money), would help explain what may have happened north of Government, except that Baton Rouge was younger and smaller and more modest (this wasn't Lake Providence), and, as PBS observed, had a large middle-class native born African-American community—the circumstance in which "community" is a reality.  What even I can see (and have read about) is that black community itself was sorely tested by not only white flight but by the choice of Scotlandville at the same time, after WW II, as the place to take flight to.
But this enclave next to my own is not grand, not so impossible to afford fixing.  Folks tell me that it is "black", but even today it is more salt-and-pepper, like much of New Orleans.  Anyway, color is not the reason why, evidently in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much too much trashing of these old wooden houses and much too much of "flight" on everyone's part.  What was hopeless and could destroy quiet and decent society within it has been torn out; what can be restored by new joists and new roofs and porches will richly reward the effort (who wants to live in a house with a splattered-on ceiling that falls all over your heads and books and furniture when the hot-water heater in the attic leaks and ruins everything?  Who wants floors with no spring, with astroturf carpets or linoleum tile underfoot?
I hope that the improving financial picture continues to brighten, so that north of Government Street can fulfill its mission.
Bear in mind, this is just an archaeologist's reading of about 20 square blocks, but far more interesting than I'd have thought.