Dig Baton Rouge

We Asked: How Can Baton Rouge Be Better?

Baton Rouge has had some rough times lately. Floods, murders, hurricanes, big losses at Tiger Stadium, it seems like every week there’s more bad news. We asked on Facebook what sucks about Baton Rouge, what needs changing. And wow, did you answer. Short comments, entire essays, truth bombs like how ratchet parts of the city can be (and how much we sometimes want it that way). We got the works, and it was a lot to think about.

We saw a lot of concern about growth, specifically where we’re heading as a community and how some of us are getting left behind. There are frustrations with past decisions putting us in really tight spots today, with no clear solutions.

Instead of just taking all negative energy in, we want to start a conversation about how to get change rolling. Sitting back and complaining never fixed anything. If we want change, we’ve got to band together and make change—start a revolution.

Here, then, are the biggest issues you shared with us, along with some research and suggestions on how to start working towards a brighter future for our city.

Transportation

Is anyone surprised that traffic is the biggest thing people had on their minds?

Blair Bass Percle – “The street lights being synced would be nice to help a little bit with traffic…but it always gets voted down.”

Taylor Voisin – “It already takes me 30 minutes to an hour todrive home from work, which is only 11 miles from my house.”

Been there. LSU traffic can take 45 minutes just to go from one side of campus to the other. Not to mention being stuck in the line of people leaving campus along Highland to Lee, then up College to I-10 on any given day. You would need divine intervention to get home in less than an hour if you’re heading anywhere on I-12 east past the split. Invest in audiobooks.

Devin Kelley – “You have 1000’s of people trying to get home over a three lane bridge getting on a three lane interstate. It’s just not big enough and is a major reason why there are so many wrecks and so much congestion for rush hour.”

Amanda Thomas – “The city, as well as multiple outlying cities and towns have grown quickly… The residents of this area have simply outgrown the infrastructure.”

Robert Graves – “It’s time to have an infrastructure system designed for a city with nearly 1 million people instead of 300k, if you want to be a major city you better damn well act like one.”

The amount of cars on the road is too damn high! We heard this a lot in people’s comments: the fact that so many people have moved out of Baton Rouge to outlying suburbs and parishes creates big headaches on the road. There are only a handful of arteries getting traffic into and out of those areas—not to mention crossing the Mississippi River. Commuter traffic has to contend with big rigs hauling goods through the area on the same strip of road, and if one thing goes wrong the entire system of streets and highways becomes one big parking lot.

Marthalee Marron – “Unfortunately, not a pedestrian or cyclist friendly town. It would be great if you could safely ride your bike from one end of the city to the other end.”

Jake Wagner – “There is only around 1% of protected bike lanes on Baton Rouge roads. As someone who has been hit riding around town, I hate that I have to fear for my life while navigating this city on my bike.”

Yeesh, Jake, sorry about that. It’s not just an opinion: pedestrian safety is very poor for Baton Rouge, and Louisiana as whole. A report by Safe Growth America found Louisiana was the third most dangerous state for pedestrians, and Baton Rouge was the worst city in the state. We have old roads which weren’t built for all the traffic on them now— vehicle, bike, or pedestrian. New highways are being built with some of those things in mind, but there isn’t room down some neighborhoods for three lanes of road, a shoulder with a bike path, and a sidewalk. Making space in an urban area requires some people giving that space up, whether it’s property developers or private homeowners.

Cassandra Boykins – “Our drivers [are] selfish and don’t follow the rules of the road. If we could have mandatory continued learning drivers ed classes that’d be great.”

Vicki Geiman – “It’d be cool if they sold cars with blinkers on them here.”

We feel you, Vicki. Aren’t the auto inspection stickers supposed to make sure you have functioning blinkers? Though we figure that this is a bigger case of “user error” than anything.

Tyler Durst – “It isn’t lowered car friendly.”

This man gets it.

 

Education

Growth in communities around Baton Rouge has exploded over the past decade, and schools play a big role in that migration. Hell, an entire section of the city-parish tried to break away to make their own school system. How can Baton Rouge get better educated, then?

Jamie Carter Blanco – “I am fortunate enough to have all 4 of my children in the magnet programs, but even there we are so far behind schools in other states that I’m not sure we can pull ahead… if not we will be just another family moving out of the Parish or choosing private schools.”

Nail on the head, Jamie. Since breaking away from EBR, Zachary Schools are the number one ranked district in the state. Livingston, Ascension, and Central schools round out the top four public schools in the entire state. EBR? A C-rated district which fell to 57 out of the 73 systems in the state. It does boast BR Magnet, the fourth-best magnet program in the state, but with such thriving districts surrounding it (with a much lower cost of living) is it any wonder people are moving out of BR?

Devin Kelley – “Pay teachers what they are worth and you will have more qualified, high character candidates who will want to be teachers. Invest in low income area schools so that the kids have a nice environment conducive to learning.”

We agree: teachers should be among the highest-paid public employees in the U. S. That money needs to come from somewhere, though, and for public schools that usually means taxes from people living in the parish or district combined with state funds. Federal funds help, but are a small amount compared to the rest. Louisiana spends about $3,900 per student according to funding formulas passed this year—that number has stayed flat during the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, while the cost of education keeps going up. Retaining the teachers we have means paying their benefits, retirements, and any raises or cost of living adjustments… hey when’s the last time we had those?

Anthony Oster – “We have two universities and don’t have job opportunities for our graduates. The schools are in such a state of failure that middle class families are forced into the suburbs because they can’t afford private school, and the public schools are just not an option.”

Unless you want a job working at a chemical plant or refinery. Getting hired on at one of those can be difficult unless you’ve got connections or family already employed there. But even then, those jobs are also facing a dip in the market. Perhaps relying too much on one sector of the economy isn’t that great of a long-term solution?

Jadin Kavanaugh – “Why don’t more people support their local public schools? People have grown to think paying through the nose for their child’s education means it’s better.”

The private-versus-public debate has added some sharp corners in the past few years because of incoming charter schools and the controversial voucher program passed under Governor Bobby Jindal. Parochial schools are also a much more significant cultural part of Catholic-strong Louisiana than they are in other states, and that can affect the conversation about education reform as well.

There’s a big picture among all the comments we got about education: smaller breakaway or rural districts thrive, while the big city district struggles. The big question is—can a reform be found that benefits all Louisiana students, such as major overhauls to increase funding and provide a stable curriculum, or will individuals be left to find the solution they can afford and possibly be stuck watching their kids wither on the vine? As long as the attitude among lawmakers and voters is “every family for themselves,” the migration out of Baton Rouge will only continue.

Crime

Devin Kelley – “Nobody wants to visit a place that when they go there they have a higher chance of being killed than if they were to visit somewhere else.”

Let’s get some numbers down here:

Louisiana had the highest murder rate in the 50 states again in 2016—11.8 murders per 100,000 people according to the FBI. That’s the 28th year Louisiana has topped that particular chart, according to experts. For Baton Rouge, violent crime peaked in 2012 and then dropped for three years according to the FBI’s numbers… before it started picking back up again in the past four years. So far in 2017, homicides in East Baton Rouge are nearly back to the point they were in 2012.

Yeah. That’s a lot of statistics to take in. We’ll wait while you process.

Mikee Linton – “I love my city! Stop killin each other! Off er bigger incentives to attract new BRPD officers… then expand EBRSO’s role in the city and give them overtime.”

Stephanie Dryburgh – “Don’t want to raise a family in such an expensive and dangerous city. If things don’t turn around I’m afraid others will just leave as well.”

Another recurring theme: people don’t feel safe in the city, so they move to more rural parishes.  That’s an individual response: but what about a wider community response? Mikee’s comments to beef up law enforcement are one area, but U. S. Attorney Corey Amundson said recently that efforts to combat Baton Rouge’s violent crime rates are going to be focused on deterring crime, not putting more people in jail. The BRAVE program of community policing targeted to ZIP codes with higher violent crime rates was organized with that idea in mind, paid for with federal grant money, and was active during the years that Baton Rouge’s violent crime rate started dipping. It recently ended, and the crime numbers began going back up. Those two things cannot be concretely connected, but creating more engagement and trust between Baton Rouge’s communities and the police who work in them will require more time on the street, more time in community meetings or events… and that means more officers to work them and more pay to keep attracting quality candidates.

Adam Raborn – “Creating a recreational marijuana culture in BR will increase tax revenues for all the vital infrastructure issues we have.”

Morgan Miller Udoh – “Denver is rolling in the discretionary green. We should take notes. So much could be funded with that tourism.”

That isn’t just blowing smoke. Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana has increased the state’s revenues by $129 million a year. However, that only makes up one percent of the state’s overall spending, and a study from 2016 showed Louisiana only stood to gain an extra $77 million in revenue, so we need to be careful before overstating how much of an impact it could have. Marijuana arrests in Louisiana do contribute significantly to its prison population and position as the number one state for incarcerations (double the national average to boot). There are really big barriers to this idea including the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, which will not budge on legalization opposition.

Robert Graves – “People have become polarized and drawn lines in the sand with no desire to hold their own communities accountable for its actions… What works in one area will not work in others. Our leadership needs to understand this and welcome new ideas. Effort without leadership is wasted effort and this applies to both sides of the fence.”

What will it take to help fix crime, or at least wrestle the current status back to something more manageable? Our concern is the strongest root causes of crime remain out of the picture—poverty and lack of opportunity. Louisiana is 49th in the U. S. for poverty rate, and has a very long history of inequality which remains rooted in the institutions we’re talking about today: traffic, education, and crime. As long as those remain unaddressed in a united effort by the public, lawmakers, and business working together, don’t expect the daily headlines to change any time soon.

Respect

We heard from several people about the pride they have in Baton Rouge—or the lack of pride others show it.

Jenn Alvarez – “People who litter.”

Adeline Eubanks – “The view of our great Mississippi River is magnificent from the top of the Shaw Building, but when you are on the actual streets of downtown, trash is everywhere.”

Kellie Naquin Tate – “I work downtown and park in the lot on the corner of Florida and River Road. Every Monday morning it is disgusting. Dirty diapers, food, bones from fried chicken, cups, and plastic bags are scattered all over the parking lot. Gross people! Pick up your own garbage!”

We agree: pick up your own garbage! And take time to pick up a piece or two that isn’t yours. Then find a public trash can that’s not overflowing. We simply cannot fathom being okay with leaving your trash on the streets and sidewalks. Have some pride in your city, slob. Beautification has “U” and “I” in it too, so let’s work together on that.

PL Jones – “I think we have a lot of potential here in BR- we’re nice people. It’s just that we’ve been through a lot as of late and we need to tap into our empathy a little bit more.”

Southern charm is well-known, as is the willingness to jump in and lend a hand. The Cajun Navy is a great example, but so are the volunteers who give time to mentor and help out with groups here at home like the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. Empathy is like a muscle: you have to work it! We’ve posted several stories online at DigBR.com about volunteer opportunities, and you’ll see more chances to get out and lend a hand to the community in the days to come.

Preseta Anderson – “There’s an underlying tone in our beautiful city that taints many circumstances… Whether it’s the stigma around north Baton Rouge, an area with a larger African American population, or the funding cuts for Southern University (a historically black college or university, or HBCU) relative to LSU, the symptoms are everywhere.”

We know what you’re talking about, and while it’s uncomfortable we should be able to talk about it in a meaningful way. There is a lot of history here, and that history isn’t always the happiest, but it must be understood and embraced if we’re going to stop repeating the mistakes of the past. Inequality is being felt by a lot of people today, across racial and economic lines, and we need to recognize each part matters and deserves attention while working to a greater whole. The first step—and seemingly, the hardest for some—is admitting that inequality and unfair bias exists in the first place.

Katie Piper – “Instead of listening, we attack when someone’s opinion is different from ours… Why are we attacking others for thinking differently than ourselves?”

One word, and it’s a doozy: “ethnocentrism.”

Anyone? Anyone? Fine, to the whiteboard and Comm Studies 101 we go to discuss interpersonal communication.

Ethnocentrism is what happens when you judge other values, beliefs, and behaviors from different cultures as being negative or illogical because they aren’t yours. Having a strong enthnocentrist bent basically means that we believe the decisions and opinions we hold about our way of life are the only “right” or correct ones because… well, because we made them. And we don’t want to be wrong.

Fighting ethnocentrism is all about empathy (PL Jones – we got your back on that one). Being able to look at things from the other person’s point of view and figure out what could have informed their opinion really helps open those barriers and allow the flow of ideas to circulate again.

We could use some meditation after all that. Hey, speaking of which…

Public Amenities

Garic Jenkins – I think more outdoor venues/green spaces would be nice for bringing people together. Beer gardens (we’re getting one), patios/parks with live music, movie nights, food trucks, festivals, outdoor markets etc.

Preaching to the choir. We’d love more spaces where people from every age group, every social class, every race and religion, can come together peacefully and just hang out. That scene is growing, and we’re proud to help push it any way we can (it’s kind of our job).

Davis Hotard – I don’t think the large majority of Baton Rouge’s public truly realizes what a top-notch regional theatre it has, and what how much actually goes on at Theatre Baton Rouge.

Absolutely! You don’t have to go to New Orleans for good theater, people. We’re fans of Artistic Director Jenny Ballard’s work at TBR, along with the all the hard work done by the cast, crew, volunteers and designers of each show. They have some killer stuff coming down the pipe too!

Holly Watson – “I personally think if we had a Taco Villa, peace would fall upon everyone and life would be good.”

Oh, Holly. I knew there was a reason we liked you.

Sean Lou – “Baton Rouge needs more ethnic food and less hamburger places. I want a Korean restaurant in this town. Ethiopian would be good, too. Filipino as well.”

While the food scene has exponentially improved in the last few years, we’re still itching for more. We’d love to see more authentic Cuban, Jamaican or Polish options. Variety is the spice of life, right? Bring on the bool kogi!

Dr. Green and the Funk Machine – “Where are all the original live music venues? Sure, there are a few, but any band or artist that wants to play original music better be prepared to play for no money in some hole in the wall club. How is Baton Rouge supposed to generate NEW music if we don’t give these artists a place to play?”

It’s the classic Catch 22, where more money and opportunity exists for sure things rather than the “risky” new and original. The downtown spaces seem like a good fit, like the Arc, so what if we had a fund to spread around on new acts to go with it? Oops, we’re talking about spending public money on arts again: that always seems to get somebody in hot water.

Melissa Quebedeaux Thornton – “There is nooooothing fun or exciting planned or built in south Baton Rouge. I mean free/affordable stuff , like cool parks and splash pads, awesome libraries, good schools… the stuff we do have costs a fortune.”

Can’t argue with that—nice is good, but free and nice is better! We couldn’t be happier with the Goodwood Branch of the EBRP Libraries, or their programs. It makes sense that the next step would be to push for expanding other libraries in the system in similar ways. We need to remind naysayers how the main branch turned out when it comes time to vote for the money to pay for it.

 

Civics

Baton Rouge is the capital city, and that means… well, we’ll let Christine take this one.

Christine Belsom – I get that this is the capital city and also that the recent flooding drove demand up, but my God I refuse to pay the same price to live next to a mall that I would pay to live in the Bywater in New Orleans.

Seconded. Third, even. However, the market is what it is. Big new apartment complexes near LSU are already full, with no indication they’re going to empty out anytime soon. Even as more people move out to the cheaper prices of suburb living, apartments are just filling right back up again, and that’s certainly not going to take the price of rent anywhere lower for the next several years.

Andrea Devall-Randall – “Stop waiting for someone to speak for you in Congress, and elect someone who will speak for us.”

We believe what she’s saying, is get out and vote. It matters now, more than ever—especially on a city/parish level. If you don’t vote to elect local leaders that represent you and your ideals, then you can’t complain. Sit down and shut it.

Emilie Daigle Archer – “I think more needs to be done for the homeless. I just helped a woman… she could have been off the street a long time ago if there was mobile assistance helping people and doing research on their behalf to find places for them to live.”

Emilie, you’re a dear, and we thank you for doing something amazing to help out. Good news there too: Baton Rouge’s homeless population has been on the decline for the past few years, according to a survey taken in 2016 by homeless nonprofits in the capital city. The challenge is that just because people are off the street means they don’t need help; officials with the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless say the same people still come back into their centers for help meeting other basic needs even after they have a roof over their heads.

Donald Ator – “Baton Rouge has one of the heaviest debt loads relative to its revenues of any municipality in the U.S. according to a recent report from JP Morgan Chase. Some 52% of city-parish dollars go to paying unfunded pension liabilities, retiree healthcare costs, and general bonded debt for programs like the city-parish’s sewer system upgrade.”

Donald wins “Best Researched Comment” this time, and we would expect no less from a distinguished faculty member of LSU’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. We read the article you mentioned, and it has some other scary figures in it, like just how high taxes might have to go in order to manage that debt in a worst-case scenario. Risky credit is not something you want to be known for, but neither is pedestrian deaths, homeless rates, school performance dips… oof, we have a lot of work to do, don’t we?

Wait… what?

Emily Devillier Pourciau – “I think we all remember where we were that tragic May 22nd, when the leopard seal our navy had been fighting for years finally breeched the sea wall and squaddled onto dry land. Residents living near the sea wall bravely tried to fight the beast off with spicy food and empty promises of healthcare reform, but to no avail. Trampling everything in its path the leopard seal continued through downtown Baton Rouge. There were no survivors.”

If there were no survivors, does that explain why we can’t remember it? Or is this one of those Berenstain/Berenstein Bears things where it’s evidence of an alternate universe bleeding over into ours? Google it.

Thank you to everyone who submitted comments and responses to our questions online. Keep the conversations going on our Facebook, Twitter @DigBR, and here at DigBR.com.

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