Mr Mayor – I Grew up HERE!

Some very important people live in the neighborhoods near downtown Shreveport, Louisiana.

They were born and raised here, and will likely die here.  They love their neighborhood, but things haven’t been so great there for a long time.  Most of their children grew up and moved away, or moved into the HUD apartments owned by the large churches in the neighborhood.  Some came back home, but not for long.  Most young people wanted to move into the more modern suburbs south of downtown.  Many of their parents and relatives chose to stay.

Their childhood churches are here.  Their grandparents sang in the choir; now they serve as ushers on Sunday morning.
Their parents bought houses in the neighborhood.  Back then, that was pretty unusual; most of the neighbors could only afford to rent.  Most residents continue to rent since this is one of the most affordable residential areas in town.  However, many of the properties are owned by people who don’t live in the neighborhood.
There’s a lot of history and a lot of love in these family homes.  Folks have chosen to stay here all these years, paying their property taxes even when times were tight.  They managed to avoid the city’s bulldozer when it came through and plowed down nearby dilapidated, vacant homes.  Oh, if those houses could talk!

There’s a lot of history and a lot of love in these family homes.  Folks have chosen to stay here all these years, paying their property taxes even when times were tight.  They managed to avoid the city’s bulldozer when it came through and plowed down nearby dilapidated, vacant homes.  Oh, if those houses could talk!

The old streets need repair.  The police patrol cars can’t fit side-by-side on many of the streets because they are too narrow.  When it rains, the potholes fill up with water and look like little swimming pools.  The city promises to come fix them, and they sometimes do – but after about 3 weeks, the street is full of mini-swimming pools again.  The extreme heat this year has caused some buckling in the concrete, but the city assures residents they’ll get around to fixing that too – sooner or later.

The Fuller Center for Housing has been at work near our home for several years. They are working with residents of the neighborhood to build single-family houses. Lots of volunteers from around the city and around the country have come down to our neighborhood to help build houses – it’s been great to help my childhood friends work toward owning their own homes! It’s been hard work, but we’ve become closer as a community in the process. Some of the negligent property owners were given the opportunity to donate their land to the Fuller Center – now, old tired land looks new again, with green grass and porches and neighbors visiting in front yards.

Community Renewal International has built a few Friendship Houses here, too. Now, when the children get off the school bus in the afternoon, they have a safe place to stay until their parents get home from work. Plus, I like to volunteer to tutor the kids at the Friendship House. They’re the same age as my grandbabies. It helps me feel connected and useful to work with the children. I have hope that they will take pride in our shared time together, and in our community.

For so long, I felt like we were the forgotten people of Shreveport. Now, loving people have chosen to live among us, respect our families, our traditions and our history, and work with us to grow our community into an inclusive, democratic, caring haven of hope.

Hope for the Homeless chose to locate in the neighborhood.  They provide day-shelter services to our outside friends: things like mailboxes, laundry facilities, outreach and counseling services.

The Hospitality House – which is run by Sister Margaret’s Christian Service Program – is also an important part of the neighborhood.  They serve 2 hot meals every day to anyone who is hungry – for free.  Some people might not want homeless or “needy” people walking down their streets, but neighbors here have grown accustomed to working side-by-side with caring individuals who love to help our brothers and sisters in need. Things aren’t always perfect among residents of this area, but they know people need food to eat.  They know that everybody needs someone to care about them during hard times.

Crime has been a problem in the neighborhood – even with the police station in very close proximity.  The school board has shut down some of the neighborhood schools because of a decrease in population.  There are old water and sewer service pipes and neglected properties.  But there are also community gardens, and affordable commercial properties just waiting to be turned into grocery stores, apartments and restaurants.   A few business people invested in properties in the area – some entertainment venues, a scuba diving shop, several non-profits, and such.  They’ve been living in harmony with the neighborhood, and steadily improving the lives of those who choose to live here.  It’s difficult to understand why the rest of the Shreveport/Bossier community is relatively apprehensive about working with these neighbors.

Mayor Glover hosted a community meeting at the Municipal Auditorium on Monday, October 10.  He was scheduled to address the community about revitalization and growth – in THIS downtown neighborhood!  Recently, there had been a few art events neaby, and some land surveyors and planners in the streets, but most residents had no idea that the city government was planning to revitalize their neighborhood.

They remember the past – when young children played safely in front yards, and mothers strolled babies down the streets.  You could walk to the store to buy a quart of milk, and know the store cashier by first name – and his mother, too!  If THAT community could be revitalized, the neighbors at Monday’s community meeting were all for it!

There had been a few stories on TV and in the newspaper about federal funds for revitalization in Shreveport, but who among us has time to read about the intricacies of government contracts when we work multiple jobs, care for children and elderly relatives, and regularly attend church services and evening college classes?
The night of Mayor Glover’s meeting, the neighborhood residents set aside valuable time to attend, contribute ideas, and ask questions.  All the TV stations were there.  There were many, many people in attendance who were obviously not from this neighborhood.  Maybe they were the local investors who’d bring back the grocery store, the music shop, or the hardware store?

Pastor West gave the invocation.  Residents were excited and hopeful about learning what they could do to help with their neighborhood revitalization!
Mayor Glover began discussing three projects unfamiliar to many of the neighbors: Shreveport Common, Shreveport Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan, and streets and drainage issues throughout the city.

Everyone knew that problems existed with old streets and water lines, but didn’t realize it was a major problem citywide.  Thank goodness something would finally be done!  But what, they wondered, is the “Shreveport Common?”  And what is the “Choice Neighborhood Plan?”  And what do they have to do with our neighborhood?

Looking around the room, neighbors saw plans and conceptual drawings displayed everywhere – plans for their tight-knit community.  Residents were told that the local arts council is planning to turn a large part of the neighborhood into a “cultural district.”  There were so many questions, but Mayor Glover wasn’t addressing any questions; only making statements.  The Mayor had already met with the Federal Government.  He’d presented a movie to them in order to acquire NEA money for this new cultural district.  He shared the movie which supposedly represented this neighborhood, but didn’t look like this neighborhood.  It looked like Seattle, or Austin.  People in the audience wondered, “Can they create things like this without even asking the residents first?  How can a group of strangers create plans for a cultural district in someone else’s neighborhood?  And what exactly IS a ‘cultural district?’”

The mayor announced that one of the goals for Shreveport Common is to create a cultural economy, and use arts as economic development.  What about the neighbors’ homes?  No one minds sharing his neighborhood with new residents – but what will happen to privately-owned properties?  What does this mean for the existing community?

Why didn’t someone from the City Government knock on doors or call residents on the phone prior to creating these preliminary plans, and prior to asking for federal grants?  Many residents were just now learning about this pending influx of artists, federal money, planning studies, and development.
Then, Mayor Glover told the crowd that Shreveport was one of 17 cities to receive a grant to “transform the west part of downtown, primarily Ledbetter Heights and Allendale.” The city’s goal is to “change the neighborhoods into a place to attract residents and businesses.”  
What about investing in the people who already live in the neighborhood?  What about job creation – jobs that pay more than minimum wage?  What about affordable housing?  Do existing residents get first dibs on properties for sale?  Besides, they REALLY need a grocery store, not a dog park.  Will there be better paying jobs?  Or grants to open their own businesses?  What about business counseling and home improvement incentives?  The room was pregnant with unanswered questions.

“This grant will be a catalyst for transforming these disinvested neighborhoods into vibrant neighborhoods of choice,” the mayor said. “This project will culminate in a transformation plan for economic opportunities, and revitalized housing through a strategy that creates a mixed-income, multifamily and a sustainable neighborhood of choice.”

What does that mean?  Here in Shreveport, there is only one mixed-income, multifamily neighborhood – Highland.  Is the city attempting to turn this neighborhood into Highland?  Highland is nice, but this neighborhood is not Highland.

Then, Mayor Glover asked everyone to sign up for one of eight “focus-groups.”  These groups would discuss issues including housing choices, education, health and well being.  He announced that, if one participated in a focus group, he/she would be required to attend a training session.

One of the long-time residents of the neighborhood finally stood up and asked a question: “At what point do we – the residents of this neighborhood – get the opportunity to voice our opinions about these plans?  No one has asked us anything until now.  We have had NO input.”  The Mayor responded by saying that the detailed plans surrounding us were preliminary, and he wanted us all to sign up for the focus groups and the mandatory training.  He did not answer the gentleman’s question.

Who among the neighbors was asked about applying for a federal grant?  Who decided to hold this meeting months after so many important decisions were made?  Who created these preliminary plans, then came to the neighborhood for input?  Who sought out the voice of the neighbors over a year ago when initial input was vital to the success of this revitalization?  Or is this revitalization at all?  It certainly didn’t feel like it.

The priest in the neighborhood, Father McGrath, addressed the mayor.  He asked about the Christian Service Program.  What would happen to the homeless shelter there?  What about the vital services they provide to those in need?  How did their 40-year-old community service program fit within the parameters of these new plans?  Would their land – and therefore, their service to the community – be “gentrified out of existence?”

(I went home and looked up “gentrification” in the Webster’s dictionary.  It is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”)

Mayor Glover responded by saying that no one was asking the Christian Service Program to shut its doors.  However, “Shreveport embraced gentrification. Gentrification is not a problem for Shreveport; it is a solution.” Shreveport is – according to its mayor – prepared to gentrify this neighborhood!  

Father quietly took his seat in the audience.  He knows what is about to happen to the neighborhood.  The property will slowly slip through the neighbors’ collective fingers.  Instead of mom-and-pop, community-owned businesses, there will be Starbucks and World Markets offering minimum-wage jobs to locals.

How long will existing residents be able to afford the property taxes on their family homes?  What will happen to rent prices?  Will the non-residents at this meeting even want to move to this “blighted” neighborhood?  Do they want to live here, or simply create a paradigm shift that favors their economic desires?  Will this historic neighborhood become yet another American urban center, dead to its history, too expensive for its residents to remain, and home to strangers who disappear everyday at sundown? Why are these new people suddenly so interested in this neighborhood, and what exactly are their motivations?
I left the meeting felling as though I’d been punched in the stomach.  I wondered, how much longer will my neighbor’s home actually belong to her?