In a recent column, I questioned why Louisiana, in general, and Baton Rouge, in particular, are so mired in the problems of the past and unable to move forward.
Why can’t we get anything right?
A small—but growing—group of longtime, north Baton Rouge residents has decided the situation isn’t hopeless. They’re taking the bull by the horns and looking inward to tackle the crime, blight and educational problems that have plagued their community for decades.
They call themselves the 70805 Community Action Network and they are the brainchild of 65-year-old Pearl Porter, a minister, mother, grandmother and small-time entrepreneur who has sold Avon and Tupperware over the years, done home interior work and hosted garage sales.
“Anything to make the ends meet,” she says.
Porter and a handful of her fellow 70805 residents first met last November. There wasn’t a single catalyst that pushed them to mobilize; just a collective determination to do something about the piles of trash and debris that dot their neighborhoods, the abandoned lots that serve as dumping grounds for used tires, and the related problems that follow—namely, crime—in dirty, blighted communities where residents don’t seem to care.
Besides, they were tired of their complaints to City Hall falling on deaf ears. Porter says her son called 311 for more than a year to report a trash pile down the street from her house before anyone came to pick it up.
Longtime 70805 resident Cheryl Magee’s experience was even more maddening. She notified 311 multiple times about the overgrown lawn of a house down her block that flooded in August 2016, even posting pictures of the lot to the 311 website.
“When I checked up on the app, it said the work had been completed … even though nothing had been done,” she says. “That’s when I decided to go to the meeting.”
Instrumental in helping the group get organized has been local businessman Tommy Campbell, who owns rental property in north Baton Rouge and recently began renovating small, single-family homes to make available to first-time homebuyers. (I wrote about his efforts in March; since then, he’s found buyers for all three houses.)
“This is about people taking ownership at the grassroots level for their problems and learning how to solve them for themselves,” he says.
Campbell initially encountered some skepticism when he told the group they could make a difference by doing for themselves what government and others in the community were not.
“They said, ‘You live in Goodwood. You’re used to people doing stuff for you in your neighborhood,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m here in north Baton Rouge. I do business here. Let’s do for ourselves and quit complaining about what’s not happening.”
While the group’s focus has been on self-empowerment, some government help is, admittedly, needed. It just boils down to knowing who to call and how to ask. Campbell reached out to his own district council member, Matt Watson, who doesn’t represent north Baton Rouge but has made tackling blight his favored cause.
Their first target was a used tire store on North Foster Drive that had been abandoned since the 2016 flood. More than 650 tires littered the property. Watson and Campbell set out to work, helping the neighborhood clean up the lot by hauling tires to the curb. Watson asked Department of Maintenance Director Kyle Huffstickler to send a truck, which made two trips to remove them all. The Baton Rouge Police Department showed up, too, providing a detail to stop traffic on the street while the tires were being removed.
It was a coordinated effort that involved local government. But only after the neighborhood took the first step through an organized, determined effort did things start to happen.
“It was an early win,” Campbell says. “A small step, but it showed them that people do listen and do care.”
Next, Watson and Campbell drove around 70805 between Airline Highway, Scenic Highway and Choctaw Drive, identifying 43 blighted properties with uncollected trash and debris. Republic, the company that provides sanitation services for the parish, isn’t required under the terms of its contract to pick up debris from unoccupied properties. Watson called the company’s local manager and urged her to do it anyway, then spent the better part of a Saturday in late May riding with the garbage trucks, while they collected debris from more than 20 of the 43 trouble spots.
“We didn’t get them all,” he says. “But we hit debris piles that had been sitting out there since the flood.”
Meanwhile, Campbell is helping Porter and the Community Action Network create neighborhood watch groups. They’re putting up signage. At their meetings, they’re trying to inform and empower those who show up to be more vigilant about reporting truants, crimes, gunshots and to stop assuming that no one cares or that no one will do anything.
Is it enough to make a long-term difference? Is the model for moving a community forward pure grassroots activism, with a little guidance from a seasoned businessman and a helping hand from a council member, who doesn’t even represent that district?
It’s too soon to say. But any change for the better is a good thing, and Porter says she’s determined to grow the effort and make sure that whatever progress they make is not undone by apathy in the future.
“This is the responsibility of the people who live here,” she says. “It’s up to us to keep it up and to help each other.”