Sunday, July 31, 2011

Drivable main streets, Part II: Concentrating the poverty.

The previous post explored one of the most unusual examples of apparent grassroots historic preservation in an essentially rural setting that has succeeded in spite of itself. St. Francisville, Louisiana has no explicit town center, yet the low vacancy levels suggest that the few scattered commercial buildings command higher than average rents for a town of its size. The historic residences are scattered broadly across a large patch of land that is generally not conducive for tours by foot, yet tourists apparently come visit, attend the periodic festivals, pay to explore the homes, eat at the restaurants, and browse the antiques. It is a town that has made the most with what little it has in terms of a concentrated historic architectural vernacular. It's quite an achievement, when one considers the countless small towns across America with far more distinct centers that struggle to secure even a resale shop. What did St. Francisville get right that has evaded so many other communities? The best way to plunge further into this analysis is to compare it to another Louisiana town, Donaldsonville, that has experienced a radically different turn of events.

My apologies for forgetting to mention in the first half of this two-part post what proves to be the fulcrum to this comparison: the fact that both towns are emerging bedroom communities to Baton Rouge, the state of Louisiana's capital and second largest city. St. Francisville sits about 25 miles to the north of the metropolitan area; the other town, Donaldsonville is about 40 miles to the south (35 as the crow flies). The 15-mile difference may very well be enough to degrade the farther town's potential as a bedroom community, but that is surely not the only obstacle. Donaldsonville has almost five times the population of St. Francisville, a characteristic manifested by simply comparing the street configuration of the two towns.

Unlike St. Francisville, it looks much more like a conventional American town, with a pronounced grid that seems oriented toward a body of water. However, despite its considerably greater size, Donaldsonville lacks virtually any of the prosperity.

Available online history on Donaldsonville isn't as robust as St. Francisville; incidentally, one of the best descriptions comes from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, a site which I briefly referenced when exploring the former Jewish community in Donaldsonville, among several other towns in the Deep South. The site Gonomad relates how this town, perched along a high point (not quite a bluff) opposite a bend in the Mississippi River, has generally avoided catastrophic flooding over the two centuries since its founding. According to the City of Donaldsonville's website, the municipality capitalized on its opportune intersection of the Mississippi and Bayou Lafourche, the latter of which extends southward toward Grand Isle and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. The settlement that birthed Donaldsonville is one of the earliest recorded in Louisiana, decades older than St. Francisville or Bayou Sara, originating with Acadians expelled from Canada and Spanish Isleños from the Canary Islands. Falling under both French and Spanish rule before American control with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the town was officially incorporated in 1806 after its founding by wealthy English landowner William Donaldson, at a time when a significant portion of the regional population was still Francophone. Donaldson aggressively pushed for his town to become the state's capital, and for a brief period of 1829 to 1831, he succeeded in steering the center of government away from New Orleans, even though Donaldsonville's population at the time was less than 500. Inevitably, the capital returned downriver to the larger, noisier city; Baton Rouge did not become Louisiana's capital until 1849. Nonetheless, Donaldsonville thrived in middle of the 19th century as a critical trading hub along the Mississippi, attracting a number of settlers up to the point that it was nearly destroyed during the Civil War. Railway service passing through Donaldsonville from New Orleans in 1871 bolstered the town's recovery.

The twentieth century brought different fortunes to Donaldsonville. The historical trajectory gets a bit cloudy at this point, though a website on Ascension Parish (in which Donaldsonville rests) accounts the area's general dependence on agriculture as an economic mainstay, which shifted in the 1950s and 1960s due to technological advancements, the introduction of new industries (particularly petrochemical), the construction of the Sunshine Bridge across the Mississippi five miles downriver of Donaldsonville, and, perhaps most cataclysmic, the connection of Baton Rouge and New Orleans through Interstate 10. All of these influences collectively altered the focus of economic activity in Ascension Parish—increasingly away from Donaldsonville. A map of the parish helps to illustrate this phenomenon:

The outline of Ascenion Parish is traced in purple. As the map indicates, Donaldsonville is an anomaly: it rests on the opposite side of the Mississippi River from 90% of the land area. Interstate 10 cuts the parish in half, just skirting the only two other incorporated areas, Gonzales and Sorrento. Tracing the interstate's path to the northwest, it leads directly to the outskirts of Baton Rouge. And Ascension Parish is absorbing much of Baton Rouge's outward suburban growth: it has consistently been one of the two or three fastest growing parishes in the state (sometimes number one) and its approximately 38% growth rate between the 2000 and 2010 Census places it among the fastest growing parishes/counties in the country. Within Louisiana, it has among the lowest poverty rates, the highest median income, and some of the highest rated public schools. Ascension Parish is, in short, a community for those seeking proximity to the state's capital but away from Baton Rouge's congestion, crime, and middling school system. By and large, the parish is flourishing.

But Donaldsonville isn't enjoying any of it. Isolated from the rest of the parish, its population is stagnating or declining. The poverty rate was a staggering 34.8% in 2000, and the median income in 2000 was about $24,000, barely half of $44,000 of the parish as a whole. Until mid-century, the town represented the highest concentration of population in this otherwise agrarian parish, and it remains the parish seat. But the center of gravity shifted as suburbanites flocked to other side (the “East Bank”) of the Mississippi because this side contains one of the nation's largest east-west arterials, in the form of I-10. An increasing number of government services have oriented themselves toward Gonzales, which, aside from being the approximate center of the parish, is within a 20-minute drive to 90% of the parish's population. The Ascension Parish Chamber of Commerce is based in Gonzales; Donaldsonville, perhaps recognizing its disassociation from the rest of the parish, has its own. Gonzales and its purlieus have received the lion's share of commercial building permits, so it boasts far more shopping and services. Recent estimates suggest that it now has about 1,000 more people than Donaldsonville, while the areas immediately to its west—unincorporated communities like Prairieville, Geismar, and Dutchtown—are surging with affluent newcomers. The divide, as is often the case, manifests racial disparities: Donaldsonville is overwhelmingly (approximately 70%) African American, while the remainder of the parish is even more disproportionately white.

Clearly Donaldsonville has its share of challenges. But one thing it doesn't lack is an intact, walkable town center of historic structures. It has far more than Gonzales, while the unincorporated areas such as Prairieville lack any discernible old center whatsoever. Donaldsonville also has plenty of extant old commercial buildings that our small towns hinge upon in order to reinvent themselves--such as St. Francisville. Unfortunately, my photograph collection of Donaldsonville pales in comparison to its more prosperous counterpart, but the few that I have still effectively convey some of Donaldsonville's character. Incidentally, most of them come from a walking tour of the town's historic core.

Railroad Avenue, the town's historic main street, offers multiple blocks of street level retail in widely varying levels of economic health. The building to the right in the photo below hosts a small restaurant.

Louisiana Square, the central park abutting Railroad Avenue, may not seem lively in these photos, but it is surrounded by housing and commercial establishments that endow it with centrality and visibility that would make it an optimal site for a community gathering.

The blocks surrounding the park and Railroad Avenue are probably the most affluent in the town. The churches and homes enjoy a level of upkeep that bears a passing resemblance to a handsome nook in Uptown New Orleans.

Railroad Avenue offers a number of small businesses that clearly demonstrate that the town is trying to assert itself for leisure visits, no doubt targeting much the same demographic that frequents St. Francisville on the weekends. The Grapevine Cafe and Gallery has done well at its Railroad Avenue location for a decade, with owners who saw promise in the architectural character of a building that was in serious disrepair at the time. The Victorian on the Avenue is a bed and breakfast that, like so many bed and breakfasts across the country, took advantage of an old Victorian home with ample bedrooms in a pedestrian-scaled area by restoring it to its new purpose. Cabahanosse, a few blocks further down Railroad Avenue, offers a similar bed/breakfast experience in a restored wood-frame house that featured a general store below and family residence above. Just around the corner from Railroad Avenue on Claiborne Street, Lafitte's Landing may embody the genesis of Donaldsonville's protracted efforts to revitalize through diligent supporters: founded in 1978 by chef John Folse in a refurbished plantation, the restaurant helped bring south Louisiana's vernacular cuisine a worldwide audience. For decades it was among the most celebrated restaurants in the region. Though today it appears that Lafitte's Landing and the Bittersweet Plantation bed and breakfast are a private facility, only open to customers of Chef John Folse and Company's specialty line of desserts, the restaurant and its proprietor were instrumental in elevating Donaldsonville into the region's consciousness as more than just a struggling old river town.

I'm not particularly fond of cherry-picking individual businesses as a means of illustrating a broader socioeconomic trend: establishments such as the ones above come and go, and I could have just as easily picked four others to assert an entirely point regarding Donaldsonville's historic character. But I mention these in particular because their price points clearly do coincide with the expected offerings of a town with such low median incomes and such high poverty. Outside of Railroad Avenue and the central Louisiana Square, the prosperity of Donaldsonville almost immediately plummets.

The poorer districts within the town are characterized by abandonment and vacant lots where homes undoubtedly once stood.

I didn't feel comfortable taking photos while with a tour group in some of the most impoverished areas, but a simple visit to Google Streetview, particularly in the west side of town, will review the economic conditions in much of Donaldsonville.

The aforementioned businesses—the Grapevine, the Lafitte's Landing—obviously target an affluent demographic and would fit much better in a picturesque town unencumbered by the social disarray that has befallen Donaldsonville. In short, they'd work in St. Francisville—except that these meager photos demonstrate far more of a walkable street grid in Donaldsonville than one can ever hope to encounter in its more prosperous counterpart to the north. At 2.5 square miles, it’s not a large city; its 2000 population density of nearly 3000 people per square mile makes Donaldsonville city limits more densely populated than quite a few large American cities. St. Francisville’s incorporated area is almost as large but with a fraction of the population; the density in 2000 was only about 935 people per square mile. Donaldsonville evidently has its share of boosters: both the entrepreneurs who value the extensive array of historic buildings in close proximity to one another, as well as the customers who patronize their businesses. Like St. Francisville, it boasts a number of picturesque plantation homes, many in excellent condition, which could attract tourists. But these blandishments haven’t been enough to reinvent the place. The tour that elicited these photos didn't meander through Donaldsonville in order to soak in the atmosphere; we were there for a community outreach forum to help residents envision solutions for one of south Louisiana’s most distressed towns.

The maps and photos collectively demonstrate why St. Francisville and Donaldsonville serve as such interesting counterparts. The one with all the physical characteristics of quaint Americana in a condensed, navigable format continues to flounder. Conversely, a smattering of old buildings loosely linked into a rural hamlet by two highways achieves the reputation of one of the most desirable small towns in the state. The fundamental demographic differences between the two have received more than enough attention in this report. Other, smaller distinctions may also have a bearing: for example, while both towns are part of the Louisiana Main Street association, only St. Francisville appears to have its own active and organized operation. If the Donaldsonville Downtown Development District still exists, its website shows no indication, as it appears to be defunct. As mentioned earlier, St. Francisville also enjoys the benefit of being 15 miles nearer to Baton Rouge, the closest metropolitan area and an economic engine. Commute times from St. Francisville would inevitably be shorter than from Donaldsonville, so St. Francisville’s proximity gives it an added advantage as a bedroom community. In addition, the greater size of Donaldsonville results in a greater trade area, even if it’s considerably less affluent: Donaldsonville has attracted a Wal-Mart on its outer reaches, as well as some other big-box stores. St. Francisville is too small to lure most if not all of the national chains. While I maintain that Wal-Mart is not as huge of a detriment to Main Street’s prosperity as many claim, it does serve to bifurcate the retail activity in Donaldsonville—a problem St. Franicsville simply does not have to face. Unless a new vendor chooses to develop on raw land around St. Francisville, it will have to lease one of those few small commercial buildings; the town doesn’t have any strip malls. Lastly, St. Francisville has the benefit of a large annual event, the Audubon Pilgrimage, that elevates its awareness among the public in the region; Donaldsonville cannot claim an equivalent big-ticket item.

If the widely divergent trajectories of these two towns could be summarized by a single entity, it would have to involve collective human demand. The human capital that has animated St. Francisville into an unlikely leisure destination offers testament to how much people are willing to vote with their pocketbooks; this is hardly a profound insight. But Donaldsonville’s modest cosmetic improvements to the oldest districts in recent years have scarcely compensated for the net loss of the same capital: the majority of people leaving Donaldsonville these days are (if the community forum I attended last year offers any example) upwardly mobile African Americans who achieved the income level to seek greener pastures, leaving more of the disenfranchised minorities and well-meaning “artsy” entrepreneurs with money to burn, whose visions for improvement the town may not be adversarial but certainly do not coincide either. The characteristics that make St. Francisville seem nondescript and sprawling may very well be the lynchpin to its success at the expense of Donaldsonville: its lifeblood is in its role as a bedroom community, and St. Francisville simply offers the built environment that people seeking exurban living typically love: large plots of land, no traffic, economic homogeneity, minimal crime. A walkable historic main street like Donaldsonville’s Railroad Avenue is expendable. Even if Donaldsonville had a poverty rate under 5%, it may struggle to ignite as a genuinely attractive small town, because there simply aren’t enough people who want to live in houses so close to one another. (After all, if they truly desire walkability that much, why not move to New Orleans, or one of the older neighborhoods in Baton Rouge? For that matter, plenty of walkable urban inter-city neighborhoods continue to languish while the sprawling exurbs grow like a weed.) The low density that St. Francisville ostensibly had to overcome in order to metamorphose into a classic small town may ultimately approve its most sustaining selling point. Donaldsonville, conversely, may depend upon a more radical paradigm than just the John Folses and other first-generation urbanites who are attracted to its compact historic core. There are plenty of those around without Donaldsonville’s 35% poverty rate. This conclusion makes the prognosis seem bleak for Donaldsonville, but at least a few proprietors have had a decade or more of success with their restaurants/cafés/bed and breakfasts to prove otherwise. And if St. Francisville can do it, so can hundreds of other small communities facing their own distinct challenges.