Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Bitter Reality at Home Sweet Home

A night view of Monroe, Louisiana and the Ouachita River. Photo courtesy of City of Monroe; Bill Russell photo courtesy of; ULM photo courtesy of

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

I have sustained a goodly number of shocks since I returned to the small city – Monroe, Louisiana – where I grew up and experienced many of the seminal events of childhood, adolescence and post-adolescence. This is the first time I’ve been back for any significant amount of time since I set out in the 80s for other pastures. The last time I was here before late December 2009 when I blew into town for my late aunt's funeral was for something like two days in October 2001. From development to demographics to disappearing neighborhoods, the landscape has been altered in some cases almost beyond recognition.

Monroe is the largest city in Ouachita Parish and the parish seat. Ouachita Parish was established in 1807 when the Territory of Orleans was sliced and diced. The TO was part of the gi-normous Louisiana Purchase and would become the state of Louisiana, which was admitted to the union in 1812. Ouachita gets its name from the (soon to be evicted) Native Americans who lived in the area at the time the various interlopers arrived on the scene.

Monroe and West Monroe, which is just across the Ouachita River that divides them, are often referred to as the Twin Cities. The twins were born when Don Juan Filhiol was hired to establish Fort Miro as a Spanish outpost on the north Ouachita River. Fort Miro became Monroe in 1819 in honor of President James Monroe and the first steamboat to journey up the river to North Louisiana.

With a population of around 53,000 (as of the 2000 census), Monroe is the eighth largest city in Louisiana. While it does not have the name recognition and sexy history of the Big Easy, it still has an interesting story. It is the home to Louisiana Purchase Garden and Zoo, as well as the University of Louisiana at Monroe (campus scene along Bayou Desiard pictured at bottom), formerly known as Northeast University. During World War II, the Air Force Flying Training Command used then local airport, Selman Army Airfield (now Selman Field), as a cadet training center. The airfield, at the time the country’s largest flight navigator school, was named for Monroe native Augustus Selman. The Navy pilot and lieutenant perished in 1921 in an airplane crash in Norfolk Virginia. The local crop dusting concern, Huff Daland Dusters, which serviced the area’s farmland in the 1920s would morph into a humble little air carrier called Delta Air Lines. And the city also claims sons and daughters as diverse as basketball great Bill Russell, (below) actress Parker Posey and Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton. In many ways now, Monroe is a stranger to me. I have been most struck by the development. Where heretofore were wooded areas and open spaces now stand eateries, shopping centers and sundry other enterprises. There’s also been a significant bump in hotels and motels, which attract tourists and business travelers. Jesus Christ, too, is doing brisk business based on the number of churches that have sprung up.

Another bit of change is population demographics. Once upon a time blacks and whites lived in amiable segregation. While I was friendly with some of my white classmates, I would not have white friends until my university days. My theory is that the segregation persisted here as it did in countless other towns across the country because that is the way it had always been. Why rock the boat, right?

Today, in addition to blacks and whites there are Asians (north and south), West Africans, Latinos and so on. The mixing among the groups extends to living, socializing and, worshipping together. In the past, north Monroe was predominantly white and south Monroe was predominantly black. While south Monroe is still predominantly black, north Monroe is predominantly integrated – a mix of mainly middle- and upper-middle income blacks, whites and the aforementioned others. In restaurants, shops and at the mall, different ethnic groups hang out. They count each other as best friends. Some date and marry. Several local churches have ethnically diverse congregations, rendering the Sunday church hour (or more) far less segregated than in the past.

What I find most disconcerting, however, is that the area I called home no longer exists, at least not the way it did when I was a child. The old neighborhood is called Renwick’s Addition. Back in the day, it was one of those old-fashioned black neighborhoods where the butlers, maids, bus drivers, doctors, school teachers, police, retirees, seniors and, a few welfare families lived in near perfect harmony. Within a five- or six-block area of where I lived were a significant number of retirees and seniors, including my grandparents who raised my brother and me. Virtually everyone owned their property. They held deeds, not mortgages. No one had an obscene amount of material possessions. Nor did anyone brag about what they had. No one cared about the Joneses. People were comfortable. And we didn't know anyone as poor as a church mouse. It was the village of African proverb fame. It was a simple, uncomplicated life. In New York, it would be described – as would the whole city – as a backwater.

For me it was an idyllic existence. Almost zero crime. And what there was might revolve around some trifle like bicycle theft. One year an older girl who lived around a couple of corners – she from a family of thieves – snatched my bag of Halloween candy when my cousin took his eyes off me for two seconds. Not exactly something for which one would get the cops on the phone. After school we neighborhood kids got our homework done in record time so we could play in the remaining light. Those interested joined clubs like Eastern Star and Jack and Jill or perhaps took piano lessons. On Saturdays, lawns were mowed and on Sunday everybody was sitting in church wearing their best. During the summer, there was the ice cream truck, camp, bible school and endless games, including softball and hide-and-seek. Summer also was a time of travel for me. It was a good life.

Recently, a cousin drove me back to the old neighborhood. What I saw devastated me. Previously well-maintained wood frame and brick houses were severely dilapidated, former shadows of themselves. Others were boarded up with weeds growing around them. A few years ago my late aunt sold my childhood home to a cousin who has rented it out to some people who could only be described as tenants from hell. The modest structure that my grandfather, uncle and others built from the ground up is a rundown hovel. The yard is a pigsty and a junk repository for several abandoned vehicles. Looking at it was a surreal experience. Where my swing once stood is a little wasteland. Ditto for where there was once a magnolia tree (the state flower) that we decked out each year with multi-colored Christmas lights. There is no evidence of the chinaberry tree near the street that I routinely climbed against my grandfather’s expressed desire that I not do so.

What happened? A number of things. Many of those homeowners died out and their heirs either rented the properties to bad tenants, abandoned them or simply aren’t keeping them up because they are absentee or uninterested landlords. The drug epidemic – particularly crack – that hit many cities reached Monroe in the late 80s is also a culprit. When girlfriend or boyfriend is trying to get the next rock, mowing the yard or painting the house can be damned ...

Sadly, this is the story of many such black neighborhoods around the country. Monroe is no exception. What to do about it? I am still pondering that question. Meanwhile, a part of my childhood is gone, taking a little part of me with it.

Learn more about Monroe, Louisiana at

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