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Downtown Baton Rouge: For the People?

Along the borders of the Mississippi River, the country’s tallest State Capital and other historical buildings once again provided a cozy backdrop to yet another culture-rich downtown festivity, Live after Five. People clocked out across the city and headed to relax outside in a place that some urban scholars would characterize as the “living room” of Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin L. “Kip” Holden said, “Live after Five brings together people from all walks of life, not just people from Baton Rouge. People from outside of Louisiana get a chance to come and enjoy our culture.”

Live after Five, a series of free outdoor concerts held downtown on Friday nights in both the spring and fall, is one example of the many endeavors produced by the Downtown Business Association (DBA) for the purpose of “encouraging people to journey to and enjoy downtown.” The spawning of such efforts to revitalize the “stifled growth” and development of the downtown area began when the Downtown Development District (DDD) was formed in 1983.

Gerard Wellman, an instructor of urban studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha, reports that cities all over the United States are engaging in downtown revitalization projects. When discussing downtown Baton Rouge’s initiatives, Wellman says, “We should think about the places Americans treasure, such as the parks in San Francisco, the city of Portland, Oregon, and New Orleans.” He adds, “A downtown should be a place where people can feel a sense of ownership, where they can congregate and feel like this is the heart of our city.”

Special guest of Live at Five Suzanne Baugh, resident of Georgia and producer of the Performing Arts Showcase said, “Baton Rouge downtown is different from other cities because there are a lot of different cultures embedded in this community. You can feel it here tonight.”

Fortune magazine recently re-published a favored 1958 story “Downtown is for People” in which urban activist Jane Jacobs criticized downtown revitalization plans across the country for “having all the attributes of a well-dignified cemetery.” She further predicted that once the plans to make cities, “clean, impressive and monumental” were complete, the cities would have “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.”

Danny McGlynn, one of the first initiators of the first Live at Five ten years ago and owner of several downtown businesses including his own law firm and popular club Boudreaux and Thibodeaux’s, explains that the uniqueness of Baton Rouge’s downtown scene comes from its mix of people. He says that downtown’s greatest impact is as a desegregation tool, not just of races. “It also mixes people of all ages, incomes and interests.” He explains that the close proximity, unlike suburban neighborhoods, is “re-socializing people of all different walks, making people interact.”

“I like that I can walk to hear the symphony or the opera, then go to a bar and hear a band,” says Juan Cuccia who lives in a modernly designed studio-style apartment on 3rd street. He adds, “No matter what your taste is–ice skating, bicycling, jogging, bowling—it’s all easily accessible here.”

Corporal Ljean McNeely of the downtown Baton Rouge Police said that the presence of the new downtown police office built last year and the increased police forces on weekends are sending out a message that the people’s safety is of prime importance.

Members of the diverse Live at Five audience congregated to either relax on the lawn or stroll about mingling and chatting with friends. Special guests and event sponsors, including well-known politicians, community icons, and local businessmen socialized under the VIP tent sipping the complimentary drinks and eating the popular Cajun dish, crawfish étouffée. The grassy-green dance floor quickly filled with Cajun and Zydeco-style dancing as Grammy award winning artist Terrance Simien and his band, “The Zydeco Experience,” sang and played their bluesy, Cajun-Creole tunes.

With a “passion for progress” the DDD’s online brochure describes in detail the current outcomes of its plans to modernize and personalize development. It states, “Downtown is alive around the clock. People work, dine and socialize. Children play in fountains. Restaurants remain open in the evenings. Clubs fill with music and life after sunset. When they tire, people walk back to their homes in downtown.”

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