Important now: “If we understand [racial segregation] as a problem of policy and politics then we can focus on reforms that lead to more equitable and reparative outcomes. If we recognize racial segregation as both an extraction and denial of resources, then we know an investment and redirecting of resources is a necessary first step in achieving meaningful change,” says Chris Tyson, President and CEO of Build Baton Rouge.
He’s an architectural enthusiast, practiced real estate attorney, academic scholar and educator, erstwhile political hopeful and an urban renewal fanatic—especially when it comes to the East Baton Rouge (EBR) City-Parish, the consolidated city and parish (county) government for Louisiana’s capital city.
Chris Tyson, President and CEO of Build Baton Rouge (BBR), is quite possibly the perfect person with the precise experience needed to lead and succeed at an agency tasked with revitalizing the blighted, disinvested areas of the EBR city parish.
In 2018 Tyson took a leave of absence from his tenured professorship at Louisiana State University (LSU) to take over the flagging EBR Development Authority that had lost its way in the years between 2014 and 2017. The agency had been established in 2007 but when the need for a strategic, coordinated effort to revitalize poverty-stricken areas became abundantly clear, current Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome recommitted the city’s support by infusing more funds and expanding leadership roles to allow for the advancement of BBR.
The first order of the day was to extinguish the tainted perception the Authority had built for itself as an ineffective city agency lacking the spirit to make changes for its neglected communities. So, Tyson rebranded the Authority as Build Baton Rouge (BBR) which aptly conveys its resolute mission to infuse new life and vitality into areas of the city parish that need it most.
“We wanted to give this entity a reboot. Not just cosmetic but to articulate the value we bring, how we will pursue our mission and the types of change we plan to carry out,” says Tyson.
He eschews the traditional modes of analyzing and treating urban renewal challenges. Those outdated approaches are deeply rooted in 20th century, ill-perceived notions about black and brown communities, he concludes. Instead he asks, “What does moving in equitable frameworks, authentic community engagement, and innovative approaches to public finance, urban planning and development look like?”
It is a question he’s pondered throughout his career and is destined to answer with concrete, deliberative solutions that have coalesced in his brain since he left Baton Rouge as a young man then returned as a much wiser, more experienced professional.
In the following interview Tyson talks about his passion for bringing tangible change to blighted communities in Baton Rouge, particularly the Plank Road corridor in the north part of town, a once thriving commercial area that has fallen to ruin over the past couple of decades.
He stresses why we should relinquish our preconceived notions about black communities and how doing so could help quell the racial divides plaguing so many cities, especially at the current moment.
Baton Rouge has a long history of civil rights unrest. What are you doing to combat the fallout from that in your community and to be more effective at the work you do?
There are challenges in cities that have a legacy of deep racial segregation because many issues they face in the urban context are racialized. What has been brewing for us over the past decade or so is a growing concern from community activists, politicians and some segments of the business community about the increasing racial and spatial stratification of the city. North Baton Rouge is significantly poor and predominantly black, with an entirely different experience than South Baton Rouge, which is much more racially mixed, solidly middle class and affluent.
The two Baton Rouges became a trope that defines our local identity and eroded civic pride. As you may know Baton Rouge is the site of the nation’s first organized bus boycott in the civil rights era. Also, we are known for one of the longest school desegregation lawsuit in the nation. In 1956 the case was filed, and it was settled in 2003. It gives a picture of the tortured and frayed dynamics that exists here.
We are just now coming to an understanding of the long shadow and cumulative impact of redlining and housing discrimination. The 20th century development of cities, suburbs, and the housing market were very racialized. On top of that we have Reagan era conceptions of inner cities as places where welfare queens, absentee fathers and all types of undesirables live and are to be avoided, contained and managed through the police state.
In addition to engaging in more candid dialogue, what are some concrete solutions to our racial divides?
The solutions that bubble to the top reflect how systemic racism has marginalized black communities. The age-old, racist depiction of poor black communities is that they are collections of people who pathologically make poor decisions, have broken family structures and weak values. That tortured view is why draconian policing and mass incarceration become the dominant response of the state. This results in a lot of people getting locked up; not because they’re bad but because the policies are bad and the system is corrupt. What follows is a host of collateral consequences which manifest themselves in chronic social dislocation and persistent underdevelopment.
If we instead view the conditions in these communities as the result of policy failures and how the entirety of the 20th century housing development and finance was racialized, we can better understand how race operates in a spatial context: it denies resources to black neighborhoods and segregates black people into certain areas, creating all the many challenges we continue to face today.
If we look at it as a problem of policy and politics, then we know that policy and politics can address it. If you look at it as an extraction and denial of resources, then we know that an investment and redirecting of resources is a good first step in addressing the problem.
That’s what we’re here to do. Think about the opportunities that exist at the intersection of social justice, real estate development public finance, urban planning and community engagement. All of these perspectives and disciplines are essential to do the work we do well. Where entities like ours have faltered is when some component of that paradigm is missing.
Which is the most important part of that paradigm?
The community engagement piece is the most important. Most people approach these efforts assuming that the people in the community are the problem as opposed to the people outside who are really the problem. We have all seen well-intentioned but profoundly misdirected efforts focused on black and brown communities which simply result in their marginalization and displacement..
We know from the gentrification discourse, which is very present in our current moment: If you aren’t ultimately developing neighborhoods for the people and businesses that live there then you will displace them. Particularly where you have inflated real estate markets because of high demand, supply constraints and demographics that are shifting.
Why is BBR is so focused on redeveloping the Plank Road corridor?
Baton Rouge is social, politically, and racially aware of being “A Tale of Two Cities.” North Baton Rouge has the largest concentration of racialized poverty in the state and South Baton Rouge has the largest concentration of affluence.
Baton Rouge is a 20th century city developed after the rise of Jim Crow laws and of the automobile. North Baton Rouge is half of the city that no one needs to go to anymore, at least no one who is affluent or even middle class. It is a part of the city that is marginalized by invisibility, which is to say that it has been rendered to be outside of the scope of resource distribution and political and social life such as that it’s really not a part of the city. I saw that as a key problem we had to solve.
Plank Road runs through the heart of Baton Rouge and has a rich history of first being a predominantly white, commercial corridor settled by workers of Standard Oil which built a refinery in 1909. Then desegregation and white flight left the area broken and neglected. What makes it appealing as a good prototype for revitalization?
Plank Road is part of Baton Rouge’s first interparish suburbanization. As it crept its way northward during the teens, ’20s and ’30s it charts the city’s growth and evolution.
But those years are still not completely automobile centric years. So, Plank Road was developed with small lots fronting the commercial corridor, buildings built to the street and had very few strip malls. I felt it was the perfect spatial context for the type of urban revitalization that is mixed-use, walkable, and transit-oriented at a human scale as opposed to automobile scale.
Plank Road had those predeterminants which made it a fascinating study. It also has the second highest transit usage in the local transit system, the highest concentration of zero car households, and the highest rates of pedestrian and vehicular accidents. It has significantly distressed and non-existent infrastructure (broken sidewalks everywhere) and no ADA compliant intersections.
Then there are the demographic aspects of Plank Road. It runs through an area that is 90% black, one-third who are under the official poverty line. It has one of the most crime ridden zip codes where there is significant blight, poverty, and social issues
There was also a glut of vacant, abandoned property and since we are also the city’s land bank, we had the opportunity to land bank several vacant lots that could support catalytic projects down the road.
I felt Plank Road was a worthy starting point for a revitalization project because it gave us the opportunity to model true equitable development.
I understand you began Plank Road with a focus on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). How important is this piece in scope of the overall project?
We are excited to note that Louisiana’s first BRT installation will be in Baton Rouge and will run along the Plank Road Corridor which meets a very pressing access transit need. But what it also does is allow us to leverage federal transit dollars for broad infrastructure improvements that will also transform the quality of place.
The budget for the BRT program is $50M. We have $15M from the federal government that we were awarded last year and were also able to take state and local funding and get those entities working together. Normally the state would have its project, the city would have its project and the transit system would be over there doing what it’s doing.
The missed opportunity is you’re not leveraging the combined effect of those resources to then get additional resources from the competitive pool of federal funds that can allow you to not just patch the streets but actually bring the infrastructure and redesign in a way that comports with further economic development.
How far along are the catalytic developments within the overall Plank Road Project?
They’re coming along great. We will have an announcement within the next 30 days about some initiatives that are really going to take off. All of the projects have been in the works since we delivered the master plan last year.
The one that is on the front burner right now is the mixed-use development that will have 30,000 square feet of new construction, including an early childcare center and the new offices of BBR. It will also bring 15 units of brand new, affordable housing and a transit-oriented, urban infill, built to the street project.
We are also in the process of transforming a vacant lot into a Pocket Park and launching a food incubator and community kitchen in an abandoned building we own. It will be a place where small businesses in the neighborhood can rent commercial kitchen space, meeting space or other programming activities.
When the project is complete, how will you measure its success?
We want to bring back the economic vitality to the Plank Road corridor. The way that will happen is several fold: New development and brick and mortar structures have to be there, they have to occupy the vacancy and signal value to the neighborhood, they have to house new services and amenities and they have to tie into other infrastructure improvements.
One of the things we’ve heard from people in the community as well as people out of the community—black, white, rich and poor—is, “we’re so glad somebody is doing something.” For cities like Baton Rouge there is an apathy and cynicism that sets in when you go for so long and it seems that nobody cares enough to do anything with a certain part of town. Even for people who don’t live there, it’s an embarrassing mark against the city and undermines civic pride.
Part of having things catalyzed on the corridor is to show the city that not only do we deserve this but we can do this and be like other places that have figured their way out of these ruts. And we can do so in ways that respect the community members and businesses who have been there through the hard times and let them know that their city cares about them.
For more information go to: http://buildbatonrouge.org