Through the Eyes of a Native: Rediscovering Baton Rouge
July 24, 2017 // Melanie Bennett
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, I lived the majority of my life under the impression that I knew my hometown intimately. I can recount at length stories from my childhood whose settings range across the city. This was my city, and I believed I knew her.
My feeling of Baton Rouge omniscience was dispelled when, a few years ago, I took a turn as an Uber driver. Discovering side streets and neighborhoods I didn’t know existed, I realized there was life in Baton Rouge of which I was blithely unaware. I found that this city is a far more colorful, subtle, and complex community than I had ever known. Take Highland Road, for example. I lived there for years, four miles from the south gates of LSU. Despite this, I was unaware that if you drive it’s length you can experience every flavor Baton Rouge has to offer. Starting in the Central Business District, one traverses Old South Baton Rouge, passes through the heart of Louisiana State University and its verdant campus, then crosses affluent neighborhoods such as Kenilworth and University Acres. Continuing, one finds the Country Club of Louisiana, plantation lands, and industrial parks. Without making a turn, a nearly comprehensive cross-section of the city can be found. As a driver for complete strangers, I've had some enlightening experiences. Most people are more than willing to share their stories. From hidden music venues to soul food kitchens, I've met locals with some of the city's best kept secrets.
Rediscovering my city through the eyes of others was a pleasure, but what I enjoyed the most was acting as Baton Rouge’s unofficial tour guide for out-of-towners. I experienced an excitement when picking up wide eyed teenagers from the airport and bringing them to their new home away from home at the dorms. I played ambassador for business people who had some inkling of Louisiana history, culture, and politics, and LOTS of questions! One of my favorite experiences is driving around the corner on I-110 at the moment when the capitol building comes into view. It truly is an impressive sight. Though at 34 stories high, one has to wonder if Huey Long wasn’t compensating for something. When asked about the legacy of Huey or his brother Earl K., or about the expeditions of Bienville and Iberville through the region, or how The Red Stick got it’s name, I’m happy to share. I am always surprised and proud of how much of my eighth grade history class I’ve retained. Yet, the single question common to every newcomer involved the most important of our cultural products: the food. Every out-of-towner wants to try gumbo and etouffee, jambalaya and grits. Yes, grits. There was one fellow I picked up arriving from Utah or Idaho or some such place who actually asked me if grits were seasonal! I was happy to quote Smiley Anderson and tell him:
The by-product of my job was discovering how much I truly love this place in which I had previously just existed. I spent the last couple of decades raising children here which includes, of course, ferrying them from piano lessons to soccer practice to theatre camp. Then I found myself getting paid to drive people around. What a concept! As a mom, I also hosted innumerable sleep overs and dinner parties. So somewhere along the line I hit upon the idea of getting paid for that too. That's when I was struck by the revelation that Baton Rouge needs a hostel. In my travels, I always make a point of staying in hostels. The sense of camaraderie and shared adventuring appeals to me and I’ve never been disappointed. Hostels are cultural touchstones for the communities they serve. Generally being within walking distance of great watering holes, the local music scene, and the pulse of the local life. They have the best recommendations for mom and pop diners and the tourist attractions that are not to be missed. In my research on the subject, I learned that New Orleans has a dozen hostels. Even the nearby town of Lafayette boasts four. But Baton Rouge? A college town and capital city has none?!
I hope to change that, because I DO love my home town and because I love to travel. It seems the best of both worlds. The tagline for my vision:
There have been times in our recent history when I questioned whether or not I wanted to share Baton Rouge with the world, or subject travelers to Baton Rouge. The Alton Sterling shooting and subsequent protests were an expression of the painful reality of racial and economic inequality in our city. There was so much tension and uncertainty in the streets, but then I would see complete strangers in grocery stores and gas stations locking eyes with one another and smiling. People taking an extra moment to silently communicate, “We are gonna get through this. We are friends. We are BR.”
Then there was the Great Flood of 2016. The heavens opened up and dumped more than 4 trillion gallons of rain in the area, yet we were undefeated. We rallied. We came together to help one another. We opened our homes and businesses, and selflessly worked to get those of us that had been less fortunate back on their feet. Thousands of displaced people were greeted with food, shelter, and hugs and were told, “We are gonna get through this. We are BR.” While we have many challenges to face, I am hopeful knowing that somewhere beneath these streets and in these homes beats the potential for unity. I’m proud of my city, I’m proud of it’s people, and I truly hope to share her with the world.
Melanie is a Baton Rouge native, Jill of all trades, and aspiring hostel owner who loves to travel but knows that if she's looking for her heart's desire, it isn't any further than her own back yard. She welcomes travelers and locals to celebrate anything ... karaoke, crawfish, or even her annual Waitstock party honoring all things Tom Waits.