This is the Alamo Plaza in the Mid City area of Baton Rouge. In 1941, it was a showplace . . . a sparkling way station for modern wayfarers, sitting out on the edge of town, on the road to a place called America.
This is Baton Rouge High School, also in the Mid City area of the capital city. In 1927, it was a showplace . . . a sparkling way station for the city's best and brightest, sitting a good half-mile past the end of the streetcar line, on the road to a place called The Future.
SIX DECADES ON, the Alamo Plaza ain't what it used to be. What was the epitome of an ascendant America, a symbol of all that was luxurious and modern, of an America now wealthy enough to drive away in automobiles and discover itself at its leisure . . . well, it's the symbol of something quite different now.
Eight decades distant from the grand opening of the "new and modern" Baton Rouge High, the old school now is known as Baton Rouge Magnet High School. What this has meant, since 1976, is that in a city of great opportunity and greater inequity, the city's "best and brightest" still hang out at 2825 Government St., still dream grand dreams and still try to make sense of a city congenitally indifferent to "best" or "bright."
AFTER AT LEAST a couple of decades of serious neglect, there are dangerous places at the Alamo Plaza where you wouldn't want to mislay your children. For that matter, there's not really anywhere there -- at least, according to an expose in the most recent issue of Baton Rouge's 225 magazine -- that's better suited for human habitation than it is as a breeding ground for rats and roaches:
Because The Alamo Plaza doesn’t operate a restaurant, it’s not required to have a permit from the state’s Office of Public Health. But the agency does investigate complaints of unhealthy conditions, and records show at least 10 complaints in the past five years.
In June, one motel guest complained that her room was “infested with rats, fleas, spiders, etc.”
In February, a woman who stayed at The Alamo said the place was so disgusting she had to change rooms three times. In her complaint, she wrote: “One room I stayed in was full of baby rats. I was scared to go to bed. There were roaches everywhere.” She also called the motel “a gateway for crime,” a description J. Edgar Hoover would have no doubt agreed with.
Health inspector Artis Pinkney was sent to investigate the woman’s complaint. According to his written report, he found rat droppings in the sinks, faulty wiring, broken fixtures and heavy structural damage.
“All of the rooms seem to be in the same condition,” Pinkney wrote. “The manager does not repair any of the rooms. In my professional opinion, I would suggest the building be condemned.”
Instead of holding students at assemblies or the public for community events, the balcony of the school's grand old auditorium now holds junk. Not people. Graduation ceremonies no longer are held where I proudly walked across the stage in 1979.
225, as part of its Alamo Plaza story, had writer Chuck Hustmyre screw up his courage and set out to spend the night at the crumbling old motor court.
He didn't make it through the night in Room 2708:
To say that my room was dirty and quite likely a health hazard would be a significant understatement. Room 2708—which I have no reason to suspect was much different than any of The Alamo’s other 89 rooms—was a combination pigsty, hovel and slum.
The room had to be close to 100 degrees when I stepped inside. The maintenance man, who doubled as a security guard judging by the badge clipped to his pants, turned on the air conditioner for me and warned me, without further explanation, to keep the curtains closed at night. The window above the wheezing AC was boarded up with plywood and reinforced with two-by-fours. Broken shards of glass from the window lay inside the air conditioner vent.
As I waited for the temperature in the room to dip into the double digits, I took a good look at my accommodations. The room had no phone. The television was unplugged and the power button had been punched out. There was no lamp, no chair, and no table. Potato chip-sized chunks of paint were peeling off the walls. Loose wires dangled from the busted smoke alarm above the bed.
In the bathroom, there was no towel, just a washrag and a threadbare hand cloth. Part of the baseboard had rotted away, leaving a good-sized hole in the wall and easy access for night crawlers. The stained sink had a steady leak, no drain plug, and only one temperature setting for the water—scalding hot.
The walls of the closet were covered with dark splotches (either toxic mold or just plain mildew, I couldn’t tell). But I held my breath just in case as I stepped inside to snap some pictures.
Back in my room, I had nowhere to sit. The paper-thin, stained bedspread wasn’t an option, so I found a plastic chair outside and brought it into my room. I stayed for a few hours, long enough to meet my next-door neighbor, who said his name was Art. He wanted to know if I had a car, and he twice invited me into his room to have a beer. I declined.
I left sometime around 2 a.m.
STUDENTS HAVE TO STAY a full eight hours a day at Baton Rouge High. Five days a week. Nine months a year.
Faculty and administrators put in longer hours.
Well, this is disgusting. Quick! Is it the decrepit old motor court where bums stay and drug dealers ply their trade, or is it the "flagship school" of the East Baton Rouge Parish public system?
It's the decrepit old motor court, of the dopers and down-on-their-luckers.
THIS is a rest room at the decrepit old high school. The one parish taxpayers and the parish school board apparently think is acceptable for the parish's children.
The one over which the school system dithers -- Do we fix it? Do we tear it down? Do we ask voters to pass a dedicated Baton Rouge High tax? Meanwhile, the school board mulls over how to spend its minimum $66 million surplus from the 2006-2007 budget year.
And we have a lovely shot from the women's room in the Baton Rouge High gymnasium. There's a bird nest in the exhaust fan.
Leaky, damaged ceiling at the Alamo Plaza. Did I mention this is a scandalous haven for those on the margins of society?
Leaky, damaged ceiling at BRMHS. Did I mention this is where taxpayers' teen-age children spend their days, attempting to get an education?
When ordinary folks think of a miracle of God, they picture the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus curing lepers and raising Lazarus from the dead. I think of these as well, but nowadays I likewise think of how young Baton Rougeans receive a first-class education here amid Third World squalor.
And since returning to Omaha from a visit to my hometown -- and from a visit to my alma mater, Baton Rouge High -- I picture this when I think of Baton Rouge:
ABSOLUTELY METAPHORICAL, don't you think?
And absolutely baffling that professional journalists -- spanning the spectrum from the glossy and newsfeaturey 225, to the daily Advocate, to the Baton Rouge Business Report to channels 2, 9 and 33 -- remain blind to that, remain blind to the plight of a city's children and blind as to why that's going to be the death of a city (and a state) because they will not see.
Alamo Plaza? C'est toi.
UPDATE: For those of you new to the Baton Rouge High Story, here are some links to the full ugliness of what the East Baton Rouge Parish school system hath wrought: