Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Home in the rear-view mirror

When did I first see Evan Mather's Scenic Highway on the Web? Three years ago, maybe?

As I recall, the combination memoir/documentary/mockumentary wasn't in a particularly embeddable format then, so I didn't post it on the blog. Or maybe it was due to a charitable swing of my famously conflicted emotions about my hometown, Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge is what Scenic Highway is all about. And, no, Scenic Highway, the main thoroughfare into north Baton Rouge, isn't. That irony -- and the spirit behind naming one's film for the decidedly unscenic stretch of road -- is what drives the film.

I am from Baton Rouge. I, too, put the city in my rear-view mirror a long time ago. I totally get the concept of an
homage noir to the old hometown -- albeit one conceived, perhaps, by the Monty Python troupe on a bloody terrible bender.

Still, at the time, in the aftermath of Katrina, I was kinda sorta thinking,
"Isn't that a little mean?"

THOSE WERE the better angels of my nostalgia talking. The real me knows better.

It's why the hell I hauled ass. It's why I am Omaha's biggest damned fan today; Nebraska's largest city, my home, is pretty much everything Baton Rouge ain't.

If you've been hanging around the blog much, my feelings on this question are no surprise to you. They're . . . well . . . complicated.
Intense. Somewhat conflicted.

Bottom line: I am glad I'm here. I am glad I'm not there. And I recognize the unpredictable ebb and flow of how life --
and cities -- often play out can quickly make an ass of you while you're otherwise occupied expounding on crap and plotting out the future.

Still. . . .

I KEEP coming back to what my hometown ain't. Like secure in its identity, for example.

A gag bit in Scenic Highway about a "call" to the state capitol's information hotline has the earnest telephone voice expounding at great length --
and proudly -- about a 1933 Leni Riefenstahl film, Reichitekht, which outlined the great influence the structure had on Nazi architect Albert Speer and the great fascination it held for der Führer himself.

Obviously ridiculous, you say. Pure fiction. And, no, the Germans didn't bomb Pearl Harbor. Of course, I say.

But that doesn't mean I didn't check it out . . .
just to make sure. Because it sounded just sooooooo perfectly Baton Rouge.

Does the name David Duke ring a bell? He's a white supremacist. He used to parade around LSU, as a student, in a Nazi uniform. He grew up to become the head of one of the national Ku Klux Klan organizations.

Louisiana almost elected him governor in 1991. Then the feds put him in prison.

ANOTHER THING my hometown ain't, is committed to public education -- or much education of any stripe.

This is why it never will be what its mayor-president keeps saying it is -- "America's Next Great City (TM)." People want to move to great cities; nobody wants to move to Baton Rouge.

The proof is in the population, which hasn't changed much since I was in college there.
Thirty years ago.

I was reminded of this by that Elizabeth Warren lecture on the tribulations, and pending extinction, of the American middle class. Here's the part that did it for me, the part that just completely distills why Red Stick is hosed:
There's a great . . . study out of San Diego, where they're having parents do preferences on where they buy. Parents would rather live near a toxic waste dump than a place where they thought the schools were underperforming -- where they thought their children would not have as good a chance in school.
WARREN CITED another study, this one from Boston, that compared side-by-side area municipalities, matched for every factor -- racial composition, mass-transit access . . . you name it. It found that just a 5-point increase in third-grade reading scores in one school district over the other translated into tens of thousands of dollars' difference in housing prices.

"Families are buying schools," she said. Of course, that's obvious. But now there's the data to quantify what we already knew.

Well, at least what some of us in America already knew.

Welcome to Baton Rouge. The toxic waste dump
(or at least the next best thing) is the city's biggest employer. This is it, at right -- the Exxon-Mobil refinery, the second largest in the country.

There are lots more like it all around the capital city.

And this is the kind of thing you can expect when dealing with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

And here's what my old high school looked like three years ago:

NOW IT'S being renovated, which means all but the main building is being torn down and rebuilt. And the main building, dating back to 1927, is being totally renovated.

Thirty years of neglect will do that for your construction budget.

One can only imagine what 30 years of test-score carnage and resegregation -- a school system that white flight has taken from 65-35 majority-minority to 85-15 minority-majority in a single generation -- has done (and will continue to do) to Baton Rouge.

Probably something not unlike what happened to the one really unique thing Evan Mather found in his -- and my -- hometown, just north of town just off the not-so-scenic Scenic Highway. It was a massive geodesic dome built by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1950s -- the biggest in the world at the time.

It used to belong to the Union Tank Car Co. They used to fix massive numbers of railroad tank cars in there -- until time passed the facility by within a decade or so.

Bucky Fuller's masterpiece soon fell into disrepair. That's how Mather found it almost five years ago.

And the year after Mather released his short film . . . it was torn down.

Because that's what Baton Rouge does.

No comments: