Monday, November 12, 2007

One of these things is just like the other

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.

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.”

After at least a couple of decades of abject neglect, there are dangerous places in the Baton Rouge High building where you don't want your children. Or anyone else.

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.

It would seem there's not much that's not crumbling at the old Alamo Plaza, like this doorjamb.

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.

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.

Above, we again have a lovely room view from the Alamo Plaza.

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:


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:

My reminder

Not even a crumb from the rich man's table

Home is where the heartbreak is

More scenes from 'America's next great city'

Disbelief in Omaha, or No Frame of Reference

When we let our kids' schools deteriorate into dumps, is it a human-rights violation?


Anonymous said...

mandamus (man-dame-us) n. Latin for "we order," a writ (more modernly called a "writ of mandate") which orders a public agency or governmental body to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so. WHY HASN'T SOMEONE FILED A WRIT OF MANDAMUS AGAINST THE SCHOOL BOARD, ONE OF THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES IS TO PROPERLY MAINTAIN THE BUILDINGS THEY OWN

Anonymous said...

How sad. at one point, I attended BRHS and it was great! More sad is the fact that our current Superintendent of schools was facility and money manager for years and did nothing! Now she gets raises for her performance?

Clay said...

Wow, looks like Orleans Parish Public Schools...

Anonymous said...

Truly deplorable. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I'm married to a public school teacher...

Alan Gutierrez said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this article and expound on this metaphor, a decrepit motor court compared to a decrepit school. It will make me think if our schools in Baton Rouge and New Orleans when I pass the pestilent motor courts on Tulane Ave.

Anonymous said...

"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."

While your post raises a lot of interesting points, this one simply is not true. I graduated this past May, as a member of the class of 2007, and I know from personal experience that the balcony is used for seating during events.

The picture you placed immediately before this description is also misleading -- the "No public seating on balcony" sign is only used when an event doesn't draw enough people to fill up the downstairs portion of the auditorium. Since it doesn't make sense to have some people sitting downstairs and some people sitting upstairs when the downstairs is not completely filled, this sign is used.

The Mighty Favog said...

Anonymous writes:

"The picture you placed immediately before this description is also misleading -- the 'No public seating on balcony' sign is only used when an event doesn't draw enough people to fill up the downstairs portion of the auditorium."

ACTUALLY, the sign says "No public seating in the bacolny," and it is what it is. That is what I found there years after I graduated -- it's not like I planted the sign, or the junk in both balcony entrances.

In one entrance, there was no way to squeeze past the discarded desks, etc., to get into the balcony -- or "bacolny," as the case may be. In the other second-floor balcony entrance, I was able to squeeze -- barely -- past the junk to get to the balcony.

So, you're telling me that the school staff has to remove all that crap and find somewhere to put it whenever there's a large assembly at Baton Rouge High?

Again, the pictures are what they are. And the junk-filled balcony entrances are the LEAST of the school's problems.

You say the post "raises a lot of interesting points," and THIS is what you seize upon in order to get your knickers in a twist?

I'm not raising "interesting points." I'm screaming at the top of my lungs that your old school and mine has been allowed to become a f***ing dump!

As in "unfit for human habitation."

And that the school board -- and the taxpayers, too -- let it get that way, blithely sending their kids and others' to school there as the place crumbles around them.

But dat's Looziana for ya'!

And I'm horribly sorry if I misrepresented the usage status of the auditorium "bacolny." Coulda fooled me, and perhaps did.

Unknown said...

I can honestly say that Baton Rouge High is in my heart, and the spirit that was Baton Rouge Magnet High School runs through my veins. My aunt, uncle, father, sister, and multiple cousins attended BRH like I did. My mother taught and was a guidance counselor there for over 15 years. I grew up running the halls of Baton Rouge High, and noticing the changes in the student body over the years. Of course, the condition that Baton Rouge High has been kept at is appalling to me...but really, what good is the balcony when it isn't even used anymore. The graduation ceremony, which to me is the biggest event in high school, is no longer held in the auditorium. However it is still used for various programs such as the welcome back, Christmas, and African American Heritage programs. Most plays cannot fill the auditorium like they used to, for whatever reason you would like to pick. But to say that the entire balcony is full of junk is misleading, because it's the hallways to the balcony that store tv's. It has been like that as long as I can remember. But I agree to the fullest extent that a serious action needs to be taken with the condition of Baton Rouge High, however the condition of Baton Rouge Highs policy needs to be looked as well

Anonymous said...

FYI- commencement is no longer held in the BRMHS auditorium because of the size problem, not the junk in the entryway to the balcony. The balcony is actually functional and is used for certain school functions currently. There is some junk in the entryway, but it is moved for events. In 2004, it was voted to hold commencement at the PMAC to allow students to have an unlimited number of tickets for their family members to attend. There was always a lot of drama involving getting coveted 3 tickets when it was held in the auditorium.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, when my family first moved to Baton Rouge in 1964, we spent about two weeks at the Alamo Plaza Motel, while my parents looked for a house to live in. At the time, the place was pretty slick, certainly clean, and had a pretty good restaurant.

I was also a member of the first graduating class of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Class of 1977. To see the condition the school is in now is absolutely appalling! It looks as if nothing has been done to maintain the place since 1977. The colours on the walls are certainly the same. This is an absolute shame, but as you say, just what I would expect of good ol' Looziana. Glad I live in Australia now.

All the best,

Tove Foss Ford

Colleen said...

Wow. Great post, I loved that Alamo article when it came out. I think the school looks picturesque from the street, with all the live oaks out front, just looks to me like an all-American high school. I guess I've never gotten close enough to notice that it's crumbling. And it's only, what, 60 years old? Y'all have some killer mold down here. I'm serious.

HV said...

Three generations of my family have graduated from BRMHS. I'm from the class of 2000.

It was in awful shape when I was there and I'm still surprised at what's happened to it when looking at recent photos. I've personally scraped that cracking paint off the walls. Students did it because they couldn't get anyone else to do it in a timely fashion.

I'll be sad to see it go, I really will, but I think the whole thing needs to be replaced. Just not like what they did with McKinley Middle. Anything but that.