Sudden Growth Brings Obvious Changes to Baton Rouge

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In Depth

Commentator Andrei Codrescu tours Baton Rouge, the city where he teaches, and comments on the changes since Hurricane Katrina. The city absorbed a large population of New Orleans residents who were displaced by the storm. The sudden growth has forced Baton Rouge to accept that it's a big city now.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Baton Rouge is also where commentator Andrei Codrescu lives and works when he's not in New Orleans. He's a Professor of English at Louisiana State University and patron of the big box stores that have been busier than ever.

ANDREI CODRESCU reporting:

This is the Wal-Mart Super Center in Baton Rouge and it just opened shortly before the storm and people fought against it because it's such a huge thing and it's causing such traffic and mess back then. But now it's become the big social center, Baton Rouge. And as you can see, there's no parking. Everybody is at Wal-Mart and you can hear all the New Orleans accents at Wal-Mart.

Mr. ROBERT DAVIS (Baton Rouge Resident): Baton Rouge, they be like, I told you, New Orleans be like, I told you.

Mr. ANDREI CODRESCU (Commentator): Robert Davis has become an expert on the subtle and not so subtle differences between Louisiana's capital city and the Crescent City. He works at Wal-Mart and grew up here in Baton Rouge. He says, it's not the accent that is different, it's the attitudes and habits of the people of New Orleans that strike him as different.

There is a dangerous fast road called Airline Highway, a place where no normal Baton Rouge person would take a stroll. But he says that doesn't stop the newcomers.

Mr. DAVIS: That's how you know they're from New Orleans, people walking along the side of Airline. They from New Orleans. You ain't used to seeing people on Airline everyday. That ain't something you used to seeing everyday.

Mr. CODRESCU: I've never seen anybody walking around here before. They walk on the side of the road.

Mr. DAVIS: They walk like it's a regular road to walk on.

Mr. CODRESCU: Our grocery stores are filled to bursting. The drive-in windows of drug stores stretch into the car-jammed road. In September of 2005, Baton Rouge became a huge town, the biggest in Louisiana, something it wasn't prepared for physically and psychologically.

The people of Baton Rouge opened their arms to the newcomers quickly, and the sweet awareness of the human and regional bond overcame everyone. The churches were terrifically welcoming. People opened their houses to the displaced. People in shops bent over backwards to be nice. It was a love fest at first, and it still is, even though some realities have set in, namely, Baton Rouge will always be huge.

The infrastructure will have to be fixed. The roads were bad before the storm, they're worse now. We need a new I-10 bypass and a new bridge over the Mississippi River. All traffic going west now goes right through Baton Rouge. We need light rail, better busses, and most of all, a new regional consciousness that accepts the fact that Baton Rouge and New Orleans are one now.

Baton Rouge is a metropolis, whether you like it or not, and it cannot hide behind its small town manners. Baton Rouge has to act like a big city now, one that has plans in its future.

I really like the addition of New Orleanians to Baton Rouge, their accents, their liveliness, their extra spice and flavor deepen us. Things may work a little less quietly here now, but they are sure livelier. LSU is bursting with extra students, all of whom drive, unfortunately, and some drive big cars, even more unfortunately. But the infusion of New Orleans has awakened the normally sluggish student body. On campus now you hear discussions, heated opinions, stories, involvement. The disaster is making Baton Rougans into better citizens.

As for New Orleans, it will always be the artistic soul of Louisiana and the U.S. for that matter. But I think that Baton Rouge will be catapulted into the leagues of Houston or Atlanta.

BLOCK: Andrea Codrescu commenting on Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a city that has absorbed many of the displaced of New Orleans.

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