At first glance, 1901 Mill St. may look like any other block in Lake Charles where old buildings have been razed to be replaced by new ones. Construction workers mill about, measuring, nailing and painting, as passers-by forget what was there before and wonder what’s to come. To understand exactly what that block means to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, look through the eyes of those who see 1901 Mill St. as more than just another construction zone. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
(Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 8:21 PM
At first glance, 1901 Mill St. may look like any other block in Lake Charles where old buildings have been razed to be replaced by new ones. Construction workers mill about, measuring, nailing and painting, as passers-by forget what was there before and wonder what’s to come.
To understand exactly what that block means to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, look through the eyes of those who see 1901 Mill St. as more than just another construction zone.
In the early 1940s and ’50s when housing projects were thought to be the antidote to urban slums — way before drugs and violence began to take a devastating toll, before projects began succumbing to influences from both outside and within — City Councilman Rodney Geyen was a kid living in the projects. He was one of many living happily in what is now known as the oldest public housing unit in Lake Charles — Booker T. Washington at 1901 Mill St.
“I grew up there as a boy. The place was really convenient. It was comfortable,” Geyen said. “If you lived there, you loved it. For all of us, it was just a nice community.”
Housing units like Booker T. Washington sprouted up across the state over the years. The places weren’t just homes for poor minorities; they were places where residents found safe and affordable housing within culturally rich communities.
The projects didn’t give Geyen many luxuries growing up, but they weren’t bad either. There was hot water, heaters when the winter months rolled around and refrigerators, which were a big deal when most of the people Geyen knew were still using ice boxes.
“We had everything we needed there while I was growing up,” Geyen said. “That was what made us want to take care of it. That’s something we took pride in — taking care of what was ours.”
Geyen said Booker T. Washington was the childhood backdrop for some prominent African Americans from the area, including former NFL player and coach Charlie Joiner, an LHSCA hall of fame coach in Lawrence Hunter, several educators, politicians, musicians and so on.
“Having something like this can build self-esteem for the entire area,” Geyen said. “When something like this gets built, you want to see it last. You want to see people embracing it and, most of all, you want people to take care of it.”
Ben Taylor, executive director of the Lake Charles Housing Authority, has had Booker T. Washington in his sights for several years. On his citywide redevelopment wish list, it was sandwiched between High School Park and St. Mary Drive, but an impetus was placed on the block with so much history.
“I hope it proves to be a catalyst for the redevelopment of the entire area,” Taylor said. “We want to provide housing people can be proud of, places the community can take pride in.”
The redevelopment is just one step in the Lake Charles Housing Authority’s plan to provide high-quality housing for residents who aren’t able to afford mid- to high-level rent or house payments. The process hasn’t been without its share of problems; the early stages were bogged down due to large amounts of asbestos being found in the buildings — a common problem when demolishing and rebuilding older housing. With 80 percent of the project coming from private funds, there was little room for unexpected complications.
“We’ve been trying to get this done for a while now. When you redevelop public housing in blighted areas, it’s expensive,” Taylor said. “Redeveloping existing housing is just an expensive endeavor.”
With the recent acquisition of a $322,000 Affordable Housing Program grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas and JD Bank of Jennings, the Housing Authority can continue to refurbish a piece of history in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.
City Councilwoman Luvertha August may not have lived in the projects, but she spent a good part of her childhood playing at the houses of friends who lived in the units. She still remembers those days.
“I remember the yards were just so big. That was the main thing, and they were really beautiful. That’s where we used to play,” August said. “A lot of the friends I went to school with lived there, so when I was out playing with them, that’s most likely where I was.”
August’s memories of the projects are fresh even though the old buildings are gone. No more creaking floorboards, flapping clotheslines or rumbling refrigerators. No more kids running through the yards, scaring stray animals and parents alike. Seventy-two of the old units have been demolished and are being replaced with 46 modern units, creating a more open complex with 23 duplex-style homes.
Like her City Council counterpart, August’s biggest fear for the new complex is what will come of it if it isn’t properly taken care of. A lack of structure, law enforcement or even respect for the property itself could lead to detrimental results down the road.
“My hope is that people realize how fortunate they are to have housing like this. This realization will help make them want to take care of it,” August said. “You let the wrong people in, you don’t find a way to police yourselves, then it could turn out poorly. Fortunately, I think people can admire and appreciate this opportunity to have beautiful affordable housing.”
Taylor said the housing authority understands the concerns people may have. Precautions have been taken to ensure the new Booker T. Washington will not become the one of the past, an image locals find disappointing more than uplifting.
“Things are going to be different this time around,” Taylor said. “We’re really going to have strict lease enforcement.”
In the time leading up to the redevelopment, while Booker T. Washington was still housing residents, 90 percent of the trespassing citations, arrests and stops at the housing units were of people who weren’t on a lease at the complex. With fewer units and a more open area, the Housing Authority is taking advantage of the opportunity to instill new safety precautions.
“Density was the biggest problem when it comes to security — just having so many places so congested,” Taylor said. “Now we’re going to have a fence that runs around the perimeter. There will also be a camera that will monitor the grounds as well. The residents will have to want things to be different because I’ve never seen a neighborhood change that didn’t want to.”
Posted By: Richard LeBlanc On: 12/7/2013
The memories of "the projects" warms my heart. I miss it: the sandlot football games, playing marbles under the trees, the playground with the merry-go-round, all the families, friends, Mill Street Elementary, Reynaud Middle, and W.O. Boston High Panthers.
Posted By: Mrs. Sharon Ross-Gross On: 8/26/2013
My Mother, brother and myself lived there right near the circle! We felt safe it was home! Everyone looked out for us kids. That was in the 60's. I will never forget the old place.