Poor folks pitted against the not as poor in Baton Rouge, La

Poor folks pitted against the not as poor in Baton Rouge, La

Kelly Brewington The Baltimore Sun, September 16th 2005

International Terrorist George Bush BATON ROUGE, La. — Two weeks after rallying a massive relief effort to welcome survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the strain can be seen everywhere in this laid-back college town, and many are having second thoughts. The waits at gas pumps are daunting. Grocery stores have trouble keeping food on their shelves. And classrooms are overcrowded. Meanwhile everyone — including Red Cross volunteers, job hunters, store clerks and television news crews — is perpetually stuck in traffic. The ripples of Katrina seem to have left no one untouched. And beneath its delightful southern hospitality, this has become a town of brewing tensions. Crystal Brown, a lifelong resident of Baton Rouge, is searching for a new home to rent but can’t find any vacancies. Her landlord is forcing her out because she doesn’t have a lease and he needs the home for relatives displaced by the storm. “You hate to complain because you know you are so much better off than a lot of other people,” she said. “But I’m fixin’ to be homeless and I wasn’t even in the path of the storm.” Many Baton Rouge natives who are looking for housing or jobs can’t find them, she said. “We’ve been swallowed up by an influx of new people.” No one knows exactly how many Katrina survivors are living in Baton Rouge, but officials estimate the city and surrounding East Baton Rouge parish have more than doubled in size from about 400,000 to more than 800,000. The economics worry Brown the most. “A lot of people who came in are from New Orleans and couldn’t get out because they are poor,” she said. “I would think that now, East Baton Rouge Parish is the biggest welfare area in the state. And that’s not a good thing.” The displaced have picked up on the subtle changes in attitude. Some say the overwhelming generosity has faded, replaced by a humiliating assumption that they’re packing in some of the Crescent City’s biggest troubles, including struggles with crime and relentless poverty. Only about 80 miles apart, Baton Rouge and New Orleans are distinct in their demographics and character. The median income of East Baton Rouge is about $5,000 more than in New Orleans. Nearly one in four New Orleans residents live in poverty while the poverty rate in Baton Rouge is lower — 19 percent. Blacks make up nearly 70 percent of the population in New Orleans, versus 43 percent in Baton Rouge. Charles Watts, who’s living in a Red Cross shelter in Baker, just north of Baton Rouge, said he feels judgment in people’s stares. “People look at us like they think we have always been poor and desperate,” said Watts, 21, who evacuated New Orleans’ Elysian Fields neighborhood with his extended family. “The truth is, we made it out during the storm and we’re just trying to get our lives together.” “This is a storm that did this,” he said. “People need to realize this could happen anywhere to anybody.” Geraldine Walker, who evacuated New Orleans and is taking refuge at the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, said she has come to view the blue wristbands that shelter residents must wear as an added indignity. Sometimes she covers hers up when she leaves the shelter for an appointment. People dismiss her when they notice it, she said. Some in Baton Rouge fear that a host of urban ills will infiltrate the town. Along with the New Orleans’ distinction for jazz, gumbo and the French Quarter, many here have long viewed it as a city of crime. After Katrina, word spread through Baton Rouge that the town was experiencing an upsurge in looting and violent crime, although the rumors proved to be false. City officials say its crime rate is unchanged. Nevertheless, many believe the newest residents make higher crime inevitable. “New Orleans is a major urban center with a pretty severe gang problem,” said Stewart Clayton, 32, a surgeon at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, who lived in New Orleans for many years. “A lot of these people who are part of those gangs are now here. It’s only a matter of time before we see that activity here.” In fact, Baton Rouge has become inundated with so many evacuees, it’s difficult to classify any of them. Along with exiled New Orleans residents of various races and backgrounds, there are business owners from the suburbs of Metairie, shrimpers from swampy Plaquemines Parish, and immigrant families who have recently moved to the Gulf Coast seeking the American Dream. Many believe the city simply will have to pull together through this tough time. “You can tell the city is tense,” said Elle Burton, a Baton Rouge resident who has taken in various relatives who fled New Orleans. “You can tell it’s a real burden on our city,” she said. “But what we are dealing with is nothing compared to the people who lived on rooftops waiting to be rescued. I just think everyone’s going to have to get over it.”

Provided by Leroy F. Moore Jr. On The Outskirts: Race & Disability Consultant sfdamo@yahoo.com, www.leroymoore.com www.nmdc.us www.poormagazine.org www.molotovmouths.com

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