By: Lee Peck
Back in the late 50's in its early stages of development, folks in Oak Hills considered themselves to be living out in the "country" of Baton Rouge . It was a time, when the distant sounds of cows and horses could be heard from the nearby Kleinpeter Farms and the fruit trees of the Hilltop Arboretum served as a makeshift playground for neighborhood kids. Most of the streets were still gravel and forget about the interstate – it didn't exist. But fast forward nearly half a century later and that has all changed. Oak Hills, the neighborhood once known as the boonies, is now referred to as the hub of South Baton Rouge.
Located in the center of the historic Highland Road, Perkins Road, Bluebonnet Blvd. and the bustling Siegen Lane, the residents of Oak Hills are no longer living the country life. "We're within three miles of anything you could possibly want in Baton Rouge, but yet at the same time we're still a quiet little community within the city," said resident Gary Allan.
Gary has witnessed first hand the metamorphosis that Oak Hills has undergone. You see Gary 's parents built their home in Oak Hills in the late 60's. After growing up in what he describes as the ideal neighborhood, Gary moved off and eventually started a family of his own. After the recent death of his dad, Gary, along with his wife and kids, purchased his childhood home. He says although there have been a lot of changes, some things are still the same.
"When I was a kid the bus stop was at my house. I can remember waiting for the bus with my dad by my side," says Gary . "The bus stop is still there today at my house and my kids now wait for the bus with me."
Others agree and say that through all the changes Oak Hills has maintained it's "down home" character and remained true to its roots. Paula Moore and her family have lived there for 11 years. "It's a real neighborhood, like the one's you grew up in, not like the newer neighborhoods, where you get this cold artificial feeling," says Paula. "You just feel like you're home when you get there."
While the magnificent location of Oak Hills speaks for itself, several residents credit the neighborhood's civic association for setting standards that keeps the area in such high demand. Formed back in 1998, the mission of the Oak Hills Civic Association has always been clear: "Unite the residents who are interested in the improvement of Oak Hills with the intent of promoting the general welfare of our area."
An active member of the association since its founding, Madeline Carbonette Blair is the incoming president. Madeline says her parents settled in Oak Hills back in 1976. A few years later, Madeline herself built, where she has lived happily for the past 21 years. "Oak Hills has survived because it's quiet, safe and established, "says Madeline. "Neighbors look out for one another and keep each other informed."
Another neighbor, who has been an active member in the civic association and a person that many credit with the beautification of Oak Hills is Wanda Anselmo. Wanda too is an Oak Hills veteran, living there with her husband for more than 29 years. It was back in 1986 that Wanda and several other Oak Hill residents formed the Oak Hill Garden Club. Wanda says their first order of business was to revamp and update the landscaping of the subdivision's Highland Road entrance. Despite the neighborhood's well-maintained lawns, Wanda says the entrance had been neglected and didn't truly reflect the pristine standards of the residents. Gone were the overgrown bushes and the mish-mash of foliage and in was a presentation that was much easier on the eyes.
Although the Oak Hill Garden Club no longer meets, the Civic Association has taken over the responsibility of beautifying the neighborhood. They've adopted many of the traditions and standards that originated with the Garden Club, including "Yard of the Month."
"Our goal, when we started yard of the month was to initiate a little friendly neighborly competition, while maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood," says Wanda. "All these years later it is still taken seriously, but fun at the same time."
The way it works is a committee of 4-5 residents walks the neighborhood scoring the yards on various categories, such as landscaping, architectural detail, and overall flow – just to name a few. All scores are tallied and a winner is named. The winner is given a $25 gift certificate to Harb's Oasis, but the real honor is the prestigious "Yard of the Month" sign. It didn't take me long to find April's proud winners – Julie and Jim McNeil.
Julie explains that when she and her husband purchased their first home in Oak Hills, she had no clue as to what to do with her yard or for that matter where to begin. That's when she called on the assistance of Charbel Harb, who just so happens to be the owner of Harb's Oasis. Julie says Harb gave her suggestions on plant selection and tips on what would work best in her yard. More than 7 years later, Julie you could say has become a pro.
"This was the first year that I did everything by myself without any help. I went and selected the plants, bought my fertilizer and planted everything. Of course I was proud of myself," says Julie, "but when I came home and saw the 'Yard of the Month' sign in my yard I was so surprised! It really makes me feel good that someone acknowledged all the hard work it takes to keep a yard beautifully maintained."
Now I can't talk about the yards of Oak Hills without mentioning the very reason the subdivision got its name – the oak trees. First of all the yards are huge. Compared to what would be considered a large yard by today's standards, even the smallest of yards in Oak Hills is substantial in size. The large yards offer the perfect stage for the massive oaks to stretch their winding limbs. While many of the oaks are well over a hundred years old, some of the trees were planted by the residents, who still live there today.
As Wanda and I were visiting I commented on the massive oak that dominates her backyard – even asking her "Did you build your house around that gigantic tree?" – To my surprise the tree was planted shortly after the home was built. "At the time, it was probably the size of a broom stick," says Wanda. "We nurtured it and before long it just took off. I guess the entire neighborhood gets the right amount of sunlight and water, providing an environment the trees really take to."