Mural splashes light on historic neighborhood seeking renaissance

Updated: Aug. 17, 2020 at 10:20 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Despite growing up in a city more than an hour away, Lafayette-native Bryson Boutte now has a deep connection to a historic Baton Rouge neighborhood that is receiving renewed interest from investors.

The two-story building is located near the railroad tracks about two blocks south of Government...
The two-story building is located near the railroad tracks about two blocks south of Government Street.(WAFB)

“I feel accepted,” he said. “Pretty much everybody that lives on the block has stopped by and told me something, had a conversation. I’ve learned a lot.”

Boutte spent roughly 400 hours over two months working on massive mural.

“A group of kids that ride around on their bikes would come by and ask me if I’m done every single day. Literally, every... single... day they would ask me if I’m done,” he said with a laugh. “They always followed it up with a compliment saying it looked good, so, if I’m impressing the kids then I’m doing something right.”

The mural is located at 1116 S. 14th Street. The building was formerly the banquet hall for the Lincoln Theater, which is located around the corner. The building’s unusual architecture – a three-panel façade - begs for a creative masterpiece.

“I couldn’t comprehend this when I walked up to it,” he said when asked about the size of the project compared to those he’s done in the past.

Although the 27-year-old has completed seven other murals, none were on the level of this project. Additionally, its execution was segmented between two historic events.

“I was expecting the shutdown, because I was coming back from Arizona and they were already shutting everything down,” Boutte said.

He got about half of the first panel knocked out before the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Then we got the stay-at-home order and I couldn’t be on-site anymore,” he said. “I was stuck in the house for two months, but getting back into that motion wasn’t too hard because I stayed busy throughout the shutdown as well.”

When he returned, he was greeted with the sweltering sun. The wall is fully exposed to rising sun and he spent roughly 13-hours every day, painting.

“He did the whole thing freehand, that’s rare that you see that,” said Kimberly Braud, Mural Arts Program Coordinator for The Walls Project. “Sometimes artists come out with projectors and they put their design on the wall first, but no, he came out here and just drew it and he guessed the proportions and got them right.

Boutte did have a plan. He downloaded an image of the building from Google and drew his design on paper first. The image and concept had to be vetted by the sponsors.

“This is part of our One Rouge series. We’re doing nine murals, this is the third,” Braud explained. “One Rouge is our 9-mural series that draws attention to the 9 drivers that are keeping Baton Rouge in poverty. Our intention for this series is to make people aware of the issues at hand and start up a conversation about what we can do to change.”

The Walls Project launched in 2012 with the simply, yet lofty goal of bringing some aesthetic change Baton Rouge by providing artists the opportunity to install murals around the city.

“Since then we have grown into an organization that works with underserved youth teaching them computer coding, photography, giving them professional development training,” said Braud. “We grow fresh food for the 70805 zip code and we’re working to fight the food insecurity issue, as well as community reactivation program where we clean up neighborhoods, paint murals to revitalize the community.”

Revitalization of Old South Baton Rouge has been a goal for decades, but recent years have proved particularly active from developers such as Anthony Kimble, who is the owner of the property.

“For years, there have been a lot of different plans for that area proposed from a lot of different groups. It’s really time for us to execute these plans,” Kimble said during an interview about his recent property acquisitions.

The Pearl Beer building is located at 1419 Julia Street.
The Pearl Beer building is located at 1419 Julia Street.(Samantha Morgan | WAFB)

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Kimble hopes to bring more affordable rental properties to the area. He is in the process of renovating the old Pearl Beer building, which is located a stone's throw from the mural.

“Coming out of this COVID-19 situation, you’re going to see people potentially lose their homes, so I think that we’re going to keep the quality housing but make sure it’s affordable,” he said. “The housing gap is going to continue to grow.”

Old South Baton Rouge is one of many areas struggling to bring hope to those struggling in poverty. Those who live in the community want to make sure that its revitalization will not come at their expense.

“He [Anthony] talks to the people in the community and he interacts with people in the community,” said Brittany Zeno, co-founder of the Old South Baton Rouge Economic Redevelopment Group. “He’s genuine with what he’s doing. He could have just painted the building white and called it a day, but he teamed up with the Walls Project to incorporate the culture of the neighborhood, which I think is a wonderful thing.”

When segregation divided the city, Old South Baton Rouge was the cultural hub of the African American.

“At one time old south was a place where you didn’t have to leave to get things,” Zeno explained. “You could get everything you needed in the neighborhood.”

The years directly following desegregation proved painful for the Old South community. The construction of the interstate divided the neighborhood, choking out businesses. More than 400 homes would be demolished to make way for zooming cars.

The practice of redlining caused further destruction to the neighborhood's economy. As time went by, the area fell away from being a cultural hub and became marred with the stigma of crime.

All of this is represented in the mural.

“I feel like more people are becoming aware of things they were never aware of,” said Braud. “And so now is the perfect time to have those conversations.”

“It’s really just timely that all of this has come back around,” Boutte said when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, which was reignited after he returned to working on the mural.

When asked what he hopes the viewer will take away from his work he said two simple words, “get active.”

“People ask what they can do, but you can just Google what’s going on, everyone has a website, and get involved. That’s really all you can do. That’s all I can ask you to do.”

The next course of action for the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood is the establishment of the area as a historical district.

“We are seeking to have the area on the national registry of historic places,” Zeno explained. “We applied and was awarded a grant for the first phase of the project.”

That includes conducting a survey of those in the neighborhood.

“We know what was there, we want to make sure our children will enjoy those activities and we’re working as hard as we are working to make sure these are stories that can be passed down for years to come.”

The mural is now part of that story, and hopefully the final panel representing the future of the area, will prove prophetic.

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