Understanding Plank Road: Part 1

Posted in Co-City Post

Plank Road Historical Timeline Courtesy of Studio Zewde

Co-City Baton Rouge is developing and implementing innovative institutions to transform the Plank Road Corridor (Corridor) of North Baton Rouge into a community of opportunity. By focusing on neighborhood scale governance innovation, the Co-City Baton Rouge project outcome is centered on the needs and interests of the residents of the Corridor. However, desk research alone is not enough to fully understand a city, let alone a neighborhood. Given the history of urban renewal and other planning efforts in this community, there is widespread suspicion and distrust of top-down planning processes. The Co-City protocol is the opposite, to work with residents and stakeholders to identify what they think is best for revitalizing their neighborhood and to increase their capacity to be full collaborators, not just bystanders, in their economic development.
The success of the Co-City BR is grounded in the first two phases of the Co-City cycle: Cheap Talking and Mapping. The Cheap Talk phase involves face-to-face, informal and pressure-free communication among key local actors (experts, practitioners, activists, residents) to activate the community of stakeholders that will be involved in the collaborative project. The second phase, Mapping, involves understanding the characteristics of the urban or neighborhood context through surveys and exploratory interviews, fieldwork activities, and ethnographic work. Over the last nine months the project team has been cheap talking and mapping in Plank Road to develop community redevelopment ideas into actualized projects. The next two posts will provide context for Co-City Baton Rouge with a brief history and demographics of the area which lays the foundation to understand the historic structural and institutional barriers for development in the Corridor.

A History in Brief

Baton Rouge has been inhabited since at least 8000 BC. The history of modern-day Baton Rouge goes back to 1699 during an expedition up the Mississippi River a French explorer named Sieur d’Iberville found a red-colored cypress pole (baton rouge) with bloody animals marking the boundary between tribal hunting grounds. In 1719, Baton Rouge was established as a French military outpost, then lost to the British in 1736, followed by Spanish in 1779 until 1810 to the Republic of West Florida. It was an independent republic for 74 days until the Americans in New Orleans raised the American flag, was incorporated in 1817 and became the capital of the state in 1849.

Plank Road’s history starts around 1709 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Louisiana to transform the region to grow cotton and sugar cane. To increase productivity and profits, plantation owners decided to construct a road to connect Baton Rouge to a train depot north of the city in Clinton, Louisiana. The path was constructed of wooden planks, lending itself to being called Plank Road. A more detailed history of the growth and development of Plank Road and Baton Rouge can be seen here.

Plank Road Today

A blighted property on Plank Road

Plank Road is located in the northern area Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. The Co-City Baton Rouge project area is  a 4.3 mile area along Plank Road bound by 22nd Street and the Harding Boulevard/Hooper Road intersection (the “Corridor”) but extends into the neighboring town of Zachary, LA. The Corridor oscillates between four to five lanes and has a diverse built environment.  The Corridor is bordered by mostly commercial land uses and has residential lots along the intersecting side streets that extend for several blocks in either direction. It is one of the most blighted corridors in Baton Rouge yet remains a significant anchor for the neighborhoods of North Baton Rouge.  The heart of Plank Road runs through the 70805 zip code, where many of Baton Rouge’s social and economic challenges are concentrated with respect to transit, crime, and income.

Local resident crossing Plank Road

The Corridor has the highest concentration of zero-car households and the second highest transit ridership in Baton Rouge. Although there are sidewalks, they are inconsistent and not continuous.The combination of high vehicle speeds, limited or no provisions for pedestrian or bicycle access (like crosswalks, consistent sidewalks, etc), and minimal amounts of landscaping, have contributed to the rise in pedestrian and bicycle accidents in the area and the Louisiana overall (see here and here). During my visits to the area I have seen first hand how dangerous it is to be a pedestrian trying to cross a street. 

The neighborhoods around Plank Road are predominately black and poor, a reflection of Baton Rouge’s deeply entrenched racial and spatial stratification.  70805 is 93% black and reflects the consequences of historical patterns of racial segregation and racialized poverty. The area underperforms state averages in many categories.  Its 2016 median household income is roughly $27,000 compared to $45,146 statewide. 36% of households in 70805 live below the poverty line, with almost 20% living below 50% of the poverty line (as compared statewide of 20% and 12%, respectively).  The median home value in the zip code is $86,240, well below the state average of $158,000. 55% of the residents in 70805 rent their homes, compared to 36% statewide.  

In 2014 a British Broadcasting Company (BBC) documentary titled, BBC Pop Up: Life in Baton Rouge’s most dangerous neighbourhood, profiled 70805 as one of the deadliest zip codes in America.  In 2016 Baton Rouge was ranked as the number 22 murder capital on 24/7 Wall St.’s list of America’s 25 Murder Capitals. That year, 943 violent crimes violent crimes occurred in 70805, and almost half of them occurred within 100 feet of a blighted property.

Over the past many years there has been a growing awareness of the spatial dimensions of the city’s long-standing racial divide.  Growing concerns that Baton Rouge has become a “tale of two cities” are validated by the stark divergence in the quality of place, racial composition, and social value attached to neighborhoods on either side of Florida Boulevard, the corridor considered by many to be the city’s “Mason-Dixon line.” All these factors present an unsafe and unappealing aesthetic environment for residents, visitors and merchants and where Co-City Baton Rouge intends to be part of the spiral up.

Next Post: Making Local Connections