Case 7: The Changing Face of Baton Rouge

By 1788 Baton Rouge had a population of 682. By 1805 the city's two oldest subdivisions, "Spanish Town" and "Beauregard Town," had been laid out. By 1811 the population was 1,463, but the unpaved and unlighted streets only had scattered, shabbily constructed buildings. The population had grown little by 1840, when a census listed only 2,269 residents. According to historian Frederick Allen, "The growth of Baton Rouge, previous to its selection as the site for state institutions, had been of the mushroom type, ill-planned, hurriedly erected, makeshift as to use, and rapidly deteriorated; there was no thought of the possibility of future usefulness."

In 1847, when the state legislature named Baton Rouge the state capital, the city sought to improve its image. The legislature, then controlled by fundamentalist Protestants, wanted to move the government out of sin city (New Orleans). The new "industry" of government brought new residents to Baton Rouge, so by 1850 the population was 3,905.

Devastated by the Civil War, Baton Rouge went into decline. In 1880 the population was only 7,197. The main area of the city was still situated between the Mississippi River, Capitol Lake, South Boulevard, and Fifth Street, with little physical expansion evident. Streets were unpaved. Finally in 1883, renewed prosperity rolled into town with the establishment of the New Orleans & Mississippi Valley Railroad, which connected the city to New Orleans.

In 1893 a municipal streetcar line circled the town. Wealthy property owner and real-estate developer Robert A. Hart, elected mayor in 1898, is credited with encouraging positive growth and civic improvements. Local property owners were persuaded to approve bond issues for a new city hall, a school, and the paving of Third and Main streets. Bond issues in 1905, 1912, and 1914 paid for more paving, the construction of a white high school and a black public school, the purchase of the old state penitentiary buildings, plus sewage and drainage works.

World War I had little effect on Baton Rouge, but an economic upturn for the city followed the war. The oil industry provided 3,000 jobs in 1917. The economy continued to grow in a positive way well into the national depression of the 1930s. Baton Rougeans came to believe that their economy was "recession-proof." World War II and its aftermath were boom times, with continued growth in the local petrochemical industry and the Port of Baton Rouge. Indeed, historian Mark Carleton named the 1940s through the 1970s "The Energetic Decades." But while Baton Rouge's communities were growing, downtown was losing its businesses to suburban malls.

City leaders remained optimistic. A 1972 comprehensive plan for Baton Rouge projected a future community for 425,000 people. In 1980 the population was around 219,000. No one predicted the devastating events that would hit the so-called "recession-proof" petrochemical industry during the decade. As the oil patch dried up a large building boom in the city faltered. Voters defeated proposals for capital improvement tax elections in 1982; in 1986 the unemployment rate soared to 10.7%. Although it was not as severely affected as the rest of the state, Baton Rouge's population declined, banks closed, and fewer building permits were issued. The current population is still only 231,000.

Beginning in 1987-88 the Baton Rouge economy improved and diversified. A new downtown development plan was presented, called "Baton Rouge 2000." Later the "Horizon Plan" was developed for the Baton Rouge area. The most recent planning effort, "PLAN Baton Rouge," focuses on revitalizing downtown. Many of the same dreams and plans to resurrect the downtown area recycle through all these programs, past and present.

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