Volunteer group works to clean up banks of University and City Park lakes
A former congressman and a retired nuclear power plant parts salesman launched a campaign 14 months ago to clear the banks of University and City Park lakes of brush, vines, weeds and trash trees.
Next, the giant water plants in a cove at Stanford Avenue and South Lakeshore Drive.
Former U.S. Rep. Henson Moore and former “primary seal salesman” Parry “Matt” Thomas started a lake brigade dedicated to making it easier for motorists, bicyclists, walkers and runners to not just enjoy the view but to see it, too.
If the not-exclusive club had a secret saying, it might be, “Where’s the rest of May Street?”
Or, “What’s the name of the little beach park between University and City Park lakes?”
The answer to the second question is the May Street Beach. That would be the part of May Street that connects Lakeshore Drive to Dalrymple across the causeway that separates the two lakes.
The sandy part of the park is commonly called May Street Beach.
The rest of May Street is with the other months-of-the-year streets — March, April, June and July — on the other side of Dalrymple.
“Henson Moore started this three years ago,” Thomas said. “He talked to the city, LSU and BREC for three years about cleaning up just the parking area on May Street” where May Street joins East Lakeshore.
Thomas said someone in the office of Metro Council member Tara Wicker told the former congressman that if he wanted to cut weeds on the lake’s banks to have at it.
“That person doesn’t work in Tara Wicker’s office anymore,” Thomas said.
Wicker called to apologize and followed up by joining the brush brigade with her husband one rainy day, Thomas said.
Wicker has remained a steady ally, he said.
“It was funny,” Moore said. “I told this young woman (in Wicker’s office) that I wanted to see about getting the land deeded to BREC.”
The land is an unofficial, strip parking space on the May Street causeway near Lakeshore Drive.
“I asked for Mrs. Wicker,” Moore said. “I told the young woman why I was calling. She said, ‘We don’t do parks. Call BREC.’
“She was just young and didn’t know the political thing to say,” Moore said. “I’m sure she didn’t lose her job because of it. I hope she didn’t.”
“Our biggest challenge,” Thomas said, “is when we clean a bank we need someone to pick up the brush. For six months, I begged this guy at the Department of Public Works once a week.”
Pickups began picking up after Wicker’s office called DPW, Thomas said.
Piles of debris can be 30 feet long and 6 feet high, Thomas said. He estimates the work of 40 volunteers has resulted in 30 grabber truck loads the past year.
Over the years, homeowners on the lakes have tried without success to find out who’s responsible for keeping the banks clear, Moore said.
“I met with Ray Lamonica, LSU’s attorney, about making that little parking place on May Street a pocket park,” Moore said.
“I got some friends and we worked on that little place for two or three weeks. It seemed dangerous, and it looked nasty.
“Walter Monsour (then in the Mayor’s Office) referred us to this young guy in DPW. He told us they’d keep it clean, and they never did.
“I asked Ray who owned what. Ray did some research and sent me the material.”
The LSU campus is on a former plantation that backed up to a swamp, Moore said. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration turned swamp into lakes.
“LSU owns land up to a certain altitude level,” said Moore, who grew up on Myrtledale Avenue. “That’s just about where the water meets the bank,” he said.
“The university owns the lake bottom up to the bank,” Moore said. “Above the waterline belongs to DPW, and DPW does nothing to keep it clean. I think BREC does a good job of keeping up the banks where they have parks.”
William Daniel knows the lake bank maintenance problem well, first as president of the Lakeshore Civic Association in the mid-1990s and, now, as director of DPW.
“We pick up trash regularly,” he said. “It’s depressing how much trash is thrown out there.”
Keeping the banks mowed wasn’t the big issue when he was president of the Lakeshore homeowner’s group, Daniel said.
“We were more concerned with crime and litter. We wanted the trash cans (litter barrels) around the lake emptied more. But it wasn’t so much litter as it was crime.”
David Guillory, DPW’s chief operating engineer, said, “There’s a bit of confusion about who owns the lakes.”
When dredging the shallow lakes or collecting litter come up, it’s the city, LSU, BREC and the U.S. Corps of Engineers at the meeting table, Guillory said.
“What public works does is we mow the areas that are mowable around both lakes,” he said. “LSU does some mowing. But we do Dalrymple and the large grassy areas. We don’t do the banks. Really, we’ve never done the banks.”
“The mayor is serious about beautification,” Guillory said. “If they need help, they can call us.”
When the lakes brigade holds “meetings” on the banks, they sometimes put up a sign telling passersby what’s going on. The sign has brought help from high school and undergraduate students, graduate students and professors from foreign countries, walkers, joggers and bicyclists.
But it’s Thomas and a few other stalwarts who do most of the work on, so far, 1.5 miles of bank.
Moore’s morning walks with his dog took him to what he calls the “pocket park” along the stretch of May Street that crosses the causeway. During the terror occasioned by murders attributed to convicted serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, the banks were kept clear to rob muggers of hiding places, Thomas said.
“I don’t know who did the clearing,” he said.
Moore’s idea was to improve parking at the unofficial parking place near a foot bridge on the causeway.
“We want to put benches there,” Thomas said.
The more pedestrians, picnickers and bench sitters, the fewer the bad guys, Moore thought.
“Henson drafted me,” Thomas said. “I used to walk the lakes picking up trash. You go for a walk with a trash bag in your back pocket; it’s kinda hard to say if you’re going walking or going to pick up trash.”
Like many Baton Rougeans, entrepreneur Hampton Stewart, whose current project is starting a rum distillery, has circled the lakes on foot or bicycle thousands of times.
“I was jogging one day and saw their sign,” he said.
“I’ve been running and cycling the lakes for 30 years,” Stewart said. “I think they’re beautiful, but the banks need clearing. The sign said they needed help.”
Stewart regularly joins Thomas and the others to keep the banks shorn of tall grass and small trash trees.
“We haven’t seen a snake or an alligator in 14 months,” Thomas said. “We saw a big — A BIG — hornets’ nest near George Jones’ house, but we took care of it.”
Poison ivy is the biggest cause of casualty, he said.
Some of the volunteers, as many as a third of them, don’t live in Baton Rouge. They’re tennis players, drafted by tennis player Thomas, and come from Port Allen, Maringouin and Plaquemine.
One cleanup session came courtesy of the University of Florida Alumni Association.
“We needed a service day,” said Thomas, president of the alumni group.
As much as the lake brigade would like more help from the city, LSU and BREC, members don’t spend their time together cursing the people they think should be responsible for mowing the banks.
“I don’t get upset with the people who I think should be doing this work,” Thomas said. “I don’t mind doing the work. I just wish we could get the debris picked up without calling every week.”
The lakes are what visitors to Baton Rouge see, said dentist and lake bank cleaner Mark Garon.
Garon lives on East Lakeshore but grew up on Cedardale which is Thomas’ street.
“Out-of-town football fans can’t see the lake for the brush,” Garon said.
That would be the banks NOT policed by the brigade which has cleaned the lakeside from May Street to Stanford Avenue.
“If we had someone with a tractor mower,” Garon said, “we could really do something.”
“Mark’s got a good weed trimmer and a chain saw on the end of a 20-foot pole,” Thomas said.
“I thought it was me you recruited,” the dentist said.
Thomas recalled the work of John Jett, who died suddenly at the age of 64, not long after he retired.
Jett didn’t live on the lakes, but he visited a friend who did, Thomas said.
Cleaning the banks affords a better view of the lakes, also a great look at the giant water plants that are slowly filling coves.
Again, it’s a problem of jurisdiction, Thomas said, but Wildlife and Fisheries sent an agent to assess the situation.
Wait until spring, the agent told Thomas. Whether chemicals are used to kill the water plants or the plants are dredged, tons of dead plant matter can’t be left to rot in the lake without starving the water and fish of oxygen.
The volunteers would like to start removing water plants, now, but need help hauling the plant mass to a disposal place, Thomas said.
“We’re keeping the banks clear so they’ll have a place to pile the plants,” he said. “Most of it is American lotus with some kind of (water) lettuce in addition,” he said.
American lotus is often mistaken for water lily.
“Homeowners have been gracious,” Thomas said, “and walkers come up to thank us.”
A critic in the form of a bicycle rider fussed about an oil can and the gasoline can for Garon’s chain saw being partially on the sidewalk, Garon laughed.
Peggy Bueche, a retired state Department of Transportation and Development manager, has done her share of debris hauling, brush cutting, vine pulling, weed yanking and poison ivy avoiding.
“I feel like I’m contributing to something good,” she said. “I’m just one of the guys.”
“The Lakeshore Civic Association has done next to nothing to support Matt Thomas and the volunteers,” said George Bayhi, president of the civic association. “We’re grateful, and we’ve recognized them at a civic association get-together. Matt’s house isn’t even in the civic association area.”
For more information on the lake brigade’s work, call (225) 485-6818 or email email@example.com.