Drexel Stewart’s Barber Street home, one of three in the Valley Park neighborhood of Baton Rouge that qualified for minor repairs under a federal grant, was the first house on the street. Back in 1949, Stewart didn’t have electricity, gas or water.
“The bathroom was outside and I used butane to cook,” Stewart, 87, said Monday morning outside the home he built 64 years ago.
One of Baton Rouge’s lower-income neighborhoods, Valley Park is punctuated with overgrown weeds, dilapidated houses and faded graffiti.
Using federal grant money aimed at beautification, Mayor-President Kip Holden created Operation Restore Pride after taking office in 2006 in an effort to clean up distressed neighborhoods. Crews began such work in the Valley Park neighborhood Monday.
Holden broke the city-parish into eight regions, and the ZIP codes with the lowest incomes were chosen for the program. The first neighborhood to get help from Operation Restore Pride was Zion City in 2006. After that, Brookstown, Eden Park and Melrose East all received program help.
Holden held a news conference Monday morning in front of the New Gideon Baptist Church on Balis Drive in the middle of Valley Park to kick off a week of sprucing-up work to be completed in the neighborhood by the end of the week.
Holden said beautification becomes a public safety issue in a blighted neighborhood, whether the distressed neighborhood attracts mosquitoes and rodents or drug dealers breaking the law.
Stewart spent some time Monday recalling what it was like to live in Valley Park in the 1940s while four city-parish Office of Community Development employees painted his house a light gray.
Stewart’s neighborhood doesn’t look like it did in the years right after World War II.
Stewart also said drug dealing is commonplace in the neighborhood.
“There are drugs all over. I see it all the time. When you see so many cars all going to just one house, you can bet that it’s (drug dealing) going on,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s home is one of three owned by Valley Park seniors that financially qualified to have some minor work done this week as part of the program.
“It’s wonderful,” Stewart said of the beautification efforts in Valley Park as well as the new coat of paint his house was getting.
“I can’t do it. And I can’t pay someone to do it. When you just live off your Social Security, it’s hard,” Stewart said.
Holden called the smiles and thanks he gets from residents “priceless.”
“Some of these people haven’t been able to afford to get work done to their homes since Hurricane Katrina,” Holden said.
“You just can’t let people live in squalor,” Holden said. In addition to cutting overgrown lots, removing abandoned vehicles and cleaning up graffiti, the Baton Rouge Fire Department handed out fire alarms.