Photos: Operation Restore

Drexel Stewart’s Barber Street home in the Valley Park neighborhood of Baton Rouge 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 of the home he built 64 years ago.

Stewart spent some time Monday recalling what it was like to live in Valley Park in the 1940s Monday while four city-parish Office of Community Development employees painted Stewart’s house a light gray.

Stewart’s neighborhood doesn’t look like it did in the years right after World War II.

One of Baton Rouge’s lower income neighborhoods, Valley Park is punctuated with overgrown weeds, dilapidated houses, and faded graffiti.

Valley Park looks rough.

Baton Rouge neighborhoods that look rough are the targets of the city-parish’s seven-year-old Operation Restore Pride program.

Using federal grant money aimed at beautification, Mayor-President Kip Holden created the program after taking office in 2006 in an effort to clean up distressed neighborhoods.

Holden had the city-parish broken down into eight regions and the zip codes with the lowest incomes were chosen for the program. The first neighborhood in 2006 to get help from Operation Restore Pride was Zion City. 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.

When asked if ever sees drug dealers in his neighborhood, Stewart nodded.

“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 its (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 when asked about the beautification efforts in Valley Park as well as the paint job his house was getting Monday.

“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 on the program from residents such as Stewart “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.

Besides cutting overgrown lots, removing abandoned vehicles and cleaning up graffiti, the Baton Rouge Fire Department will be handing out fire alarms and showing Valley Park residents how to use them.