Life Support Needed : Where’s our Heartbeat?

Hometown Heroes | Gina Danos
July 1, 2022
Hometown Heroes | South Louisiana Veterans Outreach
July 1, 2022

Anyone remember the song “Downtown” from 1964? For some reason, I started humming it while I was researching this story. Now, I wasn’t born until 1980 and music trivia isn’t my thing, so I looked up the lyrics to see if it could help get the song out of my head. Instead, what I found just made me think a little bit deeper. 

The lyrics call to mind the downtown area of a big city. Any big city, really, maybe even Houma. 


Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty

How can you lose?


The light’s so much brighter there

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown


Things will be great when you’re

Downtown

No finer place for sure



Downtown

Everything’s waiting for you 

“No finer place for sure”… I take it back. They can’t be writing about the downtown Houma of today. Especially not the one I’m looking out the window at as I write this. 



“Everything’s waiting for you.” For only being in my 40s, I can recall times in my past where you really could come downtown for everything. I can remember shopping at Barbara’s Youth Shop, Dupont’s, and Earl Williams. I remember buying gifts at Fakier’s, who is thankfully still downtown. I remember walking in the backdoor at Saadi’s and hoping they had cookies in the ever present tin on the back table. More recently, I can remember restaurants such as the Lunch Basket, BJ’s Coffee Shop, Parrot’s, Tab’s Lagniappe Cafe, Clare’s Cafe and La Poste. The list just goes on of “ain’t dere no more” as we recall “the good old days” that aren’t that long ago. 

Life is a little bit different now in downtown Houma. What I see out my window is not the same as it was just in my lifetime. I see blight. I see struggle. I see an area that I am not proud of. The businesses that we currently have downtown are amazing and brave. But will they “make it”? Do people want to come downtown? What’s keeping the merchants and the customers away? And how can we fix it? 

A Lesson on Apathy



Let me introduce you to a word I think describes the downtown problems perfectly: apathy. 

Apathy is defined as “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern”, “feeling indifferent or lacking emotion.” 

Jeff Siegler, a civic pride consultant that runs Revitalize or Die, shares his thoughts in a blog post called “F**k Apathy”: “Apathy destroys communities. The simple act of not caring is all it takes to lead you down the path of rampant disinvestment and a rash of other social problems. The road to apathy is paved with declining standards.”



He makes many more solid points in this post. It’s not something that happens overnight. It took some time falling down that slippery slope to ease into the disrepair we are now facing. Ordinances being ignored. Blight not being cleaned. Litter gathering in the streets. Repairs not being made. Blame being cast. 

And all the while, apathy begins to take hold.

Siegler continues, “Apathy has made its way into our cities, and it calls downtown home. It’s apparent just upon looking, that most downtowns were built with very high standards in mind. That is why they all are constructed with quality materials, have a consistent appearance and stand the test of time. It is only in lowering our standards over the years that we have fostered blight. At some point, someone made a decision to no longer uphold the standard.” 


Sound familiar? 

So how do we battle back against apathy? How do we make people care? How do we make people take notice of what is happening in downtown Houma? How can we even begin to right this ship? 

A friend mentioned to me that as infectious as apathy is, positive action is more so. 



I Wish This Was…

Grassroots efforts are often a solution to larger problems. When you can’t seem to get the ear of the government, get the ear of the people. Over the years, several LLCs have been formed to help with the care of downtown Houma. More recently, one group has stepped up to the plate to take a swing at the ongoing issues plaguing downtown. 

Enter the Hache Grant Association. The purpose of the Hache Grant Association is to fund specific, measurable, and actionable revitalization initiatives that will enhance the quality of life in Terrebonne Parish. Through multiple fundraising events, the organization has raised the money to take on their first project: The Bandstand. Once upon a time, a gorgeous bandstand existed in the downtown Houma area. It was a gathering spot for our community to listen to music, speakers, and more. The new bandstand  will be located on the corner of Church Street and Main Street, in the front corner of the grassy area of the Courthouse. In partnership with the Houma Downtown Development Corporation and Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, once the bandstand is built, it will be turned over to the Parish. The groundbreaking for this project was held in June. 



The Hache Grant Association recently started another project, a form of crowdsourcing, when they placed large signs in front of local properties, asking what the public wished it would be. 

‘I wish this was_’ was inspired by a New Orleans artist, Candy Chang, who posted thousands of ‘I wish this was_’ stickers on vacant New Orleans buildings to inspire growth and give residents voices to better the area. The experiment led to creative ideas and gave an idea of what specific areas were needed. Hache Grant thought this idea would be perfect for downtown to get a positive conversation going.

Instead of putting the stickers directly onto the buildings, Hache Grant made sign boards and placed them by vacant and blighted downtown properties so the public could share what they thought would be neat in the once-bustling downtown area. However, the signs were removed within hours.



The Hache Grant Association wasn’t wholly deterred – they moved forward with the campaign, just in a different way, pushing the importance of giving people a positive voice to revitalize an area that once was the center of Houma. Pictures of buildings and spaces downtown were posted to their Facebook page and the public was encouraged to finish the sentence, ‘I wish this was_.”

“The purpose of this experiment is positivity and to perhaps invigorate business owners and future investors with ideas from the public about what people would like to see,” Hache Grant President Noah Lirette said. “It’s a way to crowdsource a vision to revitalize downtown. It’s a perfect time because the apathy is starting to take hold downtown. It has been a problem for a while and the hurricane just highlighted it,” he said. “The longer apathy takes hold, the stronger it gets, and the harder it is to fight, so this is a conversation starter.”

While they have opened the door for others to offer their specific ideas on certain properties, the board of volunteers for Hache Grant also has their own wishlist for downtown Houma. More than just this needs to be that, they envision a functional living space where families are welcome and fun abounds. 



“I think our downtown already has a base of what I would like to see but it’s gonna take a lot to get it finished,” shared Manny Merlos, executive director for Hache Grant. “It needs to be somewhere that you can bring your kids and your family; where you don’t have to leave and go to New Orleans or Baton Rouge or Thibodaux or wherever. Start at one end of downtown, walk down the boardwalk along the bayou, go into a restaurant, eat dinner, watch a live concert, and have drinks. You can bring the family to grab a pizza or stop and get a shrimp po boy or whatever you want and listen to Waylon Thibodeaux at the same time. That’s what south Louisiana is all about.” 

Jason Bergeron, treasurer, commented on living downtown and accessibility, “I’d love it to be commercial at the bottom and residential above in most all of the areas, with opportunity for parking behind. I’d love to see more foot traffic. I live right there [downtown] and my stepson is now in a wheelchair. To try and get him from my house to downtown is almost impossible, with the curbs being so high. We have to do better. Also, I think as a big picture, we need to be more interested in the aesthetics as we plan our town. Care about what you’re building and what it looks like, and how it matches up with what’s around you.”

We need a Heartbeat 


Every great idea starts with one little spark. A spark of energy that drives forces together to accomplish a common goal. For most people, it can be as simple as establishing your “why.” Why is this important to you? Why do you care? Why should others care? 

For every individual, your draw to Main Street and to downtown Houma is different, maybe even personal. Lirette offered his take on those very questions. 

“A town’s main street, I don’t care if it’s Houma or wherever it is, is a direct connection to their culture, to their history, to everything about that town. The reason why Main Street [in Houma] is where it’s at, is because that’s where everything was happening at one point in time. When you look at some of the problems Houma is facing with eroding culture and a northern migration, that’s a symptom of us losing touch with who we are. And you can bet if we let our main street just continue to fall apart, we’re gonna lose a sense of who we are. And with that, goes our competitive advantage to drawing people here, the secret sauce to what makes Houma, Houma, and what makes people want to come visit. Without a town’s main street, a thriving main street, you’re just going to have cookie cutter, big box stuff; no culture, no reason for anybody to visit no for anybody to stay. Everybody should have vested interest in preserving Main Street because it’s the heart of the town. And if it dies, the rest of the town will die.” 


Daniel Babin, board member, offered up this relatable reason: “It’s as simple as I want to leave this place better than I found it. I want my kids to be excited. Then when they go to college, they want to come back here because they remember all the cool stuff they did and how awesome it was to be raised here.” 

 

So where do we go from here? 

“Right now, there’s a real lack of hope,” expressed Lirette. “I think everybody should be reminded that it doesn’t take a huge action to make things change. It takes a lot of little things. If the Rotary Clubs, Keep Terrebonne Beautiful, Market at the Marina, the Chamber, Houma CVB – if we all start doing these little things on our own, we’re still together. That’s what change takes. And moreover, when those little things start happening, the parish and everybody else sees that people care and people want to be down here. And that creates incentive on that level to do something as well.”



“It cannot get worse than this,” stated Lirette’s wife, and secretary of Hache Grant, Dr. Natalie Lirette. “I hope that this is as depressing as it’s gonna get. And one day we live to tell our children about how bad it was, and for them to look around at the new downtown and say ‘man, I can’t imagine when things were that bad off.’” 

The conversation gently shifted to the idea of bringing hope to a community that is searching desperately for some light at the end of the tunnel. 

“We have to give people hope,” shared Merlos. “It starts the conversation. It gives everybody the encouragement to look at it. And it kind of gives everybody a voice. And that’s the biggest thing. It starts a conversation that sparks an idea. It gives somebody the ability, ability to say, you know what? That is actually a good idea. I could probably pull that off. Now, maybe it doesn’t happen. But there’s still hope in that.” 



Merlos continued, “You gotta realize that we’re not a big town. The census showed that people are moving away. We’re a small town and you need to focus on that heartbeat, your downtown, your main street area. For too long we focused on growth and bringing big box stores out along Martin Luther King. We have to redirect that energy back into downtown. We have to focus on what makes our community unique. You can go to a Target or a Home Depot anywhere. We need to stay true to our identity.”  

Moving forward, we need to focus on quality of life and the part that having a thriving downtown plays in that equation. 

“I think that what we consider quality of life downtown is different than, say, down the bayou,” shared Bergeron. “And my question is, what quality life issues do we face as a community as a whole and how do we wanna fix it? Because if people are worried about the quality of life issues in their own area, do they have time to deal with downtown? But without that here, why will people choose to live and shop downtown. If I’m gonna be here, I want it to be better. And if it gets better here, that small pebble in the pond will push out the ripples to make it better everywhere.”



At the end of the day, my conversation and writing this article left me inspired and hopeful. Change will not come overnight, but the conversations have started. 

Lirette closed out the conversation with his final thoughts: “The main thing is apathy. All these things that people see and say that we have to fix, they can’t really be fixed until the root cause is fixed. Crime. Blight. Litter. All these are all symptoms to a disease. It’s a lack of pride. It’s a lack of responsibility. It’s a lack of accountability. And the people need to be inspired now by our government leading by example; by community members stepping up and taking the reins and paving that road. We’re only going to get better the same way we got sick–over time. It’s gonna take time. It’s gonna be incremental. It doesn’t have to be this grand action. It’s little things working together. It’s going to create hope.”