Natchitoches can’t look the other way on local eyesores

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The former Stonewall Hotel accommodated hundreds of African-American GI’s during World War II. Photo by Nathan Wilson

Blight actually demoralizes a community
Nathan Wilson | Reporter

Homes on some Natchitoches streets have an unwelcome neighbor, decaying and dilapidated houses. Blight is a familiar topic for metropolitan areas where years of declining population and neglect create a landscape littered with relics of former homes. Smaller cities like Natchitoches face similar issues, but are constrained by budgets hollowed out by the loss of residents at the heart of the problem.
As Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Natchitoches, Shontrell Roque is familiar with the problems that blight causes. “Blight actually demoralizes a community. When you have blight in a neighborhood, that makes people feel helpless, homeless, they’re hopeless,” she said.
Roque described condemning structures as one tool the city uses to deal with issues of blight, but notes it is typically reserved for structures identified as hazardous or irreparable. “It’s determined by the structure of the house, if the support beams have been damaged to where its no repair or if the repair is going to be costly, then we’ll recommend that the house is condemned, or if the house is burned beyond repair then that’s another reason,” she explained.

This article published in the March 17, 2022, print edition.

The process of condemning a building takes time and requires communicating with the property owner in advance of a vote by the city council. Even after a property is condemned, demolition is an expensive process and doesn’t happen right away. “We usually send out bids to different contractors to see who would do it, when they can do it, at what cost… but we can’t touch a condemnation until 30 days,” Roque said.
Along with hazardous structures, properties are condemned when the city’s building inspector determines the value of a building doesn’t justify the cost to restore it. This assessment is based on two underlying estimates: the cost of the work needed and an assessment of the structure’s value. The city council’s hearings allow property owners to contest a building’s condemnation with a range of results. Some owners use this opportunity to present their plans for rehabilitating the property, while in other cases the owners live in distant cities or are no longer living.
Blight strikes commercial districts when building owners aren’t able to find tenants to cover the cost of building maintenance. As the attractiveness of an area declines, nearby businesses suffer from lost patronage amplifying the problem. Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. has made revitalizing commercial areas along Texas and Washington streets a central part of his agenda. Described as façade improvement grants, his administration has allocated funds to beautification and code compliance projects for businesses operating in the area. His hope is to support existing businesses and draw new investment to these areas to prevent blight from taking over in two of the city’s key economic corridors.
Blight can ruin residential neighborhoods too because of the effect it has on residents. Roque described the problems involved. “If you have a home that’s next to a blighted property it brings in despair,” she said. “The value of a neighborhood can be brought down very easily because of blight. No one would want to build there, no one would actually want to live in an area that’s really blighted or where it seems as if there’s no one that cares.”
Once named Summertree Apartments, the Hopeville complex is a perennial eyesore on an otherwise picturesque section of Second Street. An icon of blight, the buildings were condemned by the city council before a last minute appeal by their out of town investor, Sterling Bank, led to the process being reversed. Residents living near the complex look upon broken windows, missing doors and vagrancy that has led members of the Kappa Alpha fraternity next door to install a fence separating the properties. Aside from hiding the decaying structure from view, they hope to deter crime. Justice Blythe stated that fraternity members were accustomed to having items stolen from vehicles each year, but the past year was worse, with someone smashing windows to get into a vehicle. “The last one that we had they were going through and breaking windows when they saw stuff in the car,” he said.
Fear of crime has frightened some members of the fraternity away from living onsite. Blythe described the qualms his members have with living in the house. “We can’t even fill (the rooms) all up because of all the stuff that goes on here. They want to live in here, but they don’t want to live in here just because of the risk that comes with it because there’s people in and out of that place all the time,” he said. “Somebody just walked in the house one night, opened the door and was yanking on this downstairs door over here, and then they looked out the window and saw an old man just walking back that way towards those apartments.”
Kappa Alpha member Landon Malmay is proud of his fraternity’s house, but wishes they didn’t have Hopeville next door. “We’re one of the only fraternities that have a house in the historic district in the US… We have that honor,” he said.
Just outside the historic district lies a former hotel that has fallen into disrepair. “They started calling it the ‘Brown Bomber’. It’s been called ‘The Stonewall Hotel’… because that’s a historical building,” said neighbor Paul Morgan. Morgan has lived next door to the former hotel for decades. He remembers when it operated, and when the city began the process of condemning it in 2018, he appealed the decision.
Morgan lacks the resources to rehabilitate the hotel alone, but he once dreamed of rallying members of his community to return it to its former glory. “My brothers and sisters and all that, we could get together and try to repair it, but see they’re all dead,” he said. For now he manages to keep the building off the city’s demolition agenda in spite of the efforts of some of his neighbors. He described vandals throwing rocks through the windows and once he found bullet holes in the siding after hearing gunfire.
Morgan hopes a new generation will take an interest, believing it would be to their benefit. “It could be a museum… not for me, because that would be for the younger people,” he said. “The hotel, it’s a lot of history.”
Morgan may have struck on something important. Recent studies on urban blight conclude that a varied approach is necessary to reverse its course, with some structures demolished and others revitalized. The same research points towards a guiding tenet: attempts to restore blighted areas must serve the needs of residents.