Culture Clash: Will Luxury Living Smother the North Gate’s Flavor?

Culture Clash:
Will Luxury Living Smother the North Gate’s Flavor?

One muggy evening last summer in Paris, I stared blankly at the crowd in an after-hours Metro station. Everyone was waiting for the train: the homeless slept on benches, sweet old French ladies smiled as they held their arms tightly around their waists, sleek fashionistas waited with a hand on one hip. The RER creaked into the station over rails of spent cigarettes, the doors flew open and crowds moved in every direction. From somewhere in the fray came a guy about my age in a black t-shirt printed with a drawing of a big-nosed chef, a beacon of familiarity in the midst of the French crowd. I read the shirt’s slogan: Louie’s, Open 24 Hours. The guy wearing the shirt wasn’t an LSU student, nor was he from Baton Rouge. How and why he found the restaurant  — which is far from the interstate, poorly marked, not advertised, and not as popular as, say, IHOP — I’ll never know. All that matters is that he found it.

Such a serendipitous encounter with a greasy Baton Rouge diner isn’t entirely surprising; establishments like Louie’s, the Chimes, Inga’s, and even the Circle K have ingrained themselves almost magically into the hearts of LSU students for years. These businesses, along with several other locally owned restaurants, coffee houses, and t-shirt shops, make up the North Gate neighborhood. The neighborhood, which stretches north from campus to include State and West Chimes Streets, has only been known as the North Gate in recent years. Our parents called the area Tiger Town and can remember when the Varsity Theatre was a cinema and you could fill your tank at Deaf Valley Shell at 36 cents per gallon. It was the first area to be developed after LSU moved to its current location from downtown, and the North Gate remains Baton Rouge’s second oldest business district. Few leave LSU without having attended a Carlotta Street Halloween party — a 30-year North Gate tradition — or eaten a burger from Roul’s.  Nearly everyone has a fond memory of the North Gate.

When I was five years old, my Dad drove two of my friends and me across the swamp from Lafayette to see the Ninja Turtles — who, for some reason, were making music at that point — perform a live show at the Baton Rouge Centroplex (now the River Center).  My friends and I were all geared up in Ninja Turtles t-shirts and face paint as my dad escorted us into Louie’s Café before the show. The cook, presumably amused at the sight of a balding, middle aged man accompanied by a trio of deranged children, asked us where we were headed.  “Ninja Turtles!” we all erupted (well, all of us except my dad). We sat at the bar so we could watch the slow steam of hash browns and the soft bubble of fried eggs.  When my order slid across the countertop, I shrieked in delight: the cook had fashioned my pancakes into the shape of a Ninja Turtle.
Louie’s owner Jimmy Wetherford laughed when I told him this story. I’m sure that I am not alone in fondly remembering my first Louie’s meal, nor am I the only person to revel in the courtyard at Highland Coffees on a mild spring afternoon, or the only one to wait impatiently in the ever-growing line at Inga’s only to have Inga herself call me “Baby” as she takes my order. “A locally-owned business will always cater to their clientele better than a national chain,” Wetherford, who has owned Louie’s for 28 years, told me. “You’re not gonna find that in many places. You’re not gonna find that in a mall.”
However, The North Gate of LSU is experiencing something of a renaissance as of late.  “12 years ago it was quite a different place,” Wetherford said. “It had reached a fairly low point. There were businesses that were not very well run, it was somewhat of a more dangerous place. But that’s changed.” LSU has announced plans to install pedestrian-level lighting and new walkways on the northern border of campus along West Chimes Street.  But more frightening to some North Gate residents is the installation of new deluxe apartment buildings at the northeastern and northwestern boundaries of the neighborhood.  These apartments serve as the bookends of a vacant lot that was once the University Shopping Center, home of Chelsea’s, Inga’s Subs and Salads, Saigon, Roly Poly, and the Co-Op Book Store.  Known as The Venue at North Gate and University House at Highland, the new buildings have been viewed suspiciously by residents of the North Gate, which has become well known for its artsy, laissez-faire atmosphere and welcoming attitude. A Facebook group called “Students Opposed to the North Gate Becoming the South Gate,” a reference to the new corporate feel of the campus’ southern end, boasts 150 members.
At first glance, these fears aren’t unfounded. The Venue and UH are both gleaming towers of stucco whose amenities — free tanning salons, flat-panel TVs — don’t fit in with the outdoor couches and faded band posters of State Street. The Venue is even constructed so that its residents do not have to interact with the neighborhood; the vast majority of The Venue parking is nestled within or behind the main buildings, meaning the discerning student never has to walk down State Street. University House, too, feels secluded from the rest of Highland Road, its residents lost in stucco valleys.
Gabe and Elizabeth Harvey, two members of the family that owns the Storyville clothing boutique on West Chimes Street, are among the North Gate residents who fear for the district’s cultural future. “We’re at a critical point,” said Elizabeth. “The high rises are starting to get closer and closer to campus,” her brother agreed, “This area along East and West Chimes and State Street is in danger of being developed in ways that it hasn’t been before.”
The nightmare that the Harveys envision is a North Gate where “only huge corporate entities stand,” Elizabeth said. “When that happens, the unique North Gate culture, which is already dwindling, will be completely lost.”
The Harveys’ worry is present not just in their voices; the company’s website features a maroon shirt with the legend “Save Chimes Street” dashed across its front, a battle rag in what the Harveys, and many residents of the North Gate, see as a culture war.
College neatly sorts and divides us at a time when we should be learning to communicate with people who don’t look exactly like us — the enormity of a school like LSU allows students to fall quickly into their own social circles that may not have existed in high school. When these comfortable boundaries are threatened, we bristle. The two worlds of the North Gate neighborhood — high rise apartments and low-rent duplexes — are hard to span.

Aguepo “Pipo” Delgado rode a bicycle from Sarasota Springs, Florida, to Baton Rouge in the spring of 2006.  He had nowhere to stay and everything he owned was stuffed into a little trailer that he pulled behind his bike for 750 miles.  I met him in front of the Circle K on State Street on Cinco de Mayo  as he was panhandling for dinner money. I bought him a bag of popcorn and said goodbye, thinking I’d never see him again. When I ran into him at Highland Coffees this past June, he had just returned from a two-month road trip up the East Coast.  He was going to leave forever but had decided to come back to Baton Rouge, to the North Gate.

The sheer existence of hippies isn’t what makes the North Gate special.  It’s the spirit of acceptance that pulled Pipo Delgado in from the highway, the same spirit that accepts a bar next door to a church next door to another bar. This is something that runs deeper than the buildings we live in or the places we frequent; it’s what inside our buildings that matter.
This spirit isn’t likely to vanish, according to Clarke Cadzow and Tim Hood, owners of Highland Coffees and The Chimes, respectively.  In fact, little has changed since the 1960s, when the area picked up a couple of alternative bars.  “Families started leaving and students started moving into the neighborhood,” Hood told me.  The North Gate is still largely comprised of businesses owned by Louisianans (Smoothie King is based in Kenner and Raising Cane’s got its start on the corner of Highland and State).
Cadzow believes the new apartments will have little effect on the pulse of the area.  “If people choose to live in these apartments, it’s because they like the neighborhood, in part.  It’s not just because [the apartments are] close to campus,” he said. There are plenty of apartments on the South side of campus that are just as nice as the Venue and University House; University House even owns property on Burbank Drive, just south of Tigerland.  With so many options, why bother with the North Gate’s luxury apartments?
English senior Iris Davis moved into the Venue two and a half years ago. “Since my mom pays my rent, she has a big say in where I stay. The Venue appealed to her because it seemed to be very secure, but it’s really not.” Despite the Venue’s attempt to keep its residents cloistered, Davis said, a security gate has remained broken for several months.  Calls to the office have resulted in little effort to fix the gate. This should be cause for concern for parents who place their kids in luxury apartments under the impression that they are being safely guarded. Davis doesn’t mind, though, as she regularly interacts with the North Gate community. Several nights a week, she walks to the North Gate Tavern to watch local bands hash it out on stage.
North Gate Tavern is a microcosm of the neighborhood itself; random groups of people mingle more naturally there than they would on campus. On any given night, a frat mixer could be raging inside while a country band and a metal band share the stage under lazy ceiling fans on the back porch and a Major League Baseball game flickers on the bar TVs. The North Gate has fostered a spirit of tolerance since the 1960s, back when those hippie bars changed the face of the neighborhood.  It is this atmosphere that people are afraid of losing.

Cadzow (who is incredibly even-keeled for a man who makes his living selling caffeine) spent several months chronicling the history of the North Gate. “It’s always been the historical and restaurant district just off campus,” he told me, “and it’s always going to attract a certain type of person, whether it’s to visit the neighborhood, or to shop here, or even to live here.”
Thousands of people have passed through the North Gate of LSU on their way downtown, on their way out of town, on their way to their futures. Some people stop and drink a cup of coffee on the way; they grab some grilled alligator, try on a “Defend New Orleans” t-shirt or let the grease of a Mitchell omelet cure their hangover. While the appearance of the North Gate has changed, nothing has been able destroy the neighborhood’s essence of camaraderie, diversity, and acceptance.
So worry not, students: the North Gate isn’t going anywhere. It’s getting a bit of a facelift, yes, but don’t let the new makeup fool you. As long as the cooks at Louie’s dish out Ninja Turtle-shaped pancakes just to make nerdy children smile, the spirit of the North Gate will remain intact. Buildings and businesses, new and old, are minor details. As Cadzow told me, “The details change, but the spirit of the neighborhood will stay the same.”

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