At CenLamar, we often champion a renewed focus on Alexandria’s Downtown and inner-core neighborhoods. We believe that the national trend towards the suburbanization of the city’s outlying areas represents an unhealthy and unsustainable scenario for Alexandria. As the city’s footprint expands, citizens run the double risk of stretched public services and a greater number of people living outside of city limits, taking advantage of Alexandria’s infrastructure but avoiding the city’s taxes. By looking inwards, Alexandrians can not only invigorate the city’s existing tax base, but promote the walk-ability and attractiveness of areas like the Historic Garden District and Downtown, which originally relied on other transit means before the car became king.
Government officials of the City of Alexandria have in recent years voiced their commitment to invigorating in the inner core of our city. Our leaders have already begun to explore plentiful opportunities for joint public-private investment and grants for historical preservation, transit projects, and community development covering the area from Lower 3rd and Bayou Rapides to MacArthur Drive. Given the significant investment in our city’s western suburbs, represented most visibly by Operation Fast Track to connect Versailles Boulevard to Highway 28-W, it is consensus that much should and can be done to balance development on both the inner and outer areas of Alexandria.
There exists another reason beyond fiscal responsibility and historic preservation for Alexandria to become involved in inner-core revitalization: social justice. The term justice suggests that a wrong has occurred, and though the civil rights victories of the previous generation gave everyone an equal legal opportunity to pursue the American Dream, the structural and systemic legacy of history remains. Placing blame is counterproductive. Fortunately, the City of Alexandria is currently led by a racially-balanced government and administration that know to celebrate the richest aspects of our past without forgetting its most egregious misdeeds, to focus on the present, and to use the lessons of history to prepare for a prosperous future.
Many of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in our city exist within or near our inner-core. The current poverty of these areas is related directly to the history of the way in which our city developed. Lower 3rd is, as the name suggests, located downriver of Downtown. Lower 3rd and the Sonia Quarters flank old spurs of the railroad. Old heavy industries such as the Ruston Foundry and a steel mill were built adjacent to the neighborhoods, which existed to house these industry’s workers and their families. These areas have been facing population declines since the expansion of middle-class neighborhoods across MacArthur Drive began four decades ago, when Charles Park was first planned. Moreover, the construction of the Alexandria Mall and Jackson Street Extension diluted the economic significance of the corridors between downtown and the Garden District.
As previously discussed on CenLamar, the construction of I-49 served an increasingly suburbanized city but isolated many inner-core neighborhoods physically from Downtown Alexandria. Numerous streets were dead-ended, facilitating economic stagnation in the area. Examine the proximity of the Sonia Quarters (below) to downtown (just north) and the Ruston Foundry (due east), and the way it is completely blocked on its east side by the interstate.
Alexandria currently has the vision to make significant progress with these areas of our town. It will require examining our current traffic strategy and ways to recenter investment not only in Downtown Alexandria but along the traditional commercial corridors of Bolton Avenue and Lee Street. It will also take something I learned while working with Tibetan nonprofits in Western China: stakeholders themselves must be involved as participants and managing leaders in order to make projects successful and sustainable, because no one understands and is committed to an area more than the people who live and grew up there.
And when people don’t fit into their native home, they sometimes get the Bourgeois Blues.