The Lake Charles Doughnut
No, Lake Charles isn’t literally a doughnut. It’s just a metaphor. A delicious, fatty pastry metaphor for economic development. Or the lack thereof.
“Doughnut city” is a term used to describe the effect on the shape of a city when most of the economic development is concentrated along the “ring roads” of the place. Basically, what it means is that there’s a big hole left in the oldest part of the city as development continues to push outward. All of the new stuff being built makes up the rich, greasy goodness of the doughnut itself, while the downtown area (typically the older part of any city) is the empty hole in the middle.
“But Lake Charles has a great downtown!” I hear you cry. And you’re right. The city – like most cities – has gone to great lengths to revitalize our downtown. Nobody wants to be a doughnut city, because Houston is a doughnut city and it’s just awful. Actually, it’s more like what would happen if Willy Wonka ever made an Everlasting Gobstopper into a doughnut, because of how many layers of doughnut it has.
Houston first became a doughnut city back in the ’60s and ’70s, when the 610 Loop was constructed. All the development started happening around the loop, and the downtown area stagnated. The next ring in the gobstopper doughnut came with Beltway 8, which pushed development out further. Now it has the Grand Parkway, and it’s all happening again. There are currently over 40 “edge cities” to Houston, which are all those little towns like Spring and Friendswood and I can’t remember any more because it’s all just Houston to me.
Traffic is a nightmare, every place in the city looks like every other place in the city, and it’s all just one big mess of suburban sprawl and chain stores.
Lake Charles isn’t like that. For starters, we’re not that big yet. Also, our city leaders threw a lot of money at developing our downtown area early, and they did it smartly. A lot of cities have tried the same thing and failed, because they tried to turn their downtowns into something they never were. (A good example of this would be Beaumont’s stab at revitalizing their downtown with the Crockett Street Entertainment District that never quite managed to become the New Orleans French Quarter they’d hoped it would.)
Still other cities have revitalized their downtowns only by removing everything that made them unique and local to the area. Gentrification is what they call it, and it’s when new money comes in and sanitizes and middle-classes up the joint. The quirky restaurants get replaced with McDonald’s and Subway, the odd antique shop becomes an Old Navy or some trendy hipster joint, and everything that was special about the area gets lost in the homogenization. But that didn’t happen in Lake Charles. Downtown still feels unique and weird and wonderful, and our city planners deserve a lot of credit for that.
Don’t get me wrong. I like chicken nuggets and foot long sammiches as much as the next guy, but I also love a good gumbo and can absolutely murder a plate of rice and gravy. Some things, you can only get from local restaurants owned by local people, employing local residents. And our downtown area is filled with local places, with a couple of chains, just to even things out. Which is good. I love our downtown.
So if Lake Charles isn’t a doughnut, then why am I calling it one? Because it’s still a doughnut. We’ve just stuck a Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin in the middle and called it a day, but it’s still a doughnut and there’s still a hole. Only now it’s more of a ring.
While our downtown area is thriving, almost all new development is still happening along and south of the 210 loop, which means there’s still a ring of nothing between the rich, creamy center of the Downtown Munchkin and the greasy, sugary goodness of the 210 Doughnut.
That void is North Lake Charles, and it’s made up of all the homes and buildings that weren’t quite close enough to downtown to benefit from its revitalization, but are too far away from 210 to reap any of the new development dollars.
This is the new doughnut city, and it’s entirely predictable.
There are a lot of reasons why development always tends to happen in the newest parts of a city, farther and father away from the oldest parts – and it’s almost entirely unique to America. In Europe, the oldest parts of a city tend to be the most prized and highly valued, precisely because they’re older. But here in the states, things are a little different – and it’s mostly down to something else that’s painfully American and I’ll probably make a lot of people mad just for mentioning it, but it’s true and we need to acknowledge it.
Yeah, I know. It’s an ugly term for a common phenomenon, but it’s not wrong. Here’s a map of the racial demographics of Lake Charles, based on 2010 census data. All of the blue dots are white people. All of the other dots aren’t. The rest is pretty self-evident.
Now, I’d rather say that this divide is more down to socioeconomics than race, but in today’s world, they go hand-in-hand. The hard truth is that people of color have historically made less money than white people – and I’ll let you guys argue over the reasons for why that still happens. But please keep it civil, because it’s a touchy subject.
Or we could not fight over race relations at all, and instead try to find solutions to the problem that everyone can benefit from. Nobody wants an economic desert between 210 and the downtown oasis, just because everyone with the money to do so is moving farther away from the center of town. We all want a vibrant, thriving city filled with unique local flavor and great opportunities for everyone.
But in order to do that, we need to not price people out of their homes or raise commercial rent to levels that only national chains can afford. We need to stop focusing solely on developing South Lake Charles, and start encouraging growth in the older parts of town.
The free market isn’t going to fix our city without a little help. The short-sighted greed of investment capital only cares about the here and now, with little regard for the long term effects only investing in parts of the city will have. Right now, Lake Charles is in the midst of an economic boom – but a lot of people aren’t feeling it. Wages for the average worker are lower now than they were in 2005, while housing costs have gone up by more than 80% in the last decade.
Those people fortunate to earn enough to afford the newer homes in the south end of town are leaving the older parts of the city, and renting their old homes out at inflated values average people can’t afford. The empty ring between downtown and 210 will continue to get bigger and emptier, as more homes sit vacant and more local businesses shutter their doors in the face of climbing rent.
Most of the national chains that can afford to move into the newly developed areas will move there, rather than pay roughly the same amount in rent for a spot in an underdeveloped, low-income area.
And the ring grows.
So how can we fix it? I dunno, I’m just a guy typing on a keyboard for a radio station. But I think maybe the city could take bit of what it did for downtown, and spread it to a greater area – but even then, it won’t be enough. The empty ring is too big; much bigger than downtown, and with more people to worry about. Tax incentives might help; rent control certainly would, too. But mostly, it comes down to us: the people who live and work here.
Landlords needs to realize that keeping the rent affordable means people will have more money to spend in the area, and, in turn, the people need to spend that extra money locally. We all have a responsibility and an obligation to keep our city great, which means we all need to become caretakers of its future.
Businesses can’t exist without repeat customers.
Landlords can’t exist without good tenants.
Tenants can’t exist without livable wages.
We’re all living and working in the same place, in a sort of symbiotic relationship with each other. What affects one of us will have effects on all of us. When people aren’t paid a livable wage or pay most of their earnings in rent, they spend less money on other things. When that happens, the businesses that depend on them earn fewer profits. When a business earns fewer profits, it has to raise prices. And when it raises prices, even fewer people can pay them, and the business shuts down.
This is what’s happening now in Lake Charles, in that forgotten space between the old and the new. But it’s that very space which gives this city all of its character, its quirky charm, and its unique flavor. We can’t lose that just because a few people want to make a quick buck, because there will be nothing left when the boom is over.
Sure, maybe we’ll luck out and keep growing, like Houston. Maybe we’ll add more rings to our rings, and we’ll just keep pushing outward forever. Each new ring will replace the last, and the big, empty gap of economic neglect will get bigger and bigger. And then we’ll be the Houston of Louisiana.
So, um. Yay? I guess?