The Problem With Lake Charles
I’m still pretty new around here, so I know I don’t really have any right to talk about what’s wrong with my new hometown. But I’m going to anyway, because it’s probably not what you think.
I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the internal politics of the city or surrounding area, but I’d be willing to bet they’re pretty much the same as any other city.
First, there’s probably Old Money, who make all the rules and stubbornly resist change like a small army of well-dressed donkeys.
Then there’s New Money, who probably build tacky McMansions or live in newly-built cookie cutter subdivisions and always wear the totally wrong things to fancy parties that all the Old Money people point at and laugh.
Next, there’s Regular Money and No Money, which is really just everyone who actually works for a living and are likely one flat tire away from total financial devastation.
You know, the rest of us.
Like I said, though, this is basically the same as any other city. There are always sharp divisions between the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Pretend-To-Haves. I think it all comes down to sophisticated socioeconomic principles that make my brain hurt, so I don’t want to think about them.
Instead, let me tell you what I think the problem is with Lake Charles, because before I moved to Lake Charles, I did not want to move to Lake Charles.
My Dad grew up here, so we used to visit my grandparents on occasion, but we never really did anything other than, you know, actually visit my grandparents. Growing up, all I knew about Lake Charles was that you went over a scary bridge and then spent the rest of the day drinking hot tea and talking about the olden times.
As I got older and started traveling on my own, I never gave any thought to Lake Charles. As far as I knew, it was just a place you passed through on your way to somewhere else. So when I was faced with the possibility of actually moving here, I really didn’t want to.
Can you blame me, though?
For anyone driving down I-10, there is absolutely nothing spectacular about our city. There’s the scary bridge, sure, but that’s not exactly the sort of trophy you want to leave out on the bookshelf and hope guests ask about. It’s the kind of thing you hide under the bed and pray no one notices.
Once you’re over the bridge, there’s Steamboat Bill’s (which is totally great and will probably make it into my best food in the city list I’m constantly adding to), but then there’s just an abandoned parking garage, a small motel, a Waffle House, and something called The Love Shack that I’m too embarrassed to walk into. And that’s pretty much it.
In contrast, downtown Lake Charles is wonderful. There are great restaurants, neat shops, and all sorts of stuff to walk around and see. From the painted brick signs and logos to the crazy wall mural of Cotten’s, it feels like a trip back in time. Whenever I’m downtown, I half expect to see Marty McFly wandering around, looking for his dad and skateboarding away from Biff Tannen. It’s great, and I love it.
But you can’t see downtown from I-10. From the interstate, there’s nothing about the landscape that screams “Stop here! Cool stuff ahead!” – except maybe the casinos, but all they do is tell you that you should’ve taken 210. Because there’s lots of stuff to see from the highway in that part of town.
What’s with that?
Lake Charles is growing, but it seems to me like most of that growth is happening south of 210, which is nice for new things – but what about all of the great real estate north of the loop?
The houses in north Lake Charles all have character, as do the different business buildings. Except a lot of them are abandoned.
I get investing in new businesses, but why build a brand new, boring square box when you could move into an existing building that actually has a little charm? I’d rather shop in a neighborhood than at a strip mall in an ocean of strip malls.
But maybe I’m just weird.
I drive to and from work down Common Street, where there’s an ancient Kroger from probably the Cretaceous Period or something, and it’s my store. Sure, Kroger is a national chain, but this one feels lived in. It feels real and local, and I love shopping there. So does my kid; he calls it “the ‘80s Kroger” because the pebbled storefront looks straight out of 1985. It’s probably older, but to me, it looks like my childhood.
Inside, it’s great. There are terrific deals, and a large, open floor plan with a bakery, a pharmacy, and everything you need. Why would I shop anywhere else? Sure, there’s a new Walmart “Neighborhood Market” nearby the ‘80s Kroger, but it’s a Walmart. It has no character, no personality, no charm. It’s just…more Walmart.
The problem with Lake Charles is that all the new growth south of the loop threatens to overshadow all the wonderful local flavor that can still be found to the north. Most of the great, local restaurants I’ve found are in north Lake Charles. So are most of the little local shops and independent stores that give this city such a unique and wonderful culture.
The problem with Lake Charles is that not enough people know about how great this city is – and that greatness is directly tied to how many locally-owned, independent, non-chain businesses there are. When I buy a comic book or a tabletop game from Paper Heroes or have lunch at Mama Reta’s, I know I’m giving my money to someone who lives here, who cares about the city and its people.
When I find a great bargain at CARC, or buy a ridiculously decadent treat from Yes Me Cookie, I know I’m giving back to the city because they give back to the city. It’s always easier to spend money when you know that some of it will go toward helping people.
I know I just got here – and maybe I’m totally wrong – but I feel like change is in the air, and I already don’t like it. Over in Texas, people like to say “Keep Austin Weird” – which I guess is cool if you’re a hipster with a really epic beard or whatever, but that’s Texas. This is Louisiana.
If I had to pick a slogan for our city along those same lines, it’d be something like, “Keep Lake Charles Local”.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I love chain stores as much as the next guy. For some things, you just can’t beat a chain’s prices or their selections, and sometimes a guy just really wants a Big Mac.
But you can find chains anywhere, because they’re everywhere. What you can only find here is what makes Lake Charles special.
I’m not anti-chain; I’m just pro-local.
I’m pro-Lake Charles.