John Press lives in the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport, LA and recently retired from the Fuller Center for Housing, a nonprofit that has helped to build homes in Allendale and revitalize the area. He joined the #AllendaleStrong group to fight back against a proposed highway that would run through their community. In this interview, he discusses the impact that the I-49 highway would have on home values and housing stability, as well as his ideas for how to improve the neighborhood for a fraction of the cost of the highway.
Rachel Quednau: Where in Shreveport do you live and how long have you lived there?
John Press: I’m in the Allendale area and I’ve been here for 10 years+. I actually came to Shreveport in the beginning looking for work after Hurricane Katrina and I was able to find work and decided to stay.
Rachel: What do you love about your neighborhood?
John: Most of the people I’ve come in contact [are] pretty down to earth, pleasant people. The area where I’m at is a section where they’ve been revitalizing. The Fuller Center organization has built about 50+ houses in the area in an attempt to remove the blighted properties. We’re in an area that was looked upon for the past 15 years negatively. The revitalization has helped improve the concept of the area throughout the community. It’s been an enjoyable thing to see change come.
Rachel: How did you get involved with the I-49 project?
John: I got involved with a community organization 4+ years ago and we were trying to get more information and learn about the whole project and why it’s been so controversial for the last 30+ years. […] We’re still having controversy with it because of the inner city connector. We’ve been writing to congressman, representatives, and the Federal Highway Administration, trying to get information.
At this point, it’s still up in the air because they had to go back to the drawing board because the FHWA didn’t approve any of the initial proposals. It’s all been kind of hush hush.
It doesn’t make sense to revitalize an area and then you’re talking about taking new houses and cutting through the area. […] The homeowners that are in there, a lot of them are elderly. To me, that would be a horrible thing to move them. I’ve met quite a few [of them] since living here. It would be kind of traumatic to tell an elderly person to uproot.
Another issue is that if they were to pass through, given the market value for some of the homes, [the residents] would not be able to move to another area. There are people who are 25-50% paid on their mortgages. If they got any money out of this, they’d still have to pay whatever’s left of their mortgage.
I’ve personally met people who own land or homes in the area. They may want [the highway] to come through, but they don’t realize they’re not going to get this pie in the sky money. They’re going to get the fair market value of their property. And property values usually go down when they build [a highway] in the area.
Rachel: What do you think about the I-49 connector project? Would it help or hurt Shreveport?
John: The longer they take the resolve this, the construction cost goes higher and higher. 3.6 miles would cost almost as much as the 30 miles it takes to go to Arkansas.
Somehow, someway people think this is going to improve the economic situation in this area. The other 30+ miles are pretty much finished, but I haven’t seen an economic boom in this area where the highway’s already complete. A lot of times, people are going along with this thing because they’re told it’s the best thing since sliced bread. [...]
There’s just a group of people that are fixated on building it. I honestly think that in an underlying way, people just want to cut through the area to cancel it out—out of site and out of mind.
It would be an insult—especially to this organization [the Fuller Center] that brought the 50+ houses and the other revitalization that’s happened in the area—to just cut through and destroy some of these homes that were built for hurricane evacuees and local folks trying to purchase homes.
From what we’ve heard out of NLCOG [the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments, who is overseeing the I-49 project], even if it was approved, you’ve gotta get the financing and there’s a portion the state or the parish has to come up with. The economy of the state in general is down. Where’s that money going to come from with the state’s financial situation?
To me, the economy is what drives the economy, not building a highway. If that were the case, the economy should never go down.
Rachel: We’ve talked about a highway that’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and is supposed to bring economic growth. But what do you think your neighborhood needs most right now? What would you do to help economically improve your neighborhood if you had just $10,000 or $100,000?
John: Well I think one of the things that I would want to do is try to bring some type of business into the neighborhood that would benefit it—one that would operate, that would work. Because given the amount of people in the area, whatever it is that comes in there has to be affordable. That’s one idea.
You could also start by improving the situation with the park—support putting some things back into the park and help improve it and encourage people to use it.
Or build more housing in the area. The more you develop the area, at some point it should start to improve the value of the area too. Whatever you do it has to be something that is feasible and affordable. There’s no supermarket in the neighborhood. People need a car to get to the nearest grocery store. [...] So that’s something you could probably do with some money.
This [potential highway] is probably stopping people from investing in there. Because no one wants to invest when there’s a highway coming through.
Thank you to John Press for taking the time to share his thoughts with Strong Towns and for his advocacy to stop this harmful highway project.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
(Top image of neighborhood gathering at SWEPCO park from #AllendaleStrong facebook page)