Mid City Studio
By Jeff Roedel
The patio fills quickly as residents lean in for better views of poster boards showing BREC’s renderings and proposals for improvements to Spain Street Park. A community garden, a picnic pavilion and playground, and park benches that wiggle and curve like ocean waves are on display.
On the wall, a giant hand-painted crawfish looks down on the steamy, Friday morning crowd in late June as hosts and Mid City Studio founders William Doran and Lynley Farris greet visitors and direct them to coffee, a classic biscuits, grits and eggs breakfast, and the new maps of the area’s soul food restaurants the duo created and is releasing today. This is Coffee on the Porch, the nonprofit’s monthly meet-n-greet that has become the unofficial gathering for the entire neighborhood.
Karla King, community radio WHYR board member and artist, makes a plate of food for a stranger who looks hungry. Local poet Eric Stewart, a self-professed “Coffee on the Porch addict,” catches up with friends and warmly introduces himself to anyone he doesn’t recognize. Minos the Saint singer Peter Simon rattles out a rolling bar-room boogie on Pit-N-Peel’s piano as this eclectic collective of Baton Rougeans gets louder with advocacy and affection.
A few weeks earlier, over shrimp salad at Pit-N-Peel, Doran and Farris are talking about the carcasses of old shopping malls, and what cities and developers can do together to revitalize the increasing number of burrowed-out big boxes that mark the current U.S. map.
This is indicative of the conversations this pair has all the time. Ideas flow fast across a spectrum of topics—development, social justice, education—but solutions somehow always weave back into the fabric of their agenda for Mid City. They connect the dots.
Encompassing about eight square miles, and one of the first major expansions of Baton Rouge outside of its 1817 boundaries, the area reached a peak of commercial and residential development in the 1950s when it was incorporated into the city proper. What happened next is a familiar pattern across the country.
“What you saw in Mid City for years is what people just like us have seen in other cities: The integration of schools and subsequent white flight, the arrival of interstates and this push of the suburban American Dream—and they all hit at the same time,” Doran says, while stressing that any solutions to the complex issues need to be responsive and adaptive to this shifting landscape. “Working on the scale of a neighborhood in Baton Rouge that’s changing rapidly, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you make a plan that you have to stick to by the letter.”
Farris puts a button on Doran’s point: “We can’t just do what worked 20 years ago.”
That’s why Mid City Studio focuses less on public policy and more on curriculum development, design initiatives and all-welcome events to impact the area.
The nonprofit founders love frequenting Pit-N-Peel, not only for the Louisiana-inspired seafood and BBQ, but for owner Von Raybon’s consistent support of their cause. Formerly in the nonprofit sector working with juvenile offenders, Raybon built his restaurant out of an old dress shop on Government Street in hopes that it could become a community rallying post not only at the restaurant, but through his catering of Mid City Studio events and pop-ups like those he does often at The Radio Bar.
“I know it is programs like [Mid City Studio] that make a huge difference on a personal level and citywide level, so anytime I can help those efforts, I’m all in,” Raybon says. “Mid City is making a valiant effort even in the two years I’ve had my restaurant here. And it’s not just business. It’s art and music and a unique community culture that is really growing right here in the city.”
Mid City contains a state-recognized Arts and Culture District and a Historical District, too, while upcoming developments like concert venue Mid City Ballroom, multi-tenant food court White Star Market and the 50,000 square-foot Electric Depot imply that new money should continue to flow into the area. A revitalized mixed-use development in a series of old Entergy buildings near Circa 1857, the Electric Depot will include a restaurant, coffee shop and brewpub, an upscale bowling alley, event venue, healthy lifestyle center and more by the end of 2018.
According to a recent Nielsen study, Millennials, a highly social generation that accounts for 24% of the population, much prefer cities to suburbs, density over distance, walking over driving. One Instagram post from Doran in late June captioned a photo Government Street’s Smoking Aces BBQ with: “A good overcast day for canvassing neighborhoods and eatin’ BBQ! #iammidcity”.
“Go for a walk down the street, and you’ll experience the city in a different way,” Farris says. “As an organization that’s important to us, to invest the time to meet people and reflect on what is needed, not just what we want to do.”
Mid City Studio began with this spirit of assessment and analysis. Doran has taught architecture classes at LSU for seven years, and he nicknamed a course “Mid City Studio” when he decided to take his students’ design-build projects out of the theoretical—or what Doran calls “designing hypothetical museums for millionaires”—and into the here and now. That reality is the strategically-chosen streets of a section of Baton Rouge that has seen increased interest from entrepreneurs, consumers and homeowners of late. A 2015 feature in Business Report proclaimed what the region’s top developers and real estate agents already knew: Mid City is the city’s next great frontier for redevelopment.
As part of her AmeriCorps residency in Baton Rouge in 2014, Farris was working for the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance when she gathered a collection of neighborhood stakeholders to foster dialog about what the community really needs. Doran attended that first meeting Farris organized, and soon after, they began discussing the idea of a nonprofit that expands his architecture class’ work in the area. As creative collaborators, they hit it off instantly. Now they talk in tandem and almost finish each other’s sentences.
“Mid City should be denser,” Farris says matter of fact. “More people should be living here.”
“We are so spread out as a city,” Doran adds quickly. “Some of it just doesn’t make sense.”
One of the group’s earliest projects besides their push of the #IAMMIDCITY hashtag and its wood-carved desktop totems, was a photo exhibit initiated last year with area elementary school students. Children were given disposable cameras at school to document their lives in Mid City. The results are on display indefinitely in a collage-like mural at Spain Street Park.
Overseeing and installing the project not only allowed Doran and Farris significant face time with the families immediately surrounding the park, it brought BREC into their inner circle. Now the local parks department leans on Mid City Studio to help gather community feedback on land use and future park improvements in the Government and North Boulevard corridors.
BREC is not alone. Together Baton Rouge and WHYR Community Radio have become stalwart supporters of Mid City Studio.
“WHYR grew out of the Baton Rouge Progressive Network, which was founded to create space for fellow progressives to coalesce around issues that matter,” says WHYR board member Gwen Palagi. “WHYR always intended to be more than a radio station, to be a community beacon and a gathering point, and Mid City Studio’s ideas and vision have helped make that a reality.”
For the past year, Mid City Studio called the WHYR building home, with an office and serving as hosts for the vinyl record sale parties and events held at the station. Doran and Farris also have assisted with developing civic-minded content for broadcast.
“They are connectors,” says Palagi, who moved to Baton Rouge from Hawaii and chose to live in Mid City with her husband for its charm and sense of becoming something greater. “William and Lynley are both so magnetic and have a real vision for what ‘neighborhood’ can mean. They put in tons of effort.”
After more than a year of educational initiatives, strategic partnerships and events, Mid City Studio earned its 501(C)3 status in late 2016, with Doran as executive director and Farris as creative director.
“Originally, I didn’t intend to stay this long in Baton Rouge,” says Farris, an alumnus of Hallmark who works full-time as a project manager at Stun Design and Interactive. “But I fell in love with this city, and its potential—so much so that I felt compelled to start a nonprofit.”
Mid City’s Studio’s most consistently galvanizing event has been its most simple: Coffee on the Porch.
For more than two years now Cafeciteaux Coffee Roasters has been providing fresh, free coffee for these monthly meetups that bounce to different locations across Mid City. After noticing an Instagram post promoting the very first Coffee on the Porch, Cafeciteaux co-owner Chris Peneguy contacted Mid City Studio offering to donate his startup’s rich, locally made brew.
“This is a great neighborhood that has a real chance to be more than strip malls and chains,” says Peneguy, who also works as a CPA. “What Coffee on the Porch does is bring together all these people who may not normally be hanging out, and it’s grown these relationships and started more community conversations.”
Much of the organization’s work in 2016 has been creating cultural maps of the neighborhood. Mid City Studio even posted up at the Arts Council’s Ebb & Flow Festival in spring and created custom maps with detailed input from festivalgoers.
Turning out a new, downloadable map each month, themes include Public Art, Black History, Homeless Services, Community Resources and Soul Food.
“It is one thing to say a neighborhood has little to no food access and another to visually see how a neighborhood is miles away from a grocery store with little access to public transportation,” says Jennie Garcia, a collaborator with Doran and Farris on the Mid City maps who holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning with a specialization in Historic Preservation. “Maps are relatable, and with Mid City Studio mapping different topics every month, it brings an awareness to issues that may be talked about but never fully seen.”
Necessity and invention are driving Mid City’s next project, too. With the WHYR building purchased earlier in 2016, the radio station will remain but Mid City Studio must relocate. Doran and Farris plan to purchase one or multiple shipping containers and redesign them as Mid City Studio offices and community space with a partner who owns an empty lot or greenspace.
“Public space has gone from physical to virtual, and that’s not progress,” Doran says. “Taking empty spaces and looking for ways to pull content that’s already in the neighborhood to activate that space is what we are focused on. So, for instance, hosting pop-ups, markets or concerts for local artists.”
While Doran and Farris see their shipping container office project as the guinea pig for their ideals, they believe even the fundraising efforts for the innovative office concept can be used to cultivate community in Mid City.
“You can build upon existing culture, but you can’t just charge in and invent it,” Doran says. “Especially when you have lots of people already living here. Our job is to set up the infrastructure.”
While other nonprofits can spend significant resources on outward facing content and communication, Mid City Studio has an almost insular and folk pulse to it. Farris says she wants to be so focused on the neighborhood of their namesake that their work remains nearly a secret to outside parties. Though that route doesn’t pertain to fundraising efforts, it does surface with the duo’s extreme lack of interest in grafting new elements onto Mid City for no other reason than they are working well in other places.
“Government Street shouldn’t be like Magazine Street,” Doran says, picking one ill-fitting idea from the ether. “There’s no need to import things when you have so much here already. You just have to look for it, connect with it and help it grow.”
Local entrepreneurs like Peneguy are betting on that growth by putting their resources and faith into Mid City Studio in a way few voters are with politicians today. “Government is not going to solve issues like growing a neighborhood in a healthy way,” Peneguy says. “It’s nonprofits like theirs that are the real fuel for change.”
For Doran and Farris, those scales of change both large and small are intertwined. They view their nonprofit as not only an undertaking of outreach and action at the civic level, but a learning process on a personal level.
“We get one shot at all this, so why not make it worthwhile?” Farris asks. “And in return I hope that [Mid City Studio can help] others get to make their lives worthwhile, too.”
Mid City Studio doesn’t claim to have all the answers to turn a once-forgotten part of the city’s cultural and business heart into a more thriving organ again, but more and more individuals and entities within the neighborhood and outside of it are beginning to recognize the value that lies in the specificity and intimacy of the kind of grassroots work Doran and Farris carry out daily.
“This is about taking care of the place I live,” the architect says. “And stepping outside of my comfort zone to learn about the other people here, the history and the culture, is really important. While I’m a part of Mid City, I have to get to know my community in order to be capable of doing anything for it that is relevant or impactful.”