It's Shreveport's Season

By Yolanda Young
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Shreveport, Louisiana. Ever heard of it? Before Hurricane Katrina, my home town was suffering an identity crisis.

It's all because of the rivers. Countless tomes evoke the grandness of New Orleans's Mississippi and the magnificent places -- Jackson Square, the Garden District and the French Quarter -- that are among the National Historical Landmarks that form its backdrop.

By contrast, Shreveport's Red River is a narrow swath of muddy water that plays host to riverboat casinos. The piddling McNeill Street Pumping Station is our only registered landmark. Between the two cities are 340 miles of swamp, road construction and humidity.

Even Baton Rouge, known as the state capital, and tiny Grambling, population 4,487, famed for legendary football coach Eddie Robinson, got more air time. Shreveport, meanwhile, was just a blob near the Texas border.

No more. Now it's known as Hollywood South and hyped in Entertainment Weekly, Variety and People magazines alongside the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Antonio Banderas and Denzel Washington, all of whom have made movies there since Hurricane Katrina. "We don't have to sell the city," says Arlena Acree, Shreveport's director of film, media and entertainment. "They already know about us. Someone compared this to California's gold rush."

Clearly N'awlins's catastrophic loss was our gain. But as I read in the Shreveport Times of the city's achievements, my glee is tinged with guilt. Is it right to prosper from others' misfortune? My mother, a Bible thumper like many in the city, consults Genesis, which tells the story of when seven years of famine struck Egypt. People came from all over to buy the food that Joseph had stored. "Well, he didn't give it away," she points out.

Nearly 200 years after Capt. Henry Miller Shreve cleared the Red River, it's Shreveport's season. The city's population of 200,000 is about evenly split between black and white residents, and its main source of jobs has been the health-care industry. Casinos and manufacturing plants have a huge impact on the economy as well, according to Shreveport's Chamber of Commerce.

Since Katrina, I've seen new signs of progress each time I visit my family. There are hands accessorized with Starbucks cups, a recently constructed Hilton hotel, the city's first black mayor, Cedric Glover, elected in November 2006.

In 2005, adjusted gross revenue from casinos was dropping precipitously because of new competition, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought in customers displaced from casino boats in New Orleans, Lake Charles, La., and Mobile, Ala. All six local casinos had their best quarter of the year.

Shreveport's history is likely to mirror that of Oakland, Calif. Before the great earthquake of 1906, Oakland was anonymous, but it doubled in size and gained a national profile when residents of San Francisco fled there after their city was devastated. San Francisco quickly regained its stature, but it gave Oakland a chance to grow.

Of course, "growth" is a loaded issue as it relates to Hurricane Katrina, because many evacuees were black and poor. Shreveport was even "lucky" in that respect. It took in only 7,000 to 20,000 evacuees. By contrast, the Houston region gained 123,000 people and a little town near New Orleans called Northshore St. Tammany grew by 40,000.

Rather than draining city resources, the evacuees presented another reason for Shreveporters to feel good about themselves. While newcomers have faced some backlash, many more citizens have welcomed them. Students from Shreveport's job corps and Centenary College (currently on Newsweek's "25 Hottest Schools" list) raised money and built homes.

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