Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We may not be quite there yet, but Lafayette is nearing a sustainable, self-perpetuating state of just right.

When I moved back from New Orleans in 1987, Lafayette was a different city than it is today. I had been away four years and little had changed. Actually it was worse. Downtown was a stock character in a movie called malaise, Jefferson Street a one-way from Lee Avenue to the underpass — a means of passing through, of getting to the thruway and getting the hell out of town. Vacant buildings prevailed.

Although finance, government and criminal justice remained the civic and commercial anchors, downtown Lafayette gave up the ghost by 6 p.m. on weekdays when the bankers, clerks and lawyers punched their time cards. Weekends weren’t much different. There were two night clubs, as I recall, subsisting on a music scene that was scene but not heard. Restaurant choices were slim — Don’s Seafood and Don’s Seafood.

This was a low ebb for our downtown, the depth of the oil bust.

But Lafayette had three things going for it: a first-rate university, an indigenous, Francophone culture that was beginning to puff like a proud rooster, and a determination to succeed.

That year a free festival featuring a handful of local and international acts pitched its tent downtown. Festival International de Louisiane. The Performing Arts Society of Acadiana soon followed, joining a burgeoning Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, which incorporated in ’87.

Come to think of it, 1987 was maybe a watershed year for our berg, the return of a handsome young English major notwithstanding. The advent of the StreetScape project in the late ’90s hastened downtown’s Renaissance.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary next month, FIL was the most oft-cited “cool” aspect of Lafayette on the questionnaire we handed out to a small group of folks — writers, musicians, artists, architects, entrepreneurs, professors, actors — the so-called “creative class” that makes Lafayette a vibrant community, and makes Lafayette a city where outsiders want to live and natives return.

When we use the term “cool town” we don’t just mean Lafayette — we’re also thinking of you, Breaux Bridge, and you, New Iberia. The satellite cities orbiting Lafayette have unique offerings just a short drive away. That’s part of the appeal of living in a “hub” city.

There’s a chicken-egg aspect to Lafayette’s cool quotient. Clearly things like Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Festival International, ArtWalk, Downtown Alive and Bach Lunch attract creative people to our community, which makes Lafayette cool, which attracts creative people. And so on.

We’re not saying Lafayette is there yet, but we’re approaching a critical mass where creative people and the entrepreneurs who cater to them will become not only sustainable but self-perpetuating.

You see the cool in the responses from our panelists, who clearly favor all things local. The food at Carrabba’s may be good. It might even be great. But French Press is better.

You see it in the eagerness of local artists — painter Francis X. Pavy last year and graphic designer Megan Barra for this issue — to produce our Cool Town cover.

You see it in downtown’s “gay” firefighter statue being cited as the most iconic image of Lafayette. It’s not iconic — few outside the downtown community are aware of it. But the statue is emblematic, to me, of Lafayette’s burgeoning tolerance for LGBT culture. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, for the uninitiated. I think that’s what our panelists were getting at. (In case you missed it, The Ind staff draped itself around the firefighter statue for last year’s holiday photo.)

You see it in the almost paternal pride musician David Egan, a gifted, elder statesman in the Lafayette music scene, takes in up-and-coming youngsters Vagabond Swing. Egan isn’t related to them, has no vested interest in them, but he wants to see them succeed because he thinks they have integrity and “know how to swing.”

Lafayette is like Baby Bear’s porridge: not too hot, not too cold.

Just right.

That’s pretty cool.

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