The group of men who gather at Steven’s house every Saturday to throw back a few beers and enjoy his famous barbecue ribs sat under the tent in backyard, taking refuge from the late-summer sun.
“I think it should be torn down,” Steven said. “Just look at it — all the windows are broken and the roof is caving in. It’s falling apart.”
“Why should they tear it down when they could put it to good use?” his nephew Jimmy responded. “At least fix up the gym so the kids have a place to play basketball. That school is part of Campti’s history — it would be a shame to see it go.”
The building Steven and Jimmy were arguing over is the Campti Middle School, which stands across the street from Steven’s house in Campti, Louisiana, one of the country’s poorest towns. It was originally an all-black school, but eventually integrated before closing in the early ’90s. Although Steven and Jimmy held opposing views of what should be done with it, they both took pride in the school and believed it positively shaped generations of Campti residents. Jimmy wanted to see the school renovated; Steven, on the other hand, was doubtful that the town would devote the necessary funds.
“It’s just painful to watch it deteriorate day after day,” Steven said.
A man named Leon showed up on the back of a horse just as the ribs were being laid on the smoker. He joined the rest of the men under the tent, leaving his horse in the vacant lot across the street without tying him up. When the discussion turned to politics in Campti, Leon said, “There’s three kinds of people in Campti.” He smirked, showing large gaps between his teeth. “The good, the bad, and the fucked up.” Leon grew up in Campti, working on his father’s farm during the day and breaking wild horses with his brother in the evening. He left Campti for a job after high school and returned home for good only 11 years ago at the age of 63.
“That’s when I signed up for Social Security and gone and made an ass out of myself,” he said. “’Cause right when I signed up they raised the age to 66, and now they’re talking about raising it again to 70. But hardly no one makes it to that age around here. Heck, I can open my old yearbook and point to maybe ten people from my class that are still alive today.”
Hardly no one makes it to that age  around here.
In spite of his circumstances, Leon always managed to meet his responsibilities. “I have a home that I maintain with some farmland and a few horses. I have 22 children, and the youngest is nine. But no one hunts me down for child support or nothing. I take care of my own, always.”
When the conversation under the tent began to heat up, Leon joined in. “George Bush ruined this country — both Bushes, as a matter of fact. Obama tried to bring us back to where we were, but he failed, too. We’ve had centuries of men promising great things when they’re elected, but time and again failing to deliver on their word. This country’s long overdue for a change — if I don’t see it in my lifetime, if it’s not Hilary or someone else, then it certainly won’t be long after I die that we see a woman step into office.”
Campti is one of the poorest towns in America — more specifically, among towns with a population over 1,000, it’s the 8th poorest. With a median household income under $14,000 and a staggering poverty rate of 55 percent, many Campti residents don’t have access to the basic resources that most Americans take for granted, such as food, reliable housing, and medical facilities. Campti begs the question: How do those who live in dire poverty manage their daily lives, and can a town struggling under the weight of such poverty ever transform itself?
The history of Campti is both rich and turbulent, a tale of prosperity, resilience, and decline. The town is the oldest settlement along Louisiana’s Red River, which made it a hub for trade and travel through the 18th century. In the final years of the Civil War, though, Campti was destroyed when a group of Union soldiers returning from battle set the town ablaze. The only buildings left standing were the veteran’s hospital and the Catholic church on the hill.
In the following decades, the town tenaciously bounced back, and by the early 20th century Campti once again flourished. Since the area was rich in natural resources, specifically timber, mills and industry were drawn to Natchitoches Parish, which brought jobs and capital to the area. The construction of the Louisiana Railway, now part of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, also facilitated Campti’s recovery by increasing commerce and creating ease of access. William Edenborn, dubbed the “father of barbed wire” and one of the wealthiest men in the country at the time, launched the construction of the railway. While he never lived in Campti, the town’s main street was named in his honor, and the restaurants, hotels, and stores that once populated it attested to the prosperity he brought to the area. Even during the Depression when the rest of the country was struggling, Campti’s economy remained strong and many people traveled to the area in search of work.
If you visit Campti today, it’s hard to imagine that the town was once so successful. Weatherworn trailers line neighborhood streets while antebellum houses crumble behind curtains of thicket and vines. On Route 71, semi-trucks and through-travelers fly past vacant stores and restaurants, the names of the businesses on windows and walls faded. Edenborn Street, too, is now empty save for a few crumbling structures, some municipal buildings, and the Campti Historic Museum. What caused such an unforgiving fall from economic grace in this quiet, working-class town?
Donna Isaacs, executive director of the nonprofit organization Campti Field of Dreams, which runs the Campti Historic Museum, has studied the town’s history for the last two years in hopes of answering this question and reversing the town’s decline. A native of Jamaica, she moved to the U.S. in 1984 and has degrees in engineering and construction. From her extensive research over the years, Isaacs points to two significant events in the middle of the 20th century that led to Campti’s downfall. “First, in 1956, the Crawford Young mill burned down,” she said. “The mill only employed 50 people, but it was the heart of the town’s economy and its destruction had far-reaching effects.”
An article by Ed Kerr, “When the Mill Burned Down,” was written four years after the destruction of the Crawford Young mill and describes the devastating “chain reaction” that took place after the destruction of the mill and how “the threads of local economy [began] to unwind with increasing tempo.” The A.C. Stiles planing mill, which dressed lumber from the Crawford Young mill before it was shipped, closed down immediately, leaving dozens of people out of work. Business stagnated for local carpenters and logging contractors, and nearby forest landowners saw a sharp decline in demand for raw timber. Local businesses without direct ties to timber, such as grocery stores and service stations, suffered from decreased commerce in the area. In the three years following the fire, residents began to leave Campti in search of opportunities elsewhere, and according to Kerr, “When the people moved out, the house movers moved in [and] the houses were sold and moved away.”
“Luckily,” Kerr concluded, “the Campti story had a happy ending.” By 1960, the Crawford Young Mill had been rebuilt and the economy showed signs of recovery. Just as Campti had bounced back from the fire that crippled the town at the end of the Civil War, Kerr believed it would rebound from this destructive fire nearly a century later.
Racial integration is often viewed as a wholly positive development in American history, but the fallout for blacks in the years that followed…often goes ignored.
But then Campti was dealt the blow that, according to Isaacs, would seal its downfall: desegregation.
“Racial integration is often viewed as a wholly positive development in American history,” Isaacs said, “but the fallout for blacks in the years that followed desegregation — the unrest, tension, and economic decline — often goes ignored.”
Part of this fallout can be seen in terms of local business. Jim Kilcoyne, director of the Small Business Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, has researched the development of small business in Louisiana and noted the negative repercussions that were a byproduct of desegregation. “During the Jim Crow era,” he explained, “black business owners were savvy enough to adapt to the racist laws of the time so that their businesses benefited — economically, at least. Small businesses owned by blacks were guaranteed 100 percent of the black consumer base, and if their products were better than those offered by white business owners, they drew part of the white consumer base as well.” That all changed after desegregation. “Businesses owned by blacks could no longer depend on receiving the entire black consumer base, and they lost much of their white consumer base due to boycott or because whites left the area in refusal to integrate.”
Kilcoyne didn’t suggest that segregation was beneficial for black people; the harm it caused far outweighed the very minor benefits. But black people had adapted to an unjust, racist system for decades, and when this system was overhauled, it promised misfortune for many in the community. And with the economy already bruised from the destruction of the mill, this misfortune hit Campti’s black community particularly hard.
The most potent symbol of the fallout from desegregation turned out to be a municipal relic from half a century ago. Across the street from the Historic Museum, an abandoned public pool sits crumbling and empty save for the debris that has collected in its basin for the last 50 years. The pool had served Campti’s white population through the 1950s, but like other all-white facilities in town, it eventually violated desegregation laws. Instead of integrating the pool so all of Campti’s residents could enjoy it, however, white town leaders, supported by much of the white population, decided to decommission the pool and close it to everyone.
The decommissioning of Campti’s public pool crystallized how desegregation laws were positive in the abstract but often problematic in application. Local governments were largely responsible for implementing desegregation laws, but blacks in these local communities couldn’t vote to elect leaders with their best interests in mind. As a result, integration laws that were established to create equality were often muddied by the indiscretion of local white leaders.
Eventually, the residents who had the means to leave Campti — the vast majority of them white — did so in the second half of the 20th century. The empty pool left in their wake now serves no purpose beyond being an emblem of the void that was left behind.
Clara, her daughter Susan, and Brenda — three generations of Campti women — sat on the front porch as dusk settled and the sun straddled the distant line of oak trees. When asked what needs the most improvement in their town, Susan replied, “The men.”
Clara and Brenda laughed. Susan’s husband Darrel sat at the other end of the porch and looked over his shoulder when Susan made the remark.
People are raised to work in Campti.
“But seriously,” Susan continued, “the leadership in this town needs to improve. Too many undelivered promises. That’s why I hate to vote — because I know there’s no follow-through. Sometimes I think, Why should I even bother?”
“The thing that I think this town needs most is jobs,” Clara said. “People here want to work, but there are no jobs for them to find. People are raised to work in Campti. When I was a girl, my father never let me rest — I was always sawing wood, pulling weeds, or mowing the lawn. It didn’t matter that I was a girl. When I graduated from high school, I found a job to support myself, and when my husband died a few years ago, I learned to support myself all over again. Even when the post office cut back on my hours, I started housesitting to make a little extra money. I’m an independent person — I didn’t want to rely on anyone else. I could probably go on welfare, sure, but I want to depend on myself.”
Susan’s 11-year-old son, Marcus, returned home from school and picked up a rake leaning against the railing. He started cleaning the yard while his younger brother and sister played in the grass. When asked if the task is part of his chores, Susan said, “No, he just does that on his own. Likes to keep the yard clean. Guess hard work runs in his blood.”
“I lived in Campti on and off when I was young,” Ronald said, “but I left for good when I joined the military right out of high school.” He served 13 months overseas in the early ’70s, spending most of that time in Germany but seeing some action in Vietnam. “Being overseas was tough, especially when I was in combat,” he said. “But returning home was even harder. That was pretty rough. We didn’t receive the kind of recognition and respect I thought we deserved. We were treated like monsters instead of veterans. There was no parade when we came home, nothing to welcome us back. It was pretty messed up.”
Not only was the initial return home difficult for Ronald and his fellow veterans, but the process of readjusting to civilian life posed an additional set of challenges. When he applied for a job, he made sure not to mention his time in the service. Employers often perceived veterans who recently returned from oversea as unstable or unreliable. In addition, he found that the services in place to help returning veterans were severely lacking.
There was no parade when we came home, nothing to welcome us back. It was pretty messed up.
“There just weren’t quality facilities to help soldiers returning from war,” he said. “We needed help adjusting back to everyday life, but we didn’t get it. Following the war, there were a lot of vets who wound up on the streets.”
Nearly 40 years after returning home, he continues to face the challenges of being a veteran. “I still haven’t received any benefits from the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] for my time in the service. The last I heard from them was in the ’90s when they assigned me a JAG Officer to help figure out my situation, but he hasn’t been in touch in years,” he said. “I’ve gone down to the VA office in Winfield to file a report several times, but nothing’s come of it. Just as soon give up at this point. Guess I’m just a lost name in the records.”
The additional benefits from his time in the service would certainly come in handy. He worked in heavy construction for a number of years after returning from overseas but was forced into early retirement at 58 after a series of heart attacks. He collects a combined $800 a month from Social Security and disability, which makes it difficult to make ends meet.
“Heck, I’d still be working now if I could,” he said. “Doctors won’t let me though.”
Instead, Ronald spends most of his time sitting outside and watching the days pass through Campti, which has given him plenty of time to observe how his hometown has changed since he was a boy and where it seems to be headed.
“There’s nothing for people to do around here,” Ronald said. “There used to be baseball leagues and pick-up basketball games — things to do. You used to see everyone out and about enjoying themselves, helping each other when someone was in need. But now — I don’t understand, I just don’t understand. Maybe it’ll get better, maybe it won’t.”
The part of the community that Ronald is most concerned about is the younger generation, who he sees heading down a dangerous path. “Some of the young ones around here just want to get that quick cash. They get into — pushing, you know? We need to give these kids other alternatives so they don’t go in that direction,” he said. “But a lot of them are in desperate situations. A lot of them go hungry, some don’t have places to stay. They also don’t have people to talk to. We don’t have councilors around here, places where kids can go to get help. Maybe people just aren’t as interested in helping people any more.”
The mill fire and racial integration deeply shook Campti, but they weren’t the lone causes of the profound poverty that plagues the town. There is a web of problems that has become self-reinforcing.
One such issue in Campti is affordable Internet access. Students who use digital technology in classrooms can’t continue their work at home, so teachers are often forced to adapt their curriculum to meet the limited technological resources of their students. With the growing expectation that high school graduates will have a working familiarity with computers and digital technology, students who graduate from schools like Lakeview High in Campti are at a significant disadvantage when entering the workforce or applying to college.
Another systemic issue in Campti is transportation. In order to find work, for example, most Campti residents have to travel 20 minutes to Natchitoches or 40 minutes to Winfield, if not further. There is no public transportation in Campti, and if a family can afford a car, it’s often old and unreliable. As a result, many people are only a dead battery or transmission failure away from losing their jobs. Numerous residents are out of work because they lost their jobs due to a car failure or accident, but even for those who remain employed, such tenuous job security makes it hard to establish concrete, long-term financial plans for themselves and their families.
Lack of access to healthcare and rampant health issues are another set of challenges that residents face. The town has only one medical facility, North Natchitoches Medical Clinic, which is a walk-in clinic staffed primarily by nurses. (Once a week, a doctor travels to the facility to work a four-hour half-day.) In addition to her role with Campti Field of Dreams, Donna Isaacs volunteers as a community health advisor. The services she provides are all that many in the community receive in terms of healthcare outreach.
It starts from the moment you’re born.
“I really enjoy working as a health advisor, but it can be frustrating at times,” Isaacs said, noting the paradoxes associated with poverty and healthcare. Last year, for example, the Rapides Foundation, in conjunction with the American Cancer Society, started an initiative to find uninsured residents and offer them early cancer screenings. The screenings were free, but the closest facility was 15 miles away in Natchitoches. Isaacs and her fellow health advisors found plenty of interested uninsured residents, but many of them didn’t have access to a vehicle. She volunteered to drive some of the residents, but the organizers strongly discouraged her since she wasn’t insured to transport residents as a health advisor.
According to Isaacs, these kinds of situations have become alarmingly common and contribute to what she describes as the vicious life cycle of Campti residents. “It starts from the moment you’re born,” she said. “You’re raised in a trailer that’s 60 years old and falling down, absorbing the formaldehyde and volatile chemicals day in and day out from the trailer’s interior. Then you go to a school that’s also 60 years old where you’re exposed to asbestos and mildew eight hours a day. You may get one decent meal at school, but otherwise you have terrible nutrition because your family can’t afford healthy food — not that fresh produce or other organic foods are available to buy within 15 miles of town anyway. Or your family survives off of fish caught in the Red River, which tests have shown absorb heavy metals and toxins in the water due to chemicals from the mill and pesticides from nearby farms. Then, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you get a job at the paper mill and are exposed to carcinogenic chemicals eight hours a day for 40 years, and live in an old trailer because that’s all you can afford, and the cycle starts all over again.”
“My husband was in the service, so we were constantly on the move,” Eudora said, pulling a short drag on her cigarette. “We spent three years overseas in Germany, which was probably the longest we lived in one place. When we came back to the U.S., we bounced all over. I had all kinds of jobs — I was a cashier, a waitress, a cook in a nursing home. Too many to remember.”
I have an appointment on Monday, but I know I won’t go. Just don’t have the money this week.
The job Eudora enjoyed most was at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She was in charge of making sure the cadets were out of bed on time, had clean pressed uniforms, and followed the rules of the academy. “I kinda felt like the mom away from home for those cadets. I knew when to nurture them, but also when to crack the whip,” she said with a laugh.
Eudora had four children of her own and spoke fondly of them, especially the son she was living with in Campti. One of her sons passed away in his 30s, and there was a lingering sadness when she spoke of him. “He had health problems all his life,” she said. “He got worse and worse in his last years, but that didn’t make it any easier. I had to go through two brothers and a sister committing suicide, but nothing is like one of your children dying. It’s like your heart is torn open for the longest time.”
Eudora, too, has her own share of health problems that have plagued her for the better part of a decade. She suffers from atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, and had to have her heart shocked two years ago. At first, her heart showed signs of improvement, but about 10 months later it started to fail again. Her doctor refused to shock her heart again due to the risk of further complications, so she is now forced to take blood thinners and closely monitor her heart pressure. She also has back issues that leave her in chronic pain.
“I have to drive over an hour to Shreveport to get my pain medicine ’cause I can’t get it around here,” she said. “And the place I have to go to doesn’t accept my Medicare, so I have to pay out of pocket, too. Every two weeks I have to drive up there and it’s $150 a pop, plus the cost of gas to get there and back. I have an appointment on Monday, but I know I won’t go. Just don’t have the money this week.”
Shot got his name growing up on his grandfather’s farm. “My granddaddy used to call everything ‘Shot.’ He’d call the pig over and say, ‘Come here Shot,’ or fill the cat’s feeding bowl and say, ‘Time to eat, Shot.’ I also lived on the farm, so I guess I was Shot, too.”
A native of Campti, Shot lived in the area until he was drafted into the army after graduating from high school. But before leaving for Vietnam, he eloped with his girlfriend. “She was 17 at the time, and I don’t believe you could get married at 17 in Louisiana back then, so we traveled to Texas to get married,” he said. “I knew that I loved her, and knew I needed something to come home to.”
He saw regular combat in Vietnam, which left him shaken when he returned from the war. “I grew quieter, spent more time by myself,” he said. “The people around me noticed the change, too. I guess you could say I became something of a loner after I came home.”
Unlike Ronald, Shot wasn’t as bothered by the tepid welcome home he received after returning from Vietnam. He didn’t fight overseas for a parade, he said — he did it because his country had asked him.
“Some vets were offended by the way we were treated,” he said, “but it didn’t bother me so much.” He was, however, frustrated by the stigma against veterans when he applied for jobs. “I moved down to the Gulf Coast to work on the oil rigs, but I knew returning vets had a hard time finding work. So when I went in to apply for the job, I lied about being overseas, lied about having even been in the service.”
He worked on oil rigs for close to 20 years and then started repairing boats. That was when his experiences in Vietnam came back to haunt him.
“In the ’80s, a lot of wealthy Vietnamese came to the U.S. and set up fishing businesses in the gulf, so I wound up doing repairs on a lot of their boats,” he said. “And I couldn’t help but think to myself, Now weren’t these the same Vietnamese that I was told to shoot at a decade earlier? It was hard at times, had a few flashbacks here and there, but I coped the best I could.” The real trouble came when the Vietnamese fishermen clashed with local Creole fishermen, who felt the Vietnamese were trespassing on their water. “One day, when I was working on a Vietnamese boat, a Creole fishermen on a nearby vessel started firing warning shots into the air, and I went into shock — took me right back to the battlefield. I spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from that episode, and in the end was forced into early retirement due to the trauma from PTSD.”
I didn’t care if I had to be homeless for a while. The thing about this community, though, is they won’t let you struggle like that.
He still felt on edge even after his release from the hospital. He left his wife and home behind to return to Campti. Something, he said, was drawing him back. “My plan was to sleep wherever I landed when I got back to Campti — under a tree, in an old trailer. I didn’t care if I had to be homeless for a while. The thing about this community, though, is they won’t let you struggle like that.”
Some people who knew his family took him in, and he eventually settled into the community after moving into his own place. But the struggles he faced from his time in the service persisted. He continued to have flashbacks and began experiencing the effects from exposure to Agent Orange. “The skin on my hands and between my fingers peeled away daily, and my doctor said it was likely from Agent Orange,” he said. “I also saw the effects passed on to my kids — they can’t have food dye, for example, or else they’ll have a reaction to it.”
Several years ago, Shot and other Campti residents were notified that an herbicide had contaminated the local water supply and that residents shouldn’t drink the water until further notice. Notifications about water contamination were fairly common in Campti, but when Shot looked into the incident further, he made a startling connection.
“I recognized the name of the company that made the herbicide,” he said. “Dow Chemical. It was the same company that manufactured Agent Orange and that had contacted me to offer a settlement for exposure to the chemical in Vietnam. ‘Hush money,’ is what vets called it — if I accepted, I wouldn’t be able to speak out about any issues I had from my exposure to the stuff. And I accepted — maybe it was the wrong choice, but at the time I figured it’d probably be that or nothing. $2,700, one time — that’s what they paid me.”
“It’s like the old people would say,” Shannon said. “Campti went from sugar to — well, you know.”
In her opinion, the reason Campti was struggling was largely due to the lack of leadership in town. The town’s leaders had failed on big issues, like unifying its residents and laying the ground for them to work towards progress, but also on small issues, like the lack of recreation for its youth.
“These kids need to play sports, be part of clubs — things to keep them active,” she said. “’Cause when they don’t have anything to do, that’s when they get drawn into drugs and violence. People around here don’t seem to get that, though. Take the basketball courts in the middle of this housing complex. Every weekend there used to be basketball games here and people from all over town would come to play and watch. But some people didn’t like all the cars parked along the grass, and other people thought the basketball games drew a rough crowd. So what did the man in charge of the housing complex do to fix the problem? He took down the basketball rims so no one could play anymore.” Shannon paused and shook her head. “Now doesn’t that seem like throwing the baby out with bathwater to you?”
Outside the housing complex earlier that afternoon, two young brothers were shooting a small, rubber ball into a makeshift basketball hoop made out of a laundry basket and a mop. “We wanted to play basketball,” the older brother said, “but they took down the hoops on the basketball court. So we had to make our own.” The eldest was teaching his brother how to play. “He wants to be like me when he grows up,” he said. “And I wanna be like LeBron James.”
Shannon has an 11-year-old son and does what she can to ensure that he stays active and out of trouble, but because she is a T-level paraplegic, this can be difficult for her. “Being in a wheelchair and having no vehicle, there’s only so much I can do,” she said. “I want my boy to have things to do so he doesn’t go down the wrong path, but I need the town, the community to meet me halfway.”
She’s been in a wheelchair for over a decade now and the first couple years were the hardest for her to adjust to. “I had my share of doubts when the doctor said I’d be in a wheelchair the rest of my life,” she said. “I got pregnant with my son, my second child, when I was in this wheelchair, and that was a crossroads for me. I doubted if I’d be able to take care of him, if I could really do this on my own. But when I went to the hospital for an ultrasound and the doctor told me it was a boy, something happened. I can’t explain it, but that’s when things changed, and I never looked back. I guess I’ll say this — if you got God on your side, a made up mind, and a willing heart, ain’t nothing can hold you back.”
Shannon’s disability, though, has presented a new set of challenges in the last few years, especially when it came to healthcare.
If you got God on your side, a made up mind, and a willing heart, ain’t nothing can hold you back.
“I tell you what, I can’t wait for Obama to get out of office,” she said. “I voted for him so he could make history, but it’s time for him to take a seat.”
Her biggest criticism of Obama’s presidency is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “For 14 years, I received catheters, sterile water, and the other supplies I needed through my insurance at no cost. But this past July, when I had to sign up for insurance through Louisiana Care, it turns out they don’t cover any of those materials, so I have to pay for them out of pocket.” Amerihealth Caritas, formerly Louisiana Care, is the state-run Medicaid program in Louisiana. Republican governor Bobby Jindal rejected an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, which would have been covered under the ACA. The move left many of the working poor in Louisiana without healthcare coverage or with reduced coverage, which may explain the change in Shannon’s health plan. Regardless, she points to the ACA as the culprit. “I tell you, this Obamacare is killing me.”
The catheters cost close to $3 each, and Shannon needs about 100 per month. The sterile water costs $55 a bottle, and she uses about five bottles per month. She lives on a strict fixed income with two children to support — one in middle school and one in college — so the additional $550 a month she has to pay for medical supplies is a major expense.
Nevertheless, Shannon has no intention of letting these newfound challenges hold her back from living her life to the fullest. “[I] still got a couple minutes to talk, but my mom’s coming to pick up my son and me [soon],” she said. “I told him I’d take him out today and teach him how to hunt.”
As Donna Isaacs works toward her master’s degree in construction management at the University of Florida, an important focus of her studies has been the revitalization of communities through historic preservation. It requires an in-depth understanding of a place’s history in order to use its past successes as a compass for working toward a prosperous future. During her research, she uncovered a spirit of resilience and a deep entrepreneurial drive in Campti residents throughout the town’s history.
“These people are survivors,” she said. “Their ethos is all about self-sufficiency.”
Understanding the history of a place is only half the job of a historic preservationist — the other half, which tends to be more fickle, is understanding the residents’ opinions and perspectives on the parts of their history they want to resurrect and preserve. Unlike top-down solutions implemented by governments or large organizations, historic preservation depends on the input of the people who make up the town. This has its benefits and drawbacks. Residents are empowered by controlling the outcome of projects based on their understanding of the town, which encourages communal participation and increases the likelihood of satisfaction with the project; if apathy strikes the community, however, project development can be stifled, which could undermine the entire revitalization effort.
In spite of these risks, Isaacs has moved forward with her vision to revitalize Campti from the bottom up through her non-profit. She has spent the last year surveying residents to inform how she will move forward with her vision. And while gathering opinions will be an ongoing task, she has begun to put her vision into action.
One of her first projects, which she launched in response to a yearning for self-sufficiency from residents within Campti and a growing call for sustainability from the outside world, was the Campti Community Gardens. She hopes the community garden will help spark a renewed interest in locally grown produce, which would improve the health of both residents and the local economy. Donna has also started planning for projects aimed at affordable housing, making buildings more energy efficient, constructing sidewalks throughout town, and building mixed-use, mixed-income facilities.
These people are survivors. Their ethos is all about self-sufficiency.
The list of improvements for the town is extensive, and some might even say over-ambitious — but according to Isaacs, the scope necessary.
“The thing with revitalizing a community through historic preservation is that you can’t focus on one issue and think it’s going to completely reinvigorate the town,” she said. “You need to look at the problem holistically and propose a holistic solution. Even if you take on projects one at a time, in order for revitalization to stick, your focus needs to be on the things that ail the community as a whole.”
Perhaps Isaacs’s most ambitious project for Campti, and the one that she hopes will swing the momentum of the town toward prosperity, focuses on small business and entrepreneurship. A couple years ago, through a partnership with Northwestern State University, she held a series of small businesses classes for local residents interested in entrepreneurship in the town of Natchez, about 20 miles south of Campti. In the spring of 2015, she will hold a similar series of small-business classes at the Campti Historic Museum. Professors from NSU and the Small Business Development Center will provide lessons on how to fund and operate small businesses, with the goal of encouraging local residents to put their entrepreneurial ideas into action.
She’s also hoping to get a three-year grant she applied for through the University of Florida. Each year, the grant would bring 20 exchange students from Southeast Asia to participate in an intensive, four-week workshop at the university’s business school. At the end of the workshop, the students would participate in a one-week practicum in the small town in need of entrepreneurial growth that wins the grant, such as Campti, applying skills they learned in the classroom to real world business situations. Local entrepreneurs would have the opportunity to consult with students to develop their business models. With the backing of a major university, Isaacs hopes the grant would not only promote the creation of local businesses but also draw the attention of outside investors.
The final step in her initiative to promote small business in Campti is a small business incubator and career development center housed in the derelict Campti Middle School.
“We’re trying to get the state of Louisiana to recognize the school as a historic landmark, which would minimize the cost to refurbish the building — but it’s much more than simply rehabbing an old building that still standing in our town,” she explained. “We want to create a place where residents can develop valuable skillsets, exchange ideas on how to improve potential business ventures, and bring their separate backgrounds together to improve the community and local economy overall.”
Isaacs’s vision for the town also targets one of the sources of its decline by mending the racial fissures that pulled the community apart over 50 years ago.
Campti Field of Dreams borrows its name from the park that was once part of the town’s all-white high school. Today, an old wooden sign bears the park’s name in cracked, peeling paint, the fields are overgrown with knee-high grass, and the dugouts on the baseball diamond are ready to collapse. Rebuilding the Field of Dreams park is Isaacs’s other major project that involves revitalizing an old facility. She hopes to build a community center at one end of the park, construct a new playground, and rehab the baseball field so local leagues can play on it. Although the former all-white and all-black schools both symbolize the force that pulled the town apart, residents acknowledge each location as an important landmark. Where these schools once divided the town, residents now see the opportunity for them to bring people together.
“People here understand that if we create meeting places for residents to come together, then we’ll see greater creativity, greater social development, and the increasing exchange of ideas, which will only lead to a stronger community,” Isaacs said.
The slogan that she and other members of the Campti Field of Dreams organization have embraced for the town’s revitalization is “Revitalize Campti 2020.” She acknowledged that this is a short timeline to rebuild a town that has been in decline for over half a century. But she said she would like to see short-term progress on some of the more urgent issues afflicting the town by that point and also has hope that the ground will be laid for some of her long-term projects. At the very least, she wants to see opportunities created for people living in Campti.
“In the coming decades, this is going to be a self-sustaining, environmentally conscious community with a robust local economy — a place that people really take pride in,” she said. “Until then, we’re in the trenches.”