So few communities today embrace their past as closely as Natchitoches, Louisiana. The town is a heritage tourism hot-spot due to its unique blend of the past and present. While the locals are a relatively forward-looking population, tradition and culture are planted deep within daily life.
The relaxed style of living adds to the close-knit feel of the community. People still hold doors and respond with “ma’am” or “sir” regardless of age. Looking beyond the intangible, physical reminders of Natchitoches’ storied past are synonymous with any visit to the town.
Anyone who can properly pronounce “Natchitoches” most likely associates a memory with one of three things: Christmas lights, meat pies, or brick-paved Front Street. The latter is more recently infamous for the likelihood of suffering from whiplash due to the rugged condition of the bricks. The cobblestone street was laid over a century ago and is in great disrepair. Drainage is poor, causing water to stand for weeks in some locations. The foundation is understandably shifting from the increase in traffic and subsequent weight loads over the past century. Over the years, a small number of bricks have been removed, worn, chipped, or even filled with asphalt to keep the road in service. The bricks play an almost as important role in Natchitoches’ history as the man who founded it in 1714, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis.
In late February, the Louisiana DOTD and a private contractor began work on a multi-million dollar project to rehabilitate the Front Street portion of Louisiana Highway 6. Workers will remove the bricks, improve the foundation of the road bed, update drainage and underground utilities, then replace the roadway using as many of the original bricks as possible. City officials tell me that the crew expects a rough estimate of 30 percent of the bricks will be unusable once the project is complete. The rehabilitation is being completed in 1/3 segments of the street at a time.
“The road to hell is paved in good intention.” This saying could be true in regard to the project’s unforseen effect on business and tourism within the National Landmark Historic District. All of the merchants along Front Street will remain open, however access to the businesses is quite limited. Without ample parking, traffic through downtown has dropped off considerably. Some shops and restaurants have already seen a decrease in business, which could begin to have adverse effects if the work is prolonged. The rehabilitation is scheduled to be complete by late November, but a few city officials have candidly expressed their opinion contrary to this estimate. If the work pushes through December, it would likely affect attendance of the month-long Festival of Lights, which is a cash cow for area businesses. How long will some merchants be able to sustain losses in profit over an extended period of time? Will they be able to make up for it during December if the work is completed on time? The relationship between the downtown merchants and tourism , which many agree fuels the local economy, needs to be studied in detail to counteract any ill effects of repairing our beloved Front Street.
The project is a much-needed answer to the prayers of those who wish to preserve the historic Front Street for future generations, but the cost of progress may come with more significant consequences than expected.