Mini Interview with local change agent Chris Tyson, President and CEO, East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority and Newman Trowbridge Distinguished Professor of Law, LSU Law Center
Urban Renewal: For those unfamiliar with you and your work, who is Chris Tyson and what does Chris Tyson look to contribute to Baton Rouge?
Chris Tyson: I’m a son of Baton Rouge, born and raised. I’m Gia’s husband and Camille, Jordan and Landry’s dad. I’m Ralph and Pat’s oldest child. Family is everything, and I grew up in this city with a big, beautiful extended family. I grew up all over this city: my first home was in Beauregard Town where my family’s been for over 100 years, then Glen Oaks, then Concord & Stratford. When I moved back I lived in the Garden District. When my wife’s work required she split time between here and New Orleans, we moved to the edge of the Parish in Santa Maria. I grew up with one grandmother in Easy Town and another in Southern Heights. I had friends and family everywhere else. This city is a big part of me. As for what I look to contribute, I believe Baton Rouge can be a great city. We already have great people, but we have yet to harness the political will to make this city work for everyone. In many ways I’ve been working towards that since I moved back in 2006. I’m excited about the work we’re doing at the Redevelopment Authority. We have a real opportunity to make this city a more just, equitable and humane community. In the end I hope that will be the sum total of my contributions.
UR: What are the ideals that inform your work around spatial equality?
CT: I would phrase my interest as being more about spatial equity than equality. Spaces are unequal because of decisions and choices made over decades. Our current challenges are the logical result of past choices. So we can’t improve the city by treating unequal spaces equally or prioritizing them the same. We need an equitable approach. We have to choose to build up North Baton Rouge, just like we chose to neglect it. We also have to realize that ours is a 20th century city built almost entirely after the rise of the automobile and after the codification of Jim Crow. We’re built for automobile dominance and racial segregation. Those are not the features of a healthy, prosperous city. So as we remake the city, we can’t follow the same script. Spatial equity means ordering the built environment around how people actually live their lives so as to increase their quality of life and in doing so, the quality of the spaces they call home. Denser, more walkable communities are not just cool for high-end mixed-use developments in South Baton Rouge; they must be part of how we redevelop North Baton Rouge where people own fewer cars, work more, earn less and use the bus. But its in poorer neighborhoods that we see lower quality development that does little to meet community needs. So we have to be thoughtful and intentional as we build for equity.
UR: If you were able to pick the brain of a deceased civil leader about how geography plays a role in advancing urban communities, who would you talk to and why that person?
CT: That’s a tough one. There are many unsung heroes of the civil rights movement to integrate city neighborhoods, resist discriminatory urban renewal projects that destroyed black neighborhoods and fight housing discrimination. Those voices foresaw the potential threat to black life and property – consequences we see manifested today. As for deceased civil rights leaders, as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Thurgood Marshall successfully litigated Shelley v. Kraemer, the 1948 Supreme Court case that invalidated racially restrictive covenants. This ended one of the central tools in maintaining residential segregation and relegating black people to substandard, over-priced housing in over-crowded neighborhoods. While racial segregation in housing remains a problem, this was a pivotal case of the Civil Rights Era.
UR: What in your opinion is necessary for Baton Rouge to level the playing field among its various zip codes?
CT: We have to build up our dis-invested neighborhoods the same way we built up the rest of the metropolis: with public and private investments coordinated strategically to meet the needs and improve the quality of life of the people who live there. And the people must be involved in ways that increase their capacity and reflect their authentic perspectives.
UR: Complete the following statement: The best Baton Rouge would offer…
CT: The best Baton Rouge would offer everyone a space to live healthy, happy and whole lives. The best Baton Rouge would work for all of its citizens.
For more information about the work of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority visit www.ebrra.org
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