Friday, June 06, 2014

Lafayette, the best/worst/something place (asterisk)

In the past couple of days, Lafayette, Louisiana, has been both hailed as one of the country’s best cities and as one of the worst ever. In between lies the truth, and we should all be happy about that.

I had just relocated to Reno. So I made this.
On Wednesday, the Advertiser erroneously reported that Lafayette had again ranked No. 1 in Area Development’s rankings, though it corrected that showing to No. 17 a little while later. In between, the article spread across my Facebook feed as proof that Lafayette is paradise on Earth.

For many people, it is. Food, festivals, friendliness. I feel it; I was born there and lived there for 28 years. There’s a very real and organic cultural allure. But this ranking has nothing to do with any of that. It was based on one thing — economic development.

Economic development is but one indicator of a city’s desirability. Lists like these are inevitably topped by boom cities like (in this case) Midland, Fargo and Bismarck, cases of going where the riches are ripe for the digging. Businesses can also be drawn to areas with weaker regulation, fewer worker protections and a low tax base. Those incentives are often at odds with quality of life. It takes a healthy balance between economic growth and quality of life to foster a thriving community. Lafayette strikes that balance better than, say, Baton Rouge, but the scales are still tipped toward industry — two in particular.

The Advertiser article cites Lafayette’s thriving energy and health care sectors for its high ranking. If you’re not in those industries, however, it can be a tough go. When I spent a year unemployed in Lafayette after graduating from college, eventually finding work stocking a department store (along with other creatives and grad students), I wasn’t thinking too highly of the Hub City’s economy. And, in turn, I began pining to live somewhere without so much humidity, and maybe with a bike trail or two, where I could also advance my career.

So, no, I wouldn’t say that Lafayette is the undisputed best place to live in America.

But it’s also not the hellscape recently portrayed by one visiting sports writer.

Mississippi journalist Matthew Stevens, in town to cover the Ragin’ Cajuns baseball team beating Mississippi State, went on an extended tirade about Lafayette, calling it “the worst experience [he’s] ever had as a beat writer. Worst. Worst.” He mocked people’s thick accents (while himself saying “peripheeal”), the safety of the city and said it might be “the worst place in America,” before deciding that it’s “not America.” “Food is all they know how to do,” he sniffed. He said that if Obama cuts Louisiana from the union tomorrow, “we are better off as people.” He also agreed with his co-host (who actually, seriously made a Waterboy joke in 2014) that Cajuns are the missing link.

Even controlling for sports hate and general radio buffoonery, this is extreme. I’m glad he got called out on it and issued at least a perfunctory apology.

Like Stevens, I can say that most of the worst experiences of my life happened in Lafayette ... but so did many of the best. I’ve ripped the city at times for its politics, its poverty, its conservative social mores, its excessively “pro-business” policies and a million other things. And, like Stevens, I’ve occasionally let a singular bad experience in someplace else I’ve visited cloud my perception of it as a whole.

But I would never suggest, even jokingly, that the people in those places are primates, or that the country would be better off if the locale went away. Especially if I was on the air in a reporter’s capacity. A city’s shortcomings lie in factors than be reshaped, such as expenditures and attitudes. Lafayette, as much as anywhere, has that capacity to improve. Its many strong points cannot be reduced to a spreadsheet. And even where it’s weakest, it’s still not the caricature depicted by the spiteful words of some radio bro.

What I love about Lafayette — friends, family, culture — will never show up on an economic-development chart. What I dislike won’t be fodder for an ignorant, stereotypical rant. (An informed rant, yes.)

Lafayette is not perfect. But perfect is overrated. Lafayette isn’t.

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