This year's Cool Town issue is all about people who are not native to South Louisiana but made a conscious decision to be here, to be among us, to participate in our culture and contribute to it.
Friday, March 1, 2013
Written by IND Monthly Staff
Photos by Robin May
We considered not even doing a Cool Town issue this year, thinking the annual franchise had maybe run its course, gotten stale. It has evolved annually since its inception four years ago as more or less a book of lists to last year's analysis of the tea party drag on our cool momentum. But this annual issue has always been about what makes Lafayette cool - not cool in a superficial, Top 40 sense but in the way Lafayette is achieving a critical mass of cultural, technological and entrepreneurial infrastructure, the kind of infrastructure that attracts creative people.
We may not be there yet. Indeed, we've a tough slog ahead of us. But we are and have been for decades a progressive community. A community that feeds and waters its creative economy. A community that embraces and celebrates its unique culture while welcoming outsiders. And that's what this year's Cool Town issue is all about: people who are not native to South Louisiana but made a conscious decision to be here, to be among us, to participate in our culture and contribute to it. That's what our urban planner, our retired professor, physician/entrepreneur, creativity coach, artist and small-business owners have in common: they choose to be here. To live here. To create here. And we're all the better for it. - Walter Pierce
It's a typical 10 p.m. on Monday at Fran Morton and David Brown's house on the 700 block of St. Thomas Street (technically Frannie owns the house; David is her twinkle-eyed squatter): in the kitchen, stragglers pick over the remains of a potluck supper as drained wine bottles mount; a fire putters in a pit in the backyard, warming a circle of friends, acquaintances and strangers, some of whom are strumming guitars and singing; in the den jigs rage as a guy squeezing Irish pipes, another on a penny whistle, a third on a piano accordion and fourth playing percussion on a steel bucket bang it with abandon while David plucks away at a single-stringed washtub bass, an instrument he has played for longer than most of us have been alive. (He actually uses a bass drum as resonator.) Frannie whirls like a Dervish.
This is the Monday Manger (as in French for eat, so it should probably be the Lundi Manger, but who's to quibble?), an October-through-June weekly get-together that draws neighbors and friends as well as plenty of musicians passing through town or just back from the road.
And this is David and Frannie, too, congenial genies who summon the spirit of South Louisiana - food, music and friendships - although neither is native.
"I realized very soon that there's absolutely no reason for me to be any place else - because of the music, the food, the people," says David, a native of New York who retired in 1995 as a political science professor at State University of New York Potsdam where he spent his academic career.
In the late 1990s David became friends with Lafayette muralist Robert Dafford and Dafford's then-wife, Cissy Whipp, a dancer/choreographer who was teaching at the time at SUNY Potsdam. David was also exercising his new retirement freedom by vacating his northern climes in the winter for the sunny South - first for a month, then two, then six. In 1999 he came at Dafford's invitation to Lafayette during Festival International. David was hooked. By 2002 the Hub City had become his permanent winter home.
"Every night for three months [after moving to Lafayette], I went out because I couldn't believe there was that much going on in any city, other than New York or L.A.," he recalls. "At first I was very suspicious of the hospitality. I'm a northerner. It's phony right? Just baloney.
"Then I realized it wasn't at all - it was the real thing. And then I eased off and started appreciating it in a very deep way. And of course, it's like being in a foreign country. The whole Acadiana thing is wonderful. No other city that I ever went to had that. It's not cosmopolitan in the sense that Montreal is cosmopolitan, or New York - but it's exotic because of the Cajun influence, and it's infinitely fascinating."
David soon meet Frannie at a party in the very den in which they now host the jam sessions, which began as simply a weekly potluck supper with Dafford (who blows a mean blues harp) and a few friends. By 2005 David and Frannie were sweethearts.
"It wasn't that we had a plan; it just developed," Frannie says of the Monday Manger. A native of west Texas, Frannie moved to Lafayette in the mid 1970s with two kids and a now ex-husband. "When I came here I loved that it rained," she adds. "I'm from El Paso - 6 inches of rain a year. And I came here and it rained and the grass was green and we went fishing and the fish were hitting." Sold.
Aileen Bennett: Idea Thinker Upper
In much the way the Monday night supper jam evolved, so too did the Saint Street Mardi Gras Parade, which Frannie and David started on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday in 2007. Departing from the house they share on St. Thomas and winding its way south toward the old Lourdes hospital on St. Landry, the parade began with about 50 people. This year, at least 250 masked and costumed revelers, many if not most of them Saint Street residents, marched, banging drums, blowing trombones and trumpets and locomoting by the most creative of means. There was even an incredibly handsome guy riding a unicycle while playing the banjo.
All in a day's work for Frannie and David.
The couple packs up David's truck and returns each June to Potsdam for the mild summers, and for more jams and suppers with friends. But by October they're back in the house on St. Thomas, entertaining an ever-growing circle of friends grateful at their return.
"Things happen here since I moved in that are pretty incredible," David admits, betraying a bit of astonishment at his luck. "The place has done a lot for my biography that wouldn't have happened if I had continued being an emeritus professor and hung around the north country for the rest of my life." - WP
When asking her age - always an indelicate endeavor - one can expect a coy response from Aileen Bennett: "I'm old enough to know better, although it doesn't show," she replies.
A native of the UK, Aileen grew up just outside London and moved to Lafayette a decade ago with her husband of 13 years, Sean, and a stepdaughter. She's a graphic designer by education and early career, but after winning the title "Top Humorous Speaker in the UK and Ireland," a sobriquet that is no doubt hard to live up to, Aileen bolted England for the states and became - among other things - a motivational speaker, published author, creativity coach and corporate consultant. The back of her business card says it all and then some: "brain for rent / giver of speeches / writer of stuff / idea thinker upper / coacher of people / unleasher of awesome / maker up of titles."
"I spend a lot of time helping businesses with creative ideas to help their brand and make them money," she says, summing up a rather jumbled job description.
Aileen also maintains a blog, CreatingClever.com, and writes the "Be You" column for The Times of Acadiana in which she conducts Q&A interviews with energetic, ambitious Lafayette residents - folks much like her.
IND Monthly turned the Q&A format against her for our Cool Town issue:
Describe a typical day in your life.
I get up early. From there anything can happen and usually does.
What event in your life most shaped who you are now?
I wasn't shaped so much by an event but by a city. London. Growing up I jumped on the train to the "big smoke" every time I could (often without my parents' knowledge or approval). I loved its art, its energy, its diversity, the dirty streets and clean lines. I still feel the same today. When I'm in London, I'm not sure when I end and the city begins.
What do you most appreciate about Lafayette?
I will always appreciate the way in which I was accepted into the community so quickly. How a stranger is treated says a lot about a place.
Where does Lafayette need improvement?
We need to stop trying to be the next Austin or anywhere else and play to the many existing strengths that are already here.
How do you let the good times roll?
A combination of any three of: intelligent conversation, creativity, real friends, good music, a nice wine, easy food, wit, a big city, a sofa, cheering on others, my husband, a challenge, a hoodie, the ocean, a large table, coffee, a notebook.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a graphic designer from the time anyone can remember. My Mum tells me I used to pick which cereal I wanted by the nicest design, not the free toy. I read magazines about advertising from 8 or 9 years old. I worked as a designer for 10 years, and then I won a speaking contest (Top Humorous Speaker in the UK and Ireland), and I switched careers.
What three things are vital to Being YOU?
A notebook and a muji pen
A sans-serif typeface that is properly kerned.
(yes, I know that's four) - WP
What better way to seize the day than by starting it with a shot of espresso alongside a cup of white chocolate strawberry gelato? Probably by substituting blood orange sorbetto and tiramisu at lunch and dinner.
For Silvia Bertolazzi, gelato is more than just a favorite dessert, it's a way of life. The Italian-American gelato connoisseur decided to bring her love of Italian-style ice cream to downtown Lafayette when she opened Carpe Diem! Gelato - Espresso Bar with her business partner Erik Graveson nearly two years ago.
And with its auspicious location along the charismatic 800 block of Jefferson Street it's quickly becoming a can't-miss retreat for anyone passing through downtown's southern mouth.
"In Italy, we eat gelato every day," says Silvia. "So it's not just something to eat; it's also like a social thing. People get together and they have gelato, and it's just part of everyday life over there. And I just never had it coming here to America. So for me, I always had to go back home and eat it in Italy. So one day I just realized why don't we just open one here."
That particular cultural exchange seems to be one that's been vehemently embraced by Carpe-Diem's steady roster of regulars, which spans from the poets and writers encamped at the front corner table to the eclectic ensemble of musicians often front and center at the shop's patio with impromptu concerts.
"I think it's the energy," says Silvia, gesturing to the flow of customers steadily filling up the remaining swath of the bistro. "It's almost like when people get together here all these amazing things happen. It's all of this artsy energy that gets together and it just kind of creates this incredible vibe."
Silvia came to Lafayette almost 21 years ago "for love," and while the relationship didn't last, her romance with Lafayette has endured. "I immediately bonded with this city and the people," she says. "I can't imagine a better place to live than Lafayette. I still go home every year, all my family is in Italy - but Lafayette has become my home, and I love it." - Wynce NolleyNathan Norris: Passion Play
Just five weeks on the job when we spoke at the end of February, Nathan Norris is already more involved in the civic life of Lafayette than most of us stiffs will ever be. Hired in early January to replace the retiring Cathy Webre as executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, Nathan is lending his considerable expertise to the Comprehensive Master Plan for the parish. But his focus is downtown Lafayette, specifically promoting its burgeoning residential character.
"The biggest idea is, No. 1, providing more options for living downtown," the urban planner/attorney/real estate broker says. "Out of all the different goals, that's No. 1, and all our other goals are strategies to support that goal - giving more options to people to live down here. The fact that I couldn't immediately find a place downtown is crazy, and we really don't have any new housing downtown that people haven't already moved into, except the Uptown Lofts. But we're about to get it - it's just going to take a little time."
Nathan comes to Lafayette from Montgomery, Ala., where he was founding principal and director of implementation advisory for the urban design firm PlaceMakers LLC and had been working for a traditional neighborhood development much like River Ranch. For the last decade he has worked with developers and municipalities to plan and market neighborhoods, towns and cities.
He has driven Johnston Street, sat in our crass traffic, and he's candid in his assessment that Lafayette, like so many other cities that grew quickly in the 20th century alongside the rise of suburbs and car culture, suffers from a paucity of planning. "It's complicated because physically the place is probably less than I thought of it, but everything that everybody said about the people and the music and the food has exceeded my expectations; the people have really exceeded my expectations," Nathan says.
In addition to PlaceMakers, the urban design firm he co-founded in 2003, Nathan worked from 2004-2010 for The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development just outside Montgomery. As director of marketing, sales and design, he helped implement the project.
He's also been on the speaker circuit - in fact, he's the keynote speaker for the 2013 Smart Growth Lecture and INDesign Awards on April 19 at the Cajundome Convention Center - talking to communities interested in leveraging placemaking as an economic development tool. The new DDA gig, however, has put an end to traveling across the country for this married father of two.
Nathan has begun meeting with downtown residents and business owners to lay out his approach to injecting downtown with round-the-clock vibrancy. That plan starts with the aforementioned residential component and also includes enhancing the district's amenities package to attract investment and cultivating what he calls "value-enhancing development." Key to his plan is luring in entrepreneurs - locals and outsiders alike - who are passionate.
"The easy example in this town is to look at somebody like Red Lerille," Nathan says. "And the key is, that guy has a passion for fitness, even 50 years into his business. His business model would've failed with 99 out of 100 people, if not more. The chances of him succeeding the way he has were extraordinarily small - for anybody who didn't have a core passion for what he sees his business as, and he doesn't see his business as barbells and jump ropes. And so, the key for the downtown is to find the Red Lerilles who have a passion and a love, and they're going to deliver that love." - WP
I got lucky at ArtWalk a couple of weeks ago. After taking in a great show at the AcA in the main gallery, I ventured upstairs. In a small enclave I saw a colorful mural by two black artists, Pat Phillips and Johnathan JJ' Wilson, along with individual works by each. Although I was drawn to the wonderful collaborative mural, the piece I was most attracted to was one titled "Chain Gang" by Pat.
"Chain Gang" is a striking wooden diptych of wide alternating black and white stripes attached at the bottom by a heavy hanging chain. Instantly the stripes recall imagery of prisoners, jailbirds, and the like, but this piece said a lot more than that. As I approached for a closer look, I noticed scratches incised along with painted graffiti on the black stripes. Both the white and black paints were not flat, but had been "conditioned" by Phillips to a patina of age and soul-carrying messages both exposed and hidden. It spoke to me of both oppression and unity. The good will always overcome the bad.
You see, Pat paints what he knows, and that is being African American and graffiti. Pat's roots are in the world of graffiti, but he also attended Memphis College of Art and draws upon that base while creating his very engaging fine art. He was born in England, relocated to California, and finally landed at age 6 in Pineville with his mom and Air Force dad. His youth was spent skateboarding (he's good, I've seen footage), break dancing and, eventually, hanging out in the train yard doing graffiti work.
His mother finally bought him a canvas and said, "Paint on this." Although he did, he prefers to make wooden structures to paint on as they are sturdier. He likes to create textures and layers (both literally and figuratively) and generally will "age" his pieces to better unify his concept with his techniques. I'm certain this goes back to his history with those beautifully aged hard surfaces of the rail cars.
Pat decided to relocate to Lafayette because he wanted to be in a larger city - to be a part of its growing cultural mélange and art scene. He has not been disappointed with that decision. This talented young man has reconciled that if he wants to survive as an artist, he has to be his own advocate and self- promoter. This combination of business and making art can be a tricky one, but Pat seems to do both very well.
I got lucky again with Pat when I picked him up one recent morning at 9 and we headed for the train yard. I felt like a kid again, excited to be experiencing and learning about graffiti writers.
Train yards can be like the docks - desolate and dangerous (think of the movies you've seen and the things that go down there). With Pat pointing out different graffiti styles attributed to different regions of the country, (old school verses new, colorful or stark, elaborate or simple) I was hooked. We walked along the cars as Pat took photos, heeding Pat's "hurry, before it rolls out" and talked graffiti.
When I noted a list of about four or five names on a rail car, he told me it was someone's shout out to writers down the line. He referred to fellow graffiti artists as "writers" and explained a "tag" is the writer's signature. If someone "writes" over your work, woe to him; his work may not be safe any longer. Payback does exist within this culture.
Back in Pat's studio space, he showed me a large thick album of train cars covered with beautiful graffiti he has photographed. Suffice to say that it was the most exposure I have ever had to graffiti, and I didn't realize how deep and complex the culture is. I have a feeling this part diva, part rebel artist loved the adrenaline of writing, loved the silence of the yard and, most important, loved the fact that he was "making his mark." He acknowledges he is fine with the fact that his graffiti work rolled away and the fact that it may remain the same or evolve, through weathering of the elements or further manipulation by other writers. As long as they respect the work, he is fine with that. Roll on.
Pat is on a self-imposed trajectory that started when he left art school, antsy to get his career going. With laser focus, he approaches his work every day with talent, zeal and optimism. Pat is making his art, taking care of business and celebrating life everyday. How cool is that? - Karen Kaplan
Pat Phillips' art can be viewed at his website, PatPhillipsArt.com. His exhibition at the AcA, including the piece commissioned by The Ind for the cover of this issue, will be up through March.
The cassette tapes started arriving in the mail a couple of decades ago: rare recordings of Cajun old-timers - most of them long since departed to that fais-do-do in the sky - playing their music at Mark Savoy's accordion shop in Eunice. The music was captured by Savoy's assistant, Tina Pilione, who mailed them to Hugh Robertson for transfer onto compact disc. Hugh's small, Boulder, Colo.-based business, Tapes Again, specialized in transferring music and home video to CD and DVD. Pilione's recordings stoked an interest in Louisiana's indigenous music that had already been simmering in the musician/entrepreneur for years - an interest that had prompted him to travel to Cajun Country to hear and learn the music.
As media made the leap from analog to digital and as CDs gave way to MP3s, Hugh's business model had to evolve with it. Then LUS Fiber happened, and in February Hugh moved his business from Boulder to Lafayette to both take advantage of fiber and to immerse himself in the music and culture.
"I'm in a tech-oriented business, so I'm aware of these kinds of things," he explains. "When you're doing creative stuff, you got to be able to send files - that's important. Unless you go get a T-1 line, which in Boulder would've cost me $300 or $400 a month, you're not going to get fast upload speeds."
Fiber gives Hugh that lighting-fast upload speed at a fraction of the cost, buying him time for his other pursuit: "I like being down here because I get to play more music," he admits. "Lately I've just been going to little jams and stuff. I was always bringing my bad instruments [from Boulder] because I didn't want to bring my good stuff. I like to go dancing, too. There's no dancing in Boulder, by the way. You got your little dance crowd of 100 people - it's the same 100 people at every dance."
So he bought a house in Freetown and leases a small office nearby. He estimates he'll keep many of his Boulder customers; the Internet, after all, allows him a virtual footprint virtually everywhere.
Because of Lafayette's vibrant music scene - and not just Cajun and zydeco but indy, rock, blues and jazz - the native of far northern New York anticipates plenty of business from small, independent bands who need CDs, but who don't need 1,000 of them.
"You need a little place like this," he says of his business, which he plans to change the name of since "Tapes" is so 20th century. "They can walk in here on a Wednesday and have a show on Friday and have 25 or 50 CDs to sell on Friday. You can't do that over the Internet, you know?" - WP
Brazilian by birth and a native Portuguese speaker who moved to the United States at a young age, Dr. Isabella Sledge is an unlikely Lafayette resident. Until last year, the internist and her orthopedic surgeon husband, John, were ensconced in a comfortable, hyper-successful life in Marblehead, Mass., 20 miles north of Boston. And then they weren't.
"If you had told me two years ago that I would be living in South Louisiana, I would say you are absolutely insane," Isabella admits.
But she is. And it's not crazy.
John bought an existing practice at Lafayette Bone & Joint Clinic, and the couple also opened a medical supply company, Tides Medical, which the 48-year-old Isabella runs. "We thought that this was an opportunity to live a different life for a while and to explore something different," she says. "There aren't many chances to do that once you hit midlife."
So the Sledges traded Ladys Cove for the Vermilion River, beside which they bought a house. Their son is enrolled at ESA; their daughter is in boarding school in New Jersey.
"When an opportunity comes around you have to seize it and try," she says. "I think you are more likely to regret the things you don't do than the things you do."
Isabella started a blog, Cajun Yankee (CajunYankee.Wordpress.com), detailing her new life. The following excerpt is adapted from the blog:
Friends and family thought we were crazy to be taking a sharp U-turn in our late 40s. We made the decision to leave New England for South Louisiana in three weeks. Weighing the risks, assessing the timing and impact on our two kids, and deciding we'd always be looking back at the path not taken unless we shed the accretions of 20-plus years in the comfort zone and seized the opportunity. Friends kept reminding us, "You can always move back." But we can't. Even if we return some day to New England, you can't step into the same river twice.
Shortly after our move down last summer a friend gave us a Cajun survival pack to welcome us to Lafayette. In addition to the usual seasonings, red beans and rice, etc., there was also a mug stamped HONORARY CAJUN on the front. The back reads, "As an honorary Cajun you are entitled to celebrate on any occasion and to always pass a good time. You are required to love Louisiana's food and music and to share its joie de vivre with the world." The instruction has been an excellent blueprint for our lives here.
As time passes Lafayette feels ever more like home. There's something about the place that gets into your bones. Certainly part of my attraction is the climate. In the north I felt like a lizard every summer - soaking up the heat and sunshine to see me through the cold dark winters. Perhaps we appreciate the warmth of the people and the climate more because we are Cajuns by choice rather than by birth. As I drive around with my husband, John, in his new truck I am often struck that moving here is the craziest thing we've ever done. Yet it's also the most interesting. We embrace our new home and realize it is a privilege to make a fresh start in mid-life. - WP