The heart of Cajun country is decidedly different from the rest of the US

A signpost in down town Lafayette. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lafayette, Louisiana looks like an indistinct American city. Driving up from the east, the swampy lowlands of the Atchafalaya Basin give way to suburban ranch-style homes, historic Victorian two-stories, and, finally, a downtown shaped by boxy mid-century buildings and an imposing Romanesque cathedral. It’s pleasant, if a bit plain.

I was on the tail end of a road trip around the Deep South, and Lafayette, a city of around 125,000, couldn’t compare at first to other places I’d visited, especially its storied neighbour 135 miles east: it didn’t have anything approximating the cobbled streets, endless jazz, and candy-coloured Creole cottages of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

What it did have, I quickly noticed, was French. Street signs were in both English and French, parks had names like Parc Sans Souci, and shop windows declared, “Ici on parle francais.” (A reassurance, apparently, for those who’d rather stick to their mother tongue.)

These were the first signs of a city harbouring a culture separate from the rest of the U.S. Lafayette, it turns out, is the heart of Cajun country, or “Acadiana,” the part of Louisiana where a number of French colonists of Acadia, Canada’s present-day Maritime Provinces, settled after being exiled by the British in the mid-eighteenth century.

Like many stories born of exile, a distinct way of life emerged. Inside Lafayette’s unassuming buildings, a centuries-old culture is being preserved and—locals hope—revitalised.

“It’s a special kind of tourist who comes here,” said John Pastor, owner of The Duchess Downtown B&B, during his daily cocktail hour where he promotes his ancestors’ culture with a quick history lesson, travel tips, song, and dance.

I looked down at my drink sheepishly; I’d driven over on the offhand recommendation of a girl I’d met in a Florida hostel. Like most Americans, I knew almost nothing about the Cajuns and associated them primarily with two things: seasoning and crawfish.


That special kind of tourist, I came to realise, was probably someone who wants to see the preservation of a geopolitical anomaly in action, with the odd swamp tour thrown in. Lafayette has not one, but two recreations of historic villages—think old buildings, historical actors, and general stores—as well as an Acadian Cultural Center that shows a dramatised film on the Acadians’ persecution on the hour.

Though it turns out I wasn’t too far off on the cuisine front. Cajun country is a bona fide American foodie destination. Tourists and locals flock to Lafayette’s restaurants for crawfish by the pound, gumbo, blackened catfish, étouffée (a seafood dish smothered in a roux), and boudin balls (deep-fried spheres of pork and rice). One local institution, Prejean’s, greets visitors with a fourteen-foot taxidermied gator named Big Al.

Prejean’s and a number of other restaurants double as dance halls, some of which are open any given night of the week. While the vast majority of the country has long abandoned organised dance, Cajuns regularly frolic, two-stepping and waltzing to Cajun and Zydeco music. With dance cards and accordions, it’s a strange mix of Old Europe and American South, a bit of Jane Austen in raucous Louisiana.

Still, what makes the city and its region perhaps most distinct is what’s rapidly dying: Cajun French, an oral tradition with considerable differences from its European counterpart. It’s something like eighteenth-century French with an American accent, where apparently a truck is often just “un truck.”

Although you can still hear the older generations speaking French in Lafayette, it’s waned over the past century. As Pastor told me, it was quite literally beaten out of children in school. Today, only 5 per cent of the city’s population is fluent in French. In 2000, it was 11.1 per cent.

Despite decline, there are concerted efforts to revive the French language: Louisiana now has the largest French immersion program in the country for schoolchildren, and a free app called LearnCajun was developed last year. So far, the effects are unclear.

And yet there’s still something to be said for the presence of French in the city. I imagine that any first-time visitor would feel, as I did, like they’d stumbled upon a foreign part of the States just by seeing French. The persistence of the language is a statement. It upholds a place that no longer exists as it once did, while still trying to find a niche for it in the present—not just as a tourist town, but as the symbolic centre of an entire culture.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.