For Laura Lynn Grantham, Lafayette was always the “bougie” counterpart to her native Lake Charles. She grew up visiting relatives living in the Acadiana capital and was struck by how different life was in Lafayette than back home.
“I remember my mama explaining to me that there’s better shopping here because Lake Charles is working class and Lafayette has that oil money,” Grantham says.
However, the landscape of Lake Charles, ahead of Hurricane Laura and the pandemic, had changed considerably with an influx of casinos and petrochemical plants. It was Lake Charles, not Lafayette, that was booming.
Now sheltered with her five kids at the First Presbyterian Church near UL Lafayette, the single mom has a deeper perspective on Lafayette, in particular how it’s handled growth over the decades.
“After spending a few weeks in Lafayette, I have come to truly appreciate Lake Charles’ city planning,” Grantham says. “Even though we’re built around a lake, most of our roads follow a grid layout.”
Grantham, like many who lost homes and livelihoods in Lake Charles during the hurricane, has taken up more than short-term residence in Lafayette. Her home is still being rebuilt. It was without power for weeks. She won’t be here forever, but it may be some time before she can go back.
Some expats are planting roots here for the long haul. Some are building new businesses. They all have something to say about the traffic.
“While Lake Charles does have some traffic, Lafayette has heavy traffic. It seems to be everywhere. I don’t even see any plans to improve congestion or prepare for growth,” says Gwen Breland, a 65-year-old accountant. Breland has lived in Lake Charles for the past 10 years and is relocating permanently to Lafayette. “At least Lake Charles is expanding roads, installing roundabouts, there’s construction to adjust for the increase. I don’t see that happening here.”
Dave Evans, owner of Luna Bar and Grill in Downtown Lake Charles, has been staying in town while his home and restaurant undergo repairs. He admits to using Waze to navigate our roads. “The roads are confusing,” Evans says. “How can you have so many intersections on Ambassador Caffery?”
Turmoil in local government and politics hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. Grantham says there is a marked difference in leadership between the two mayors. “I think the mayor of Lake Charles is outshining his Lafayette counterpart in every way,” Grantham says. “He’s more conservative than I am, but he’s absolutely not a blustery ideologue. And I would say that Josh Guillory is [a mayor] with a foundationally racist and classist ideology.”
Breland admits she didn’t really follow Nic Hunter, who was elected mayor of Lake Charles in 2017, but has heard a lot of negative things about Lafayette’s mayor-president. “I feel that no news is good news. If you don’t hear anything about the mayor, then he’s probably doing his job,” she says. “However, from what I’ve read in the news and what other people in Lafayette are saying about Guillory, he isn’t doing a good job. People are really unhappy.”
Evans hasn’t really followed Guillory’s actions but remembers hearing that LCG wouldn’t open up shelters to displaced people. (LCG has disputed that characterization of a request made by Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter to faith-based shelter operators; the request sparked widespread outcry and made national headlines.) “I got texts from friends apologizing for it,” Evans says. “It’s like his refusal made people want to help even more.”
Grantham adds that she doesn’t plan on relocating permanently to Lafayette despite her boyfriend living here. “I wouldn’t want to live among people who enthusiastically voted in a mayor who refuses to wear a mask to protect others from a deadly viral pandemic,” Grantham says. Both cities, she observes, are struggling with racial injustice and tension.
“Lafayette’s Northside and North Lake Charles are both fighting parish governments that seem to want to screw them,” Grantham says, referring to the recent controversy over plans to shutter community centers in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Lafayette and the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury’s decision to lift the mandatory evacuation order, only a few weeks after the storm with many without power.
It’s not all bad reviews, however. Breland is job hunting now that she’s relocating to Lafayette and feels there are more job opportunities. She’s also noticed the big hearts and generosity of residents.
“The people here have been really helpful, from helping me move my things into a storage unit to connecting me to job leads,” Breland notes. “I am really grateful for all the organizations and individuals who’ve stepped up to help us out, taken us into their homes, donating money and supplies.”
Evans has friends and family who live in Lafayette, so he’s spent time here in the past and is grateful for the friendly people. “We’ve discovered how nice everyone is. Everyone knows who we are in Lake Charles because we’re so involved in the community. Everybody here is so sweet and friendly, even though we’re total strangers.”
Since Grantham has five children, she appreciates Lafayette’s family -friendly activities.
“Downtown Lafayette and Girard Park are impressive places to be and worth spending time in,” says Grantham. Evans and Grantham agree that Lafayette’s restaurant scene is a big draw. “It’s a lot easier to get take out here, especially for vegetarians. Lake Charles restaurants don’t usually have a dedicated vegetarian menu,” she says.
Evans announced plans to open up a location for Luna in Downtown Lafayette in early spring. COVID-19 and Laura have pushed back the timeline, but he remains upbeat.
“Lafayette’s Downtown is great and beautiful. It’s sprawling compared to Downtown Lake Charle,” he says. “The location is really similar to what we have in Lake Charles.”
Evans notes that the Downtown Development Authority has been really helpful in opening the second Luna. “All the people we needed to meet with were able to come together at once and get all our paperwork handled,” he says. “You don’t get that in Lake Charles.”
He’s also enrolled his two school-aged children in the Lafayette Parish School System, with both attending Southside High School. He was beyond impressed. “They were supposed to go to Barbe [High School in Lake Charles]. They feel like they’re in a Disney movie,” he says.
Overall, Breland, Grantham and Evans agree that Lafayette has a few fantastic amenities but that doesn’t make it home. For Grantham, Lake Charles still is.
“One thing I love about Lake Charles is being able to walk along the sea wall or in a park that’s tucked up next to the lake,” Grantham says. “I can take my five kids and we can look for Pinky the Dolphin [an albino dolphin that lives in nearby Big Lake] and her baby. Lafayette has more restaurants, but we have Pinky. She’s ours. You can’t have her.”