Lafayette is a City
If Lafayette is the Hub City—the “heart” of Lafayette Parish and Acadiana, Downtown is what makes it beat. But in recent years, Lafayette’s growth has expanded mostly outside city limits. Marie Elizabeth Oliver investigates this outward migration, as well as the most recent updates to the Lafayette Consolidated Government’s charter with Kenneth Boudreaux and Will Thiele.
Editor’s Note: Hey y’all, we recorded these episodes in 2022. Since then, two people we interviewed have launched campaigns for office. The Current is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates. We decided to keep these interviews because of the perspectives they represent. Thanks!
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: If you look at a city map of Lafayette, there’s no grid to speak of. The city’s major roads squiggle and squirm, hugging bayous and crossing coulees. It’s a community of about 120,000 people, boiling over with tradition and a culture that at any moment can sweep you off your feet for a wild ride around the dance floor.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver with The Current and this is the second episode of Lafayette 101: Lafayette is a City.
If Lafayette is the Hub City—the “heart” of Lafayette Parish and Acadiana, Downtown is what makes it beat. From outdoor festivals and restaurants to the towering St. John’s Cathedral, Downtown pumps the sprawling city full of cultural vitality and a tangible connection to its history.
It started with earnest intentions. Lafayette’s first lots were developed near the original Cathedral settlement on a north-south grid. They were named to honor U.S. presidents and plotted around a courthouse square. One hundred years later, as Lafayette recovered from the Great Depression, cars became the primary mode of transportation. And, the city expanded organically with the most valuable residential lots taking hold along the Vermilion River. Johnston Street unfurled as a major thoroughfare. The road vectored Southwest from Downtown, parallel to the river.
Today, driving by the vape shops, car washes and urgent care offices, a trip down Johnston Street looks much different than it did in the city’s early days. But it remains central to its commerce and has evolved as a timeline of modern-day Lafayette’s residential expansion.
As we discussed in the previous episode, Lafayette’s growth is happening mostly outside the city limits. Johnston Street’s southbound traffic moves like a current, propelling people toward shiny big box chains and wide open spaces. Away from Downtown and the areas east of the Evangeline Thruway, which most locals call the Northside.
Taj Johnson: My name is Taj Johnson. There’s a lot about Lafayette that it’s a duality. It’s a beautiful place because I’m from Upper Lafayette, and then I hear people talk about all the opportunity that’s here. I’ve encountered people who don’t even think of Upper Lafayette as part of Lafayette. It just pains that not everybody sees Lafayette in its totality.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Kenneth Boudreaux grew up in the McComb-Veazey neighborhood on the Northside of Lafayette. He served on the Lafayette city-parish council for 12 years. He sees Lafayette as a hub, yes, but also as a city at risk. He has seen firsthand how people are abandoning North Lafayette neighborhoods for better opportunities and quality of life.
Kenneth Boudreaux: The first view of it was white flight. Now we have Black flight because any Black person who has an opportunity to get out and move into something better, they do it as well. Everybody is seeking good housing, access to good jobs, most importantly, good schools for their children.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: He says he doesn’t blame people for choosing to move away, but he wishes the local government would place more value in Lafayette’s oldest neighborhoods and dedicate resources to fix what he believes could become irreversible damage.
Kenneth Boudreaux: It behooves them to do whatever they can to protect the mere existence, and the enhancement of the city of Lafayette, because as Lafayette goes, the city, Lafayette Parish goes as well.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: He’s witnessed once-vibrant neighborhoods like McComb-Veazey continue to lose residents. Boudreaux predicts an increase in outward migration if things don’t change. He likens what’s happened in North Lafayette to the decay hidden inside a tooth with otherwise shiny enamel.
Kenneth Boudreaux: If we don’t fix the cavity by putting the resources where the greater need exists, eventually the entire city, and then we’re gonna see growth on I-10 and Scott, and we’re gonna see growth on US-90 and Broussard and Youngsville. We’re gonna see growth along Ambassador South in Youngsville, but the city of Lafayette is gonna erode and deteriorate and eventually be gone.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: He says his goal is not to increase government, but to ensure city resources and taxpayer money are invested in the city of Lafayette. He points to local government services (like fire protection, storm cleanup, schools, parks, libraries and broadband) as pain points, where he believes consolidation isn’t serving everyone equally.
Kenneth Boudreaux: At the end of the day, we need a product that is fair. We need a product that is equitable, a product that is serving all its citizens equally across the board, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, religion, geographics or demographics, right, so that’s the most important thing.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Reporters and academics have documented how consolidation has negatively impacted Black and low-income communities across the country. In Lafayette, the growth outside the city center has left these neighborhoods behind. Boudreaux says his plea for city autonomy is about fair representation, but also about investing in the future of Lafayette.
Angeline Matthews: My name is Angeline Matthews. I’m 19. I was born here, but I actually grew up in Nigeria. Lafayette is just so small and quaint. You can find your communities wherever you look. You don’t have to move to a big city to find queer people, or Black people or whatever group you’re a part of. You can find those in little pockets of Lafayette. And since it’s such a small community, it’s so much closer, and everyone knows everyone, and I love that.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Will Thiele knows what it’s like to be confused by Lafayette’s government. The Michigan native migrated to Lafayette (like so many before him) for love. Thiele met his partner, a Lafayette native, after moving to work at an accounting firm in Baton Rouge. The couple has lived in Lafayette now for almost a decade.
Will Thiele: I remember one of the first times we went out on one of our first dates was to Festival Acadien. I remember going with him to my very first Festival International. We joined the Krewe of Apollo together. I saw my first Mardi Graw with him, so I fell in love with Lafayette pretty quickly as well.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: But as enthralled as he was with the city’s culture, Thiele says for the first four years or so, he couldn’t have told you the name of the mayor-president, much less his parish council member. Over time, he began to hear people talking about Lafayette’s local government structure. His curiosity was piqued. The more he learned about consolidated government, the less it made sense to him.
Will Thiele: But I remember hearing about consolidated government from people, and they never fully understood what it was or why it existed, or what was the benefit of it. And the people I heard it from really struggled to explain, give me those answers.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: One day, Thiele got a news alert that the council was voting on a charter amendment to split up the city-parish council. So he decided to go to City Hall and sit in on his very first council meeting. This one meeting jump-started his journey into Lafayette civic engagement. Thiele says the “Fix the Charter” cause ignited something inside him. The people he heard from at that meeting made him want to fight for what he believed in. Something he learned in school, as a kid in Ann Arbor: That everyone should have the right to fair representation in government.
At the time, Lafayette Consolidated Government only had one council that represented both the city and the parish residents. That meant, people in Youngsville, Broussard, Carencro and Scott had their own separate city representatives, council and mayor, but people living in Lafayette did not.
Will Thiele: Why wouldn’t the city resident get the exact same representation? As somebody in a neighboring city in the same parish, and that made sense to me, it absolutely made sense to me. Furthermore, I think the city of Lafayette was allowed to vote on matters that were kind of parish-only matters, giving the city more influence or control than it ought to have had.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Thiele joined the Fix the Charter campaign in 2018, trying to get enough votes from Lafayette residents to add a separate Lafayette city council. Thiele knocked on doors and waved signs in the rain. He did everything he could to convince people to vote for what he thought was a more just form of government. Ultimately, the campaign was successful and the vote passed, changing Lafayette’s government structure for the first time since consolidation.
Will Thiele: And when the votes came in and we won, I’m sure I cried. Like I felt like we won our city. Like I felt like we fought for our city and we won. And we, and we convinced the public that we have the form of government that makes more sense. And they agreed.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Thiele recently served on the City-Parish Alignment Commission, where he worked with people on both sides of the consolidation debate. He says volunteering his time for the commission gave him the opportunity to have an open dialogue with people who disagree with him. He thinks there’s more that needs to change before city residents have fair representation. Still, he believes in the power of local government to make a difference.
But what role should consolidation play in our local government? And how did Lafayette get here to begin with? In our next episode, “Is Lafayette Better Together,” we dig into the history and philosophies behind consolidation, and the ongoing debate about deconsolidation.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver and this has been Lafayette 101: Lafayette is a City. Don’t miss our next episode: Is Lafayette Better Together?
Lafayette 101 is a production of the Current Media Incorporated. Our theme music is by Lost Bayou Ramblers. The show was mixed and edited by Aaron Thomas. A special thanks to our media partners, KRVS 88.7-FM and AOC Community Media. You can read a transcript of this and previous episodes, as well as more how-to guides and reporting at TheCurrentLa.com.