Imagine, if you will.
Youíre a visitor. Youíre driving in from U.S. 90, and come down Main Street. Never been here before, but you heard about it, and youíre full of anticipation.
You reach the historic district. The sign at the west end of the district doesnít have a plant growing in front of it anymore, and you can read it easily: Franklin Historic District. Past Iberia Street, and you get your first view of the lampposts. You are suitably impressed.
Through downtown. Some of the privately owned buildings arenít so deplorable as they are now. People have begun to take pride in their properties across the board. All the lamps are tastefully decorated with holiday lights, and so are the storefronts. You pass the Blevins Building, and the gutters arenít rusted and hanging off in places, the window panes are all unbroken and clean, and the windows themselves are snug and square rather than hanging dejectedly. Thereís a huge bright star on the front of the St. Mary Parish Courthouse, lending a seasonal attractiveness even to that structure.
After finding a suitable parking place Ė there are enough, but thereís a lot of cars already Ė you gather up the kids or the significant other and head down to the bayouside.
First thing you think is that all the stars have come down and settled in this little town.
All of Parc sur la Teche is ablaze with Christmas lights. All the trees are wrapped with them, the bridge is bedecked with them. Not just a few strings, mind you, but cascading falls, spirals, towers and bursts. The boardwalk is adorned with even more, and across the bayou the folks in Eastwood have illuminated their own back yards and bayousides with a colorful explosion of lights. A bayou bank lighting contest was one of the events held for the locals, with really nice prizes awarded to the winners.
All along Teche Drive there are vendors with all manner of goodies: snacks, hot chocolate if itís cold enough. Under the pavilion at Parc sur la Teche, the Teche Theatre for the Performing Arts is performing a Christmas-themed skit, not too long, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. It starts every hour or two and repeats.
You hear a clop clop clop sound and a jingling. You step out of the way of a horse-drawn buggy carrying delighted children and a pair of smiling grandparents as it makes its way through its route. At the corner of Willow and Teche are carolers; at Commercial and Teche, across from the skit under way, and at Jackson and Teche, there are signs of North Pole-style, pointing toward Main Street and reading "DINING-GIFTS-ATTRACTIONS". You notice that the little pump house there on the bayouside doesnít really stand out like a sore thumb now that its woodwork has been repaired, itís been cleaned up and repainted.
A little farther down and thereís a huge, open-air plaza, double-storied, with either the original façade of the Center Theater or a reproduction. It extends across Teche Drive to Bayou Teche. Under the plaza folks are enjoying eggnog along with more carolers, and perhaps some historical skits of Franklin and St. Mary Parishís long and colorful history. There are local crafts people there, selling beautiful tree ornaments and other handiwork. Over on the expanse at the bayou, more people are overlooking the view of the illuminated Teche.
You wander down to Main Street for a bite to eat at the restaurants, and pick up a few gifts for family and friends at the stores. At every lamp is a giant Christmas card made by local students. People are milling around everywhere, feeling perfectly safe, because everythingís well-lit and thereís a couple of police officers constantly in view. There are more North Pole-style signs, directing you to one of our local motels or bed and breakfasts and inns if you want to make a night of it. Another points the way to Grevemberg House.
A glance at your watch, and you realize itís time to get back to the waterís edge. Santa is coming through in just a few minutes. Heíll be taking wish lists from the tykes. Across the Teche, where there once were woods, a Cajun village is lit up with subdued but no less beautiful lights. After Santa has passed, you walk over there and discover a cypress, Acadian-style home has a period Christmas scene going on, static or perhaps live, say from when the Acadians first arrived in Louisiana, historically accurate. Thereís another next to it showing similar scenes features every fact of our whole culture area, in microcosm. There might be a manger scene, too, where the youngsters can pet a few of the animals that gathered around Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus that night 2,000 years ago.
If youíre there on Christmas Eve or New Yearís Eve, thereíll be a stunning professional fireworks show, because this amazing display last from Thanksgiving to Jan. 1.
And as you leave, youíll be satisfied that the trip was worth it. Youíll be sure to tell all your friends, and make plans to come back again next year.
Sound like a pipe-dream? Not for Shreveport, Bossier City, Natchitoches and Marshall, Jefferson and Kilgore, Texas, communities which have united to light up their communities in a sort of interstate tour de force of holiday festivities and attractions.
"People will be treated to ice skating, fireworks, parades, train rides, a snow hill and beautiful holiday sights from Thanksgiving to New Yearís," the AP story said. "The Holiday Trail of Lights earns up to $350,000 a year for the Shreveport-Bossier City area alone."
Isnít it time we think outside the box, folks?
I asked myself, recently, what it is about a city Iím passing through for the first time that causes me to make instant judgements about it, consciously or subconsciously?
Of course, itís unfair to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. I think if I pass through a town for the first time and itís junky and unkempt, Iím going to arbitrarily dismiss it. If I see fresh paint on the signs, no peeling billboards, clean streets (forgiving a little litter because we all know that battleís never-ending) and well kept buildings, well, I sense community pride.
We really have put a good face forward, but whatís frustrating is the little things we just donít seem to notice or care about, and itís those details that count most.
Most of us are sick and tired of waiting for a big industry to come in and hire up a thousand people. We really have lost faith and interest in that notion a long, long time ago. Weíre not saying we donít want to induce or cater to one if theyíre out there, but for the love of Pete, think outside the box already.
This beautiful, historic and friendly community is as visitable and promotable as any of those mentioned above, a few pimples notwithstanding that could be easily addressed. If we just spent a little effort. If we just took a little time and sat down and tried.
Good grief, people come from all over the south to see the Christmas lights in Natchitoches, did you know that? And they eat in the restaurants and look at the other attractions and stay in the hotels.
Natchitoches didnít start with a bazillion lights. They started with a few thousand, and they grew into it over the years. But they started somewhere. Nothing gets done if you donít try, and start somewhere.
Is it all governmentís responsibility? No! But it needs to take the lead. It needs to think outside the box. Perhaps a civic group can sponsor the buggy rides. Another might work up the performance skits. There are infinite possibilities if we work together as a community and not just shrug and claim to have more important things to worry about.
And thatís just one of a countless things we could have going on down here, almost year-round. Things associated with Harvest Moon Fest, with the Bear Fest, with nearly anything.
In the same way those communities along I-49 and I-20 united, maybe visitors could leap-frog over a weekend, enjoying Baldwin and Franklin on a Saturday, then Patterson and Morgan City on the Sunday following, all with their own flavor of entertainment and attractions.
If we just think outside the box. If we stop having "more important" things to worry about and start having "equally important" ones. If we open our eyes and tidy up a little, fix ourselves up a bit, put our best face forward.
We can either let this box be like a gift, or a dank little cage. Itís up to us.