While my native state of Louisiana is a social and economic disaster, Baton Rouge, the state capital, keeps getting better.
Downtown Baton Rouge, once abandoned by state Capitol, bank and retail workers at night, now draws visitors at all hours with its exciting restaurants, museums, clubs, concert venues and hotels.
Once characterized by white flight to cookie-cutter suburbs, Baton Rouge in recent years has revitalized intown neighborhoods. Despite severe cuts in state funding, LSU offers innovative programs and projects.
The city battles a crime problem - the red in Red Stick now means blood from murders - and is beset by racial conflict and economic divisions. Yet, each time I return to my hometown, I'm impressed by the vitality of downtown and older, once languishing neighborhoods.
The Baton Rouge Gallery/Center for Contemporary Arts has become one of my favorite groups leading the old oil/port city's renaissance. I avidly follow the gallery's Facebook page, impressed and enthralled by its ambitious cultural programs.
An artists' co-operative for 50 years, the gallery offers art exhibits, literary readings and social events at the old City Park pool house, which I vividly remember from childhood.
For years, the City Park pool attracted families who changed into their swimsuits in the pool house's locker rooms. I have flickering memories of walking through a rubber mat's grayish chlorinated water and walking down steps to the sun-dazzled pool, holding my mother or father's hand.The pool was also a favorite destination for birthday parties.
I've known for years that the old pool house had been converted into an art gallery. My interest rose at the start of the year when I read in the Baton Rouge Advocate about the gallery's annual Surreal Ball, an international art show that draws guests who wear outlandish costumes.
The 10th annual event this year included more than 60 works representing artists from five different countries and 19 states, according to the gallery's web site. A total of 600 works were submitted to the show, from which the final selections were made.
The gallery's work goes beyond painting, sculpture and photography. I was impressed that the gallery will sponsor a reading Thursday night by Baton Rouge poet Dylan Krieger, whose first book, "Giving Godhead," received a rapturous review in The New York Times. The reading marks the release of Krieger's second book, "Dreamland Trash."
The gallery's promotion of poetry continues Sunday with a reading by Michael Blanchard, part of the gallery's "Sundays at 4" series.
I follow the gallery's admirable work with a dose of nostalgia. The pool house, with its striking Mediterranean-style architecture, sits upon a small hill adjacent to City Park golf course, the nine-hole layout where I spent countless happy hours during my boyhood. Along with my strong memories of the gigantic pool, I've always been fascinated by its notorious chapter in Baton Rouge history.
Dating back to the 1920s, the pool and its crowds were difficult for lifeguards to control. A series of drownings, how many I can't remember, never seemed to hurt the pool's popularity during the humid Baton Rouge summers.
A wooden wall/bridge separated the pool's shallow and deep ends. Kids who wanted to go to the deep end had to pass a swimming test from one of the lifeguards who patrolled the wall.
But the drowning risk continued, leading to the pool's closure in 1963. Not mentioned was the civil rights movement and efforts by blacks to integrate the pool. Along with the pool's dangers, the city of Baton Rouge didn't wish to allow blacks to swim and use the clubhouse.
Covered up for years, the abandoned pool gave me some of my favorite golf moments. The pool's old brick maintenance shed stood beside par-4 ninth hole's fairway, marking the spot where the hole's dogleg began. As I grew stronger in my teen years, I could drive the ninth's green by "cutting the dogleg" with a tee shot over the pool. Seeing the ball fly over the pool toward the distant green was one of my biggest thrills.
I revisited the old course a few years ago. The pool area had been converted into a large patio, where caterers were setting up tables for an event that afternoon. The ninth hole remained as I'd remembered, its flag stirred by a mellow breeze.