A Visitor’s Guide to Shreveport-Bossier

There’s more than just horse-racing to attract tourists to the twin cities.

You have managed to survive the December doldrums, the January jitters, the February flu, and you’ve just missed a case of the March miseries. Well, don’t reach for the kleenex, reach for a pencil and circle a date on your calendar. It’s June 30, when the horses will begin running at Louisiana Downs.

If recent history is an indication, east-bound traffic headed out of Dallas on Interstate 20 will pick up considerably during Louisiana Downs’ 105-day racing season. It’s an easy 3 1/2 -hour drive to Shreveport-Bossier City from Dallas, with no stop lights. On some days last year there were more Texas license plates than Louisiana plates in the parking lot at the Downs. Texans come by the busload, too – chartered bus after chartered bus. And they find more reasons than racing for making the trip.

Shreveport-Bossier, separated in writing by the hyphen, and in actuality by the Red River, is part of the “Ark-La-Tex” area, which contains the southwest corner of Arkansas, the northeast corner of Texas, and the northwest corner of Louisiana.

The Downs, with its posh clubhouse and comfortable facilities, not to speak of parimutuel betting, is naturally a drawing card during the racing season. But Shreveport, kingpin of the twin cities on the Red River, and Bossier City, its sister on the east bank, have been undergoing changes that have made both considerably more attractive to tourists year-round.

There are new restaurants – a surprising number of good ones – new motels, new theaters and night spots, new malls and shopping centers, and several new tourist attractions, including the American Rose Center, headquarters for the American Rose Society and its show gardens. Established in 1974, the Center covers 118 acres with 25 acres already planted and landscaped, and other gardens, walkways, fountains and lakes in various stages of construction and planning. It is being planted with azaleas, camellias, and early spring bulbs as well as roses to make it an attraction even during the months when the roses are not in bloom.

New and planned tourist and convention facilities, new highway construction, and historic restorations – all are having an impact on the area. Things haven’t been so lively since Shreveport Rebs rigged up fake cannons and scared off the Yankee gunboats during the Civil War. (The bluff where that incident is said to have occurred is appropriately named Fort Humbug, and a National Guard armory occupies that site today, overlooking scenic Veterans Park.)

A Shreveporter on a shopping trip to Dallas last year was surprised to have a Dallasite inquire whether it was necessary to have reservations in a Shreveport restaurant she was particularly interested in trying on her next weekend trip there.

The reaction was natural. There was a time not long ago when most of the traffic on 1-20 between Shreveport and Dallas was westbound. People went to Bossier City mostly because of assignment to Barksdale Air Force Base, headquarters of the 8th Air Force and major installation of the Strategic Air Command.

There was a joke among people new to the area that Shreveporters, on the west bank of Red River, thought respectable people ail went to bed at 10 p.m. On the east side of the river, the old Bossier Strip provided a diversion for teen-agers and young airmen, but civilized entertainment with a measure of professionalism was hard to find. The Louisiana Hayride, which has been attracting country music fans for 30 years, was an exception. Once launched in Shreveport, singers and musicians went off to win their fame and fortune elsewhere: Nashville, rather than Shreveport, became the country music capital of America.

The one-way traffic west became a source of vexation to North Louisiana businessmen. Many Shreveporters and Bossierites have shopped in Dallas, dined in Dallas and gone to Dallas for recreational and cultural events. Shreve-port identifies closely with Texas in many respects. There was once even a move to secede from Louisiana and annex Shreveport to Texas.

Traditionally conservative in its politics, and more akin to the Anglo-Protestant areas of East Texas and South Arkansas than to the Catholic Cajun and Creole regions of South Louisiana, Shreveport in pioneer days was the last stop on the trail to Texas. Local historians retell the stories of wagon trains stirring dust along the main street – appropriately named Texas – as they wound their way West.

The heroes of the Alamo were Shreve-port’s heroes, and the city named streets for them. Crockett, Travis, Fan-nin – downtown streets still carry their names.

Horses, roses, music, pretty parks and stately mansions. Cotton fields within the city limits. Drilling rigs, hammers pounding, skeletons of steel against the sky. Shreveport-Bossier City is a paradoxical kind of place. It is the proud Old South. But it is the New South too, experiencing new growth, beginning to make a few gestures in new directions, trying new ideas.

Van Cliburn lives here, in a comfortable brick home in the staid South Highland area. It is home to country music singers David Houston and Faron Young. Elvis Presley got his start here at the Louisiana Hayride. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton both starred here, and their widow still lives here (she was widowed first by Williams and then by Horton). The honky tonks along the Bossier Strip still wink and blink in a blaze of neon on Saturday night, but this is an area of churches.

Shreveport owes its existence to its strategic location on the Red River and its proximity to Texas and Arkansas. During its pioneer period it was a rough-and-tumble river port, and because of the river it became a distribution center. A local theory holds that the bragging boisterous cowboys rode off toward Texas, while the more civilized pioneers remained in Shreveport to settle down to a more sedate, more conventional life.

Shreveport grew slowly. Growth was retarded by setbacks over which it had no control – fires, epidemics and the Civil War. After the demise of the river traffic, the railroads and later discovery of oil in the rich Caddo field injected new life into the economy. However, a staggering blow came in the 1950s. Many of the oil and gas companies consolidated their operations elsewhere and departed to search for deeper wells.

Perhaps it was the departure of the oil companies that prodded the North Louisianans out of their lethargy, or maybe it was the prospect of the loss of AMF Beaird, one of its major manufacturing plants. In 1962 the city of Shreve-port voted a $9.2 million revenue bond issue, built a plant for Beaird and negotiated a lease agreement to retire the bonds. That marked the start of active industrial recruitment which has been moderately successful in both cities. Among the plants that have located in Shreveport is the giant Western Electric plant which employs more than 6,000 persons. Today there is a variety of manufacturing, from Ragtime blue-jeans to oilfield supplies and tools. Just last year General Motors announced plans for a Shreveport plant which will assemble trucks. There are also new schools and colleges, including the LSU Medical School.

The last population estimates were 210,000 for Shreveport and 54,000 for Bossier City, which is growing even more rapidly than Shreveport.

Young people with young ideas are having an impact on the area. They are joining their seniors in a historic preservation effort which is turning several of the city’s older residential and slum areas into attractive middle-class neighborhoods. Visitors are encouraged to visit areas like Austin Place, which a few years ago was a deteriorating slum and today is occupied by refurbished Victorian dwellings. An old depot is soon to be turned into a new downtown restaurant and railroad museum.

Two of Shreveport’s young professionals, Judd Tooke, a lawyer, and Jim Montgomery, editor of the editorial page for the morning newspaper, joined with State Senator Virginia Shehee to form the non-profit corporation that persuaded ABC Interstate Theaters, Inc. to give away the Strand Theater, a 53-year-old movie palace slated for restoration as a center for the performing arts. They subsequently succeeded in having the Strand placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and kicked off a $1 million fund-raising drive with a vaudeville-type benefit attended by a cross section of the community.

Shreveporters support a symphony orchestra, bring to town a military band, and stage a fireworks show on the riverfront annually on the Fourth of July, when the crowd numbers in the thousands. Throw open the Barksdale gates for an open house during the Holiday in Dixie spring festival, and they turn out by the hundreds of thousands. Cut a rosebud on one of the city’s boulevards, where thousands of roses are planted, and incur their wrath. (They will tell you: “We don’t allow people to cut our roses.”)

Shreveport’s parks and gardens, placid bayous, and the winding river are among its chief assets. One of the most pleasant places in the city is Veterans Park, a sprawling recreational area which stretches several miles along the riverfront. Traversed by the Fant Parkway, it is particularly popular with local young people. On Sunday afternoons there are frequently free rock concerts or taped music playing in the amphitheater; there is a frisbee golf course, where as many as a thousand locals are likely to gather in a single afternoon; there are picnic facilities and a bike trail, where there are almost always joggers dodging bikers and vice versa. The park is lighted for night picnicking and entertainment, and a summer program including concerts and children’s movies is planned.

The Barnwell Art and Garden Center, across Fant Parkway from the Civic Theater and site of a soon-to-be-built Convention Hall, is a scenic spot to visit. The Barnwell also has some good traveling art exhibits. The small garden on the river side of the building should not be missed.

There is considerable diversity among Shreveport’s museums. The R.

W. Norton Art Gallery, a privately endowed facility, houses one of the country’s best collections of Russell and Remington art of the American West. It also has a hodge-podge of other art treasures of a quality seldom seen in a city twice the size of Shreveport, and the grounds are beautifully landscaped .with hundred of azaleas.

At Centenary College the Meadows Museum houses the Indo-Chinese art collection of Jean Despujols, which is particularly valuable because it captured the life of Vietnam before the country was torn by war. Dallas oilman Algur Meadows donated the collection to the college, and provided $300,000 to renovate the old administration building and convert it to a museum. Other exhibits are also displayed at the Meadows on loan from other museums and galleries.

The Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, on the Louisiana State Fair Grounds, provides a distinctly different kind of fare, particularly interesting to children and archaeology buffs. It has an exhibit of dioramas that depict Louisiana’s agricultural and cultural development. Included is a diorama on the historic Poverty Point site, where Indians assembled a city of great mounds, one of the largest known examples of pre-Columbian earthworks in the country.

Not yet completed, Caspiana House is an old plantation home which was given to LSU-Shreveport. It was moved to the campus and is being restored as a folk life museum.

One of Shreveport’s most interesting areas is the downtown development called Shreve Square. This is a quaint riverfront area that has been restored and developed as a center for restaurants, nightlife, small shops and boutiques. The new and comfortable Chateau Motor Hotel, within easy walking distance, and New Orleans developer Joseph Canizar’s announcement of plans to renovate the old Captain Shreve Hotel and then erect a new hotel opposite the nearby American Tower, which is under construction, will provide new life for the square.

Some of Shreveport’s best restaurants are in residential or shopping areas out of the downtown areas. For example, Firenze, one of the few places where you can get fine continental cuisine, is in an apartment hotel a couple of miles from downtown. However, the Chateau itself serves reasonably good food (try the hamburger or the Cajun buffet on Friday night), and there are several places on the square where you can get a better-than-av-erage meal. Dietmar’s Garden Pub food is hard to beat but expect to pay for it. Prices are a surprise since they are not posted and there is no menu. The Nanking, near the Caddo Parish Courthouse, is a rather plain downtown restaurant where you can get a reasonably good meal – Oriental or American – at a reasonable price.

Many Shreveporters would probably advise visitors to go farther afield, to one of the restaurants on Cross Lake, the city’s water reservoir, or to one of the catfish places on neighboring lakes. They might suggest barbecue at the Hayride Kitchen, next door to the Louisiana Hayride on the Ben-ton Road north of Bossier City. Or they might suggest any of a number of neighborhood places such as Shorty Lenard’s and the Krock-O-Cheese. Seafood, imported daily from the Gulf Coast, abounds in Shreveport restaurants like Don’s, Sansone’s, Ernest’s and Brocato’s. The emphasis is on Southern Fried, but discriminating diners can find variety if they are willing to look for it.

In some ways Shreveport has triedto top New Orleans and South Louisiana. You notice it in the names of apartment and office developments, andsometimes in the foods listed on localmenus. But you can also find localproducts, local labels, evidence of therivertown, gateway to Texas heritage- if you look. The pecan shop on theriverfront makes and sells pralines,like those made in New Orleans, andthe pecans are grown in North Louisiana orchards. There is a small factory in Shreveport that still turns outthe peanut patties that most everyNorth Louisiana child ate by the dozens in years gone by. You can buy a T-shirt with the slogan “The Strand isGrand” or any of several regionalcookbooks. You can do all that andmore with your winnings from Louisiana Downs.

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