Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 12, 2009

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – Anyone driving down Main Street in LaPlace and making the turn onto West Fifth Street may have noticed some changes to the intersection of late. The clutter that once crowded the area has been disappearing slowly. It has replaced by a mound of dirt destined to become a “grassy knoll.”

This work has been spearheaded by Jane Montz DesRoches, a firecracker of a lady who has made it her personal mission to restore the faded beauty of an area once known as LaPlace’s “garden district.”

A LaPlace native, DesRoches lived for a time in St. Louis but moved back to the area following the death of her husband. In 2007 she bought a house near the aforementioned intersection, blocks from where she spent her childhood.

“I had rental property here, my roots are here,” she said. “Where else was I going to go?”

Her roots here go quite deep. Her family operated Cliff’s Bar, the Main Street mainstay that closed in 2005. That was the place that instilled a strong sense of civic responsibility in DesRoches. Although her family was not directly involved in politics, it was a frequent topic of conversation at the local watering hole.

And it is a combination of that background and a strong sense of place that has put DesRoches in the position she is in today.

When the option to purchase the home on West Fifth Street presented itself, she knew renovating the structure would be a hefty undertaking, but it was one she felt sure of.

She described the emotion in her typically poetic style. “The dirt feels good under my feet.”

For her, it seems, many of her projects start as an emotion or a vision that she then translates into an idea.

She said these visions often wake her in the middle of the night. “That’s when these lights go off,” she said.

According to DesRoches, it was driving past the run down corner of Main Street and West Fifth that inspired the vision of the grassy knoll.

What separates DesRoches from most others, however, is she has the will to turn her visions into reality. After being struck with the vision of the grassy knoll, she began making phone calls to get the clutter removed and to secure the dirt necessary to make it happen. She said she called the sheriff, and he was “100 percent behind us.”

The “us” she referred to is a group of like-minded citizens dedicated to beautifying the area, which they have dubbed “rue des jardin” or “street of the garden.”

Since beginning that initial project, the group has set its sights on tackling other issues along West Fifth Street between Main Street and the Belle Pointe curve.

Although DesRoche would eventually like to see her efforts make an impact beyond West Fifth Street, she is purposely keeping her scope somewhat narrow for the time being. “I’m focusing right now on what I feel I can control.”

The civic organization called its first meeting in October, and about 75 people showed up. Since then, they have held occasional social gatherings to flesh out their shared vision for the area.

One of their first projects was mapping out the area to better determine just what exactly they were dealing with. They also enlisted the help of art students at John L. Ory Communications Magnet School to draw what they thought the street should look like.

Enlisting the help and input of the greater community has been a trademark of the group’s efforts. One of the next undertakings of the organization is to award someone in the neighborhood with a “garden of the month” sign, a sort of reward for individual beautification efforts. DesRoches plans to hand the first one out by Christmas, but says the award will more likely be a seasonal rather than a monthly affair.

The group is also making efforts to ensure the street’s tattered sidewalks are repaired.

Only a few months old, the group has accomplished than most do in years, a feat that surprises even DesRoches herself. As she said, “We’ve got a locomotive pulling this thing.”

But no matter how far-reaching the group’s effects become, the intersection of Main Street and West Fifth will always be her ground zero.

“That’s where it started. Make a difference on this corner.”