Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Raymond carries a bucket. Anyone who spends any time in downtown Jackson has seen him. Tall and lanky, he walks the streets with a perpetual offer to clean your car windshield or shine your wheels.
Officer Green rides a Segway. Those walking to lunch around noon on weekdays have seen her, too. Dressed in her black uniform, she is a dedicated member of the Jackson Police Department who mixes the seriousness of her job with a sense of humor and a smile that makes you feel good.
Tye runs a downtown restaurant. Heidi lives in a downtown high rise. Andy manages a downtown blues and jazz club. Mart transforms aging downtown buildings into luxury apartments. The list goes on. While these names may not be familiar to those who live outside the central business district, each one can attest to the value of downtown Jackson. And most will tell you why downtown is so vital to the success of the surrounding metropolitan area.
Yet just three years ago, none of these people were here. Just three years ago, the King Edward Hotel was only a cable length away from the wrecking ball. Three years ago, nightlife was as dead as Congress Street at midnight. Three years ago, the Old Capitol was just old. But that was thenwhen most people still saw downtown Jackson as nothing more than an empty promise.
The success of any city's core hinges on many factors: the foresight and willingness of developers to take calculated risks; the fortitude and determination of city leaders to never give up, even when administrations change and political priorities shift; the fresh ideas of entrepreneurs who recognize potential when others don't; committed residents who see the future in urban living; and the loyalty and courage of business owners who are willing to stay downtown when others all say, "move."
But mainly, the success of downtowns everywhere swings on the ability of all these groups to come together as a single neighborhood-not in the traditional sense, but in a state of productive co-existence not found anywhere else. And it rides on the capacity of these new neighbors to live not only with each other, but to necessarily subsist with those that other neighborhoods most often reject. People such as Raymond.
Downtown Jackson is anything but a normal neighborhood. Crime in the central business district is not nearly as prevalent as in other parts of the city. Downtown bustles during the week, yet, for residents, the weekends bring a quiet and calm found nowhere else in Jackson. The bond and spirit of cooperation between those who call downtown home is unlike any other in any traditional neighborhood. And more, these residents have established strong connections and friendships with the business community, city leaders and municipal employees, developers and entrepreneurs. Does such a complete neighborhood exist anywhere else in the city?
Downtown Jackson as a neighborhood is not perfect. But the problems it faces are only microcosms of the issues that Mississippi faces as a state: the homeless who have no place to live but on the street; the ignorance of some who view their communities only in black and white; the economic and social conditions that are root causes of crime and decay; the misperceptions and mischaracterizations that are based solely on the past. Yet for every problem, downtown Jackson has a success and is moving forward. How? By understanding that achievements come in modest steps, not gulps; that progress stems from a steady stream of ideas by neighbors unafraid to buck the norm and take action; that life downtown is never a static proposition.
When the occasional car burglary does occur downtownand, yes, it does occurneighbors don't wait for answers; they find them by coming together in a matter of hours. Residents, building owners, downtown organizations, the neighborhood association, police and private security all sit down and make adjustments to schedules, patrols and routines to prevent future occurrences. No fingerpointing. No blame. Just solutions.
In City Hall hangs a black and white photograph that shows Capitol Street in the early 20th century. The photograph shows particularly heavy rains causing nearby creek to top its banks, pouring water into the street and into the businesses that line it. But the real story behind that photo is not the flood, but the scores of people standing along the thoroughfare. These neighbors of nearly 100 years ago knew a huge task awaited them. Yet, their demeanor is one of determination, not fear; of opportunity, not failure. Indeed, if you look closely, some are even smiling.
That same photograph could be taken today. The buggies are gone, the fashions have changed, and the flood has past, but the doggedness, commitment and sense of place that has always defined this city are most certainly still alive in downtown Jackson.
Michael Rejebian is a resident of downtown Jackson.
You can't say it better than this. Great piece, MIchael! Jackson's Downtown Neighborhood Association ("JDNA") sure appreciates it.