Historic preservation takes many guises: It protects the physical history of a place, and pays homage to the culture and events that shaped a town’s character. Preservation can also turn precious, making building stock prohibitively expensive for its inhabitants to renovate or remake.
In Baltimore, we tour a historic neighborhood divided between an architectural preservation movement and the need for affordable housing, and in Key West we examine the disconnect between a town of 26,000 residents and the construction that accommodates its two million annual tourists. Jackson, Mississippi, is a place still reconciling its segregated past to its rich tradition of African-American culture and activism.
Written by Stacia L. Brown
Video by Justin Brooks
Photos by Andrew Mangum
Walking along the 1200 through 1400 blocks of Druid Hill Avenue is like stepping into a wrinkle in the time-space continuum. The lush trees and beautiful white-marble-stooped rowhomes hearken back to the first half of the 20th century when Marble Hill, the community to which these blocks belong, was home to Baltimore’s most elite black residents, including Thurgood Marshall, who would later join the Supreme Court, and civil rights lawyer Clarence Mitchell Jr.
But decay also mottles Marble Hill. Boarded up and uninhabitable rowhomes sit right next to upkept ones, reminding visitors that they’re not in the grand old heyday of wealthy Black Baltimore lore. In 2016, Marble Hill’s private residences are underpopulated, while the public housing that borders them is overcrowded.
Because of the neighborhood’s designation as a historic district, many buildings that have been boarded or even marked condemned can’t be demolished without public committee hearings. Renovation of the dilapidated spaces is a hard sell, as few individual and corporate entities have shown much interest in restoring the buildings to their former glory.
Despite the serenity of the Marble Hill blocks of Druid Hill Avenue and nearby Lafayette Avenue and McCulloh Street, there’s still too much blight for the blocks to stage a bonafide comeback.
This is a problem Reverend Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, attributes to a number of different factors. “Public policy—really bad public policy—has negatively influenced our community.”
In spite of the drastic changes that have altered its landscape, a few institutions in Marble Hill have remained stalwart: its churches. Druid Hill Avenue’s Union Baptist Church and Bethel AME Church, a Gothic edifice built in the 1800s and occupied by the congregation since 1911, drew Baltimore’s black elite to Marble Hill between the first and second World Wars, and they remain the backbone of the struggling community today.
Upton, the larger Old West Baltimore community to which Marble Hill belongs, is also an area of local renown. Known as the “Harlem of Baltimore” at the height of its popularity between World War II and the 1968 riots, Upton attracted black college graduates and professionals with a strong sense of pride in homeownership.
Marble Hill housed the most coveted real estate in all of Upton, because of its architecture and its proximity to historic Black churches, where worship, civil rights direct action organizing, and community service were occurring.
But by the 1980s, Marble Hill had become a shell of its former self, desegregation having enticed the neighborhood’s once upper-middle-class residents into suburbs in the late 1960s and beyond. And while other areas of the city experienced (often failed) urban renewal efforts in the 1970s, Marble Hill remained relatively untouched, its vacant structures remaining unoccupied and, increasingly, left not only to disrepair, but to open-air drug trade.
The belief of city government in 1985 was that Marble Hill’s civil rights legacy made it worthy of historic protections. Perhaps its hope was also that private citizens, investors, or developers would rehabilitate sites like 1838 Druid Hill Avenue (Thurgood Marshall’s onetime home) and return Marble Hill to its former status as a neighborhood to covet.
But too many years of neglect and crime resulted in a sustained disinvestment. Thirty years since Marble Hill became Historic Marble Hill, it remains embattled.
Signs of life in Marble Hill on a weekday are scarce. On a Thursday afternoon this August, I spotted one old man reading a newspaper outside a Masonic temple on McCulloh Street, one younger man sitting on a stoop in the same block, another man one street over on Druid Hill Avenue sitting outside of Bethel AME. A few commuters breeze by the empty, if beautifully well-manicured, Henry Highland Garnet Park.
Next door is 1313 Druid Hill Avenue, the former orphanage Home of the Friendless, which is not just boarded but condemned. A chain link fence surrounds the building, which housed a couple hundred children a year before relocating to the suburbs in 1922.
The building later became the first Black public health center in Baltimore, serving 91,000 city residents in its first year, 1939. The health center relocated in 1961, and the building was occupied by the city housing department until 1992. It has been vacant ever since, but the condemned sign is fresh, placed in late July.
Nearby is McCulloh Homes, a 31-acre public housing complex built in 1941. Druid Hill Avenue runs through the complex, which sits along Dolphin Street on the block adjacent to Union Baptist Church. It comprises low-rise housing with “courtyards” (spaces between buildings where clotheslines and sparse grass are located) and high-rise towers, known as the McCulloh Homes Extension.
Reverend Hathaway’s description of McCulloh Homes and its original purpose are charitable. He says it was initially intended for Black military veterans as temporary, post-war transitional housing—and it’s reserved only for low-income residents unable to afford other options.
According to the Baltimore Sun, McCulloh Homes had more nefarious origins. It came less than a decade after the publication of a 1934 study recommending that Baltimore use federal funds to split the city along racial lines: “The black neighborhood is truly a blighted area next to a good white residential neighborhood, and, if rehabilitated, would offer a splendid barrier against the encroachment of colored [people].”
It would take years for McCulloh Homes to fall into the dire straits in which it found itself following the mid-1960s. But the confluence of the 1968 riots and the post-Civil Rights Act exodus of upper-middle-class blacks from Marble Hill to suburbs forever changed the neighborhood.
Today, McCulloh Homes is one of many public housing structures in Baltimore City to lodge a large-scale complaint of deplorable living conditions, including vermin, water and heat irregularities, and repair requests left unanswered for months and years at a time. The complex was also one of three at the center of a scandal last year in which public housing residents alleged that Housing Authority maintenance workers demanded sex in exchange for repair work. Inevitably, crime is also a decades-long issue at McCulloh Homes.
Katrice Evans, 37, recalls visiting her grandmother in various units at McCulloh Homes during the 1980s and 1990s. She said units varied significantly in size, and her grandmother lived in several over the years.
“When she was on the 15th floor, it was kind of nice: a lot of room and she had a view overlooking the city. You could see the fireworks on the 4th of July.” But when she experienced flooding on that floor, she was relocated to the seventh floor, which Evans says may as well have been the bowels of the building. “That apartment was so small. And there were all of these exposed pipes.”
Until six years ago, when she moved to a senior housing facility, Evans’s grandmother remained a McCulloh Homes resident. “She loved it, because she was respected. Everyone knew and looked out for her there.”
But Evans concedes that things had changed by the time she stopped visiting the area. “They didn’t used to sell drugs in front of the seniors. Now, even that respect is gone. The sense of community has broken down.”
Evans isn’t so sure that public housing facility is the main impediment to Marble Hill’s ongoing vacancy, citing Bolton Hill, “which is predominantly white, also near public housing, and thriving.”
Instead, she believes the neighborhood’s residential challenges have more to do with the price discrepancy between renovated single-family homes and public housing. “When I had my daughter [15 years ago], I considered living in the area, because most of the family helping me lived near there. But when I looked at what they wanted for rent, it was just way too much for the neighborhood.”
“Renters outnumber homeowners,” explains Dr. Steva Komeh-Nkrumah, president of the Marble Hill Community Association. “In past decades the prevailing thought was that these homes were too large to be single-family. Many of the buildings were divided into three or more apartments by absentee landlords.”
Katrice Evans posits that if Marble Hill really wants to attract new homeowners, there should be new and better-publicized incentives. “Initiatives specific to that neighborhood,” she notes. “That’s how other areas of the city attract people.”
Despite her family’s long, strong ties to West Baltimore, Evans eventually bought her first home in Baltimore County.
Because of Union Baptist’s close proximity to Marble Hill’s public housing complex, Reverend Hathaway has taken a vested interest in “repositioning” McCulloh Homes.
“This is not how people should be living, on top of each other. People like space. We know what the qualities of good living are. These should be single-family structures that have a front door and a back door. Home should be a place of security and sanctity and peace.”
To illustrate Reverend Hathaway’s point, the housing density in Marble Hill, zip code , is housing units per square mile compared to units per square mile in .
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Two of the McCulloh Homes high-rise towers were sold to a private development firm, The Community Builders, in 2014 for $18 million, though specific plans for its renovation have yet to be made public. (A 2015 Baltimore City design and construction document claims that the high-rises are slated for “substantial rehab” at a cost of $33.8 million.)
Should the McCulloh Homes renovations eventually result in quality living and decreased crime, neighboring Marble Hill will still face impediments to residential redevelopment, namely its designation as a Historic Preservation Zone.
Potential homeowners are subject to more stringent regulations than in other areas of the city undergoing housing rehabilitation. The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) prohibits any large-scale renovations that would include the removal of significant architectural features, without request and appearance at a public hearing.
Dr. Komeh-Nkrumah still believes the neighborhood greatly benefits from those protections. “The main value of the historic designation is the ability to demand that the architectural character of these irreplaceable buildings is maintained,” and she mentioned a $10,000 grant given to owner-occupants to “assist with the restoration of the front facades of the buildings.”
But Dr. Komeh-Nkrumah also concedes that, even with a grant incentive and the grandeur of the architecture new homeowners stand to inherit, there are significant challenges to repair. “The buildings are large. Historically correct building materials are expensive. Skilled craftsmen are difficult to find.”
Earlier this year, Reverend Dr. Frank Reid III, the former longtime pastor of Bethel AME, appeared before CHAP to defend a decision to demolish a historic building the church owned, Freedom House, at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue.
A preservation fight had arisen over 1234, an activist hub for 1960s civil rights leaders, and its neighbor 1232. Reid’s prepared statement before the commission summed up a central tension in Marble Hill: “This is bigger than 1232… Buildings don’t make history. People make history.”
Dr. Komeh-Nkrumah and other preservationists disagreed, and they filed an injunction to stop the demolition. But in the end, Freedom House was deemed to be positioned just outside of Historic Marble Hill’s protected boundaries—on the south side of Lanvale Street, instead of the north side.
In response to losing the beloved site, she says she and the Marble Hill Community Association are looking into expanding the boundaries of the historic district. “The expansion will happen only if residents agree, so we know that we have our work cut out for us. But it’s important work.”
Marble Hill’s historic designation was a noble move back in 1985. It truly is home to some of Black Baltimore’s most valued residences and meeting spaces. But perhaps there’s some medium between that reverence and Reverend Reid’s point. History is alive, after all.
And if the architectural structures that once housed it are crumbling and condemned, it may be time to cede some of those sites, in favor of restorations that are more feasible. As long as new occupants are willing to honor the storied icons and buildings that came before, Marble Hill can still preserve its considerable legacy.
Stacia L. Brown is a writer and the creator of the local history podcast, Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City.
Written by Patrick Sisson
Photos by Scott McIntyre
Pay a visit to Petronia Street in Key West, Florida, on a summer day, and density quickly becomes apparent. The humid air, a palpable weight, begins dragging you down by mid-morning.
History starts making itself visible. The eastern edge of Petronia almost backs up to the island’s above-ground cemetery, which holds generations of soldiers, settlers, and everyone in between—an everlasting last call in a city that self-identifies as the Conch Republic.
The western end of Petronia forms what was once the border of Bahama Village, the center of the city’s Afro-Caribbean culture since the 1800s, once home to a famous open-air flea market and a potent blend of black, Bahamian, and Cuban influences.
Long since discovered and commercialized, Key West is facing a dilemma common to tourist markets across the country, driving locals to the edges of, and eventually away from, the town they once loved. The myth of Key West has made the reality of Key West increasingly unaffordable.
In the middle of Petronia Street, in a reclaimed clapboard house on the corner of Thomas Street, Blue Heaven restaurant has offered a picture of the neighborhood since it opened in 1992. Inside the gravel yard, beneath palms and almond trees, sits a small bar, an even smaller stage that looks like a glorified shipping palette, and a rooster graveyard.
It’s a peaceful spot for someone tired of the cruise ship crowds mobbing Duval Street, the island’s tacky tourist funnel. The gravel yard where diners eat outdoors year-round has had its own colorful life over the last century, including stints as a bordello, a cock-fighting arena, and even an impromptu boxing ring (where Ernest Hemingway supposedly refereed Friday night fights).
As he does many afternoons after work, local writer Michael Ritchie grabs a stool at the bar. Ritchie moved to Key West in 1993 after visiting on vacation, and quickly found a room for rent via the “coconut telegraph,” island slang for the local rumor mill.
A longtime journalist, Ritchie has reported for newspapers and self-published his own series of historical novels. He hasn’t reached native status—those born on the Keys address each other with the informal “Bubba” or “Cuzzy” title—but, in effect, lives the dream that brings so many to the island.
Ask him about that choice now, after 23 years, and the siren song that led Ritchie here isn’t playing anymore. “As soon as the banking system is set up,” he says, “I’m moving to Havana.”
“The realtors came along and started telling people, the property you’re sitting on is really valuable,” he says. “Everything is going to change, it’s inevitable.”
The shift, according to Ritchie, is about rarification, not just gentrification, and you can see its legacy all along Petronia. Former single-family shotgun homes are now renovated winter homes or guest houses rented to tourists.
“The attractions that made the city so quaint have been taken over by the cruise ship people,” says Ritchie. “In season, we have four, five, even six ships a week. It’s great for making money, but it’s ruining the quality of life for many of the residents living here.”
At the corner where Petronia intersects with Duval, three drag queens are parked in front of the 801 Bourbon Bar, hawking flyers for a drag show later that evening. Mulysa is out with her friends, Shiva and Sasha, greeting the curious and defending “our corner” from the occasional gawker or rude tourist (“all while wearing my six-inch heels, my sensible shoes”). Mulysa came down to visit from Boca Raton, Florida, ten years ago, and within a few weeks, found a house and moved in.
“When I first came here from New Jersey, this place was a lot more gay,” she says, with a break to take a photo with a visiting family. “Now they’ve made it so commercial.”
To Mulysa, Key West offers something simpler, a “small town on steroids.” Everyone knows everyone, for better or worse, but she’s had enough. It’s a lovely town, she says, but at this point, her liver hurts.
All along Petronia Street, real estate pressure is slowly shaping and molding the city into something different. The push of mass-market tourism and luxury homes is the backdrop for most discussions among local government officials and area developers.
To understand the development pressures on Key West, it’s important to grasp just how uniquely challenged the island is when it comes to space. Spend enough time here, and the phrase two-by-four comes up repeatedly. That’s the island’s approximate size in miles, making it a minuscule dot in the Atlantic.
Things get more complicated when you factor in the man-made barriers. New buildings are restricted to a maximum height of 40 feet (recently raised from 35 feet), making anything over three stories a rarity.
In order to facilitate orderly evacuation during a hurricane, ROGO (the state-decreed Rate of Growth Ordinance) limits the number of new building permits available each year to just 197. And, as if that’s not enough, the huge military presence here means soldiers and sailors with generous government housing subsidies put an additional strain on the local housing market.
To sum it up, a community of roughly 25,000 year-round residents can’t build up or out, can only add a handful of units a year, and have to compete for space on a small patch of land—along with the two-million-plus tourists who visit each year (the number has been growing since 2008, reaching 2.7 million in 2013).
The influx has left realtors like Roger Washburn, who runs Island and Resort Realty, pretty busy. Many temporary residents from cities on the East Coast, who evaluate prices in terms of big city salaries, will spend exorbitant amounts on second homes, he reports. It’s driving up prices and shrinking inventory across the island.
To wit, the median home value in Key West’s is , whereas the per capita income clocks in at . Compare to , where the median home value is , with a per capita income of .
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The frenzied buying and selling has also made the lack of workforce housing a huge issue. According to Councilman Sam Kaufman—a lawyer, proponent of affordable housing, and longtime advocate for the homeless—many citizens, especially those who work in the service industry, are feeling the squeeze.
Ironically, the same forces that thankfully prevented Key West from being as battered by the housing crisis as the rest of Florida—a lack of surplus housing and space for development—have made the affordability crisis even worse.
A referendum to develop affordable housing at the Peary Court complex, a subdivision built by the Navy on the north side of the island, failed last year, and the city is currently looking at building on the adjacent keys. Kaufman says the land crunch means the only way to add room for those who want to live and work on the island may be embracing a bit of a loophole and simply adding more houseboats.
While affording a place on the island has become even more challenging, for many on Petronia Street, the subtle change in community presents an equal conundrum. They see the cultural richness of the island, the magnetic draw of the Conch Republic, slowly being drained.
Bahama Village is home to some of the island’s original settlers and their descendants. Once thriving, the area currently feels like it has been largely swept aside by gentrification and development.
Seventy-seven-year-old resident James Chapman says, “People who lived here, who were from Jamaica and Bahamas, they were brought over here to build up this island,” he says. “Now they want us out of here. And there’s nowhere to go.”
In between making a few plugs for the Bible (“Think about it: BIBLE, or basic instructions before leaving Earth”), Chapman reflects on what Bahama Village used to be: A lively working-class neighborhood, where he worked a number of jobs—shining shoes, hauling ice, selling hand-painted bikes in the local flea market, even boxing at Blue Heaven for $10 a fight.
Chapman and his neighbors and family—16 kids, 16 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren—have seen it all, including a heavy dose of real estate speculation. (Over the last few decades, realtors would come by and dangle $150,000 cash payouts to residents. Now, those same homes are selling for a million dollars.)
Sabrina Roberts, a fifth-generation resident who runs the Island Beauty Supplies store with her husband, says the surrounding blocks aren’t what they used to be. She spoke of schools and hospitals and boy’s clubs, of communal dinners and picnics, of neighbors talking all night, and progressive drinks from porch to porch in the early evenings. “There’s nothing for the kids to do,” she says.
“Everything is hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” she says. “This island is going to sink with all the stuff they’re building. The Bahamian community is scattered.”
And development is poised to accelerate. The $20 million Truman Waterfront Park, which will be located between the western edge of Petronia Street and the waterfront, is set to open by June 2018. The project will transform military land into a park and $4.5 million amphitheater, and lead to even more development in what’s left of Bahama Village.
One stretch along Petronia, chockablock with boutiques and restaurants, has been dubbed the “Greenwich Village” of the island. One of them, The Petronia Island Store, opened two years ago in an old storefront a few blocks down from Blue Heaven.
Filled with hand-carved crafts and scents with fancy names, it offers a high-end recourse to the tourist-oriented shops on Duval, reflecting the taste of owner and lifelong Key West resident Tyler Buckheim. She’s seen tremendous shifts in the neighborhood; a third of the buildings on the street used to be vacant.
Buckheim paints an idyllic picture of growing up in Key West. Her parents, artists from Detroit, lived on an even smaller nearby island when she was a kid, finally moving to the “mainland” of Key West when she was in middle school.
“Gentrification has been happening a long time,” she says. “People have been saying that since the 1950s. I laugh when I hear tourists say, ‘I’ve been coming here for 12 years, and it’s totally changed.’ People complain they’re losing their Key West, and if anybody should complain, I should.”
So what’s a Key Wester, looking to live the dream while lacking the resources for ever-expensive property, to do? While the Caribbean harbors plenty of island escapes, another option involves heading back toward the mainland.
The first of 42 bridges deposits you on Stock Island, which still has a working commercial harbor. Mulysa’s already planning to move there with her partner, where she says she can find a more affordable place.
Patrick Sisson, Curbed’s senior reporter, lives in New York City.
Written by Richard Grant
Photos by Ashley Gates
Customers place their lunch orders at the Big Apple Inn on Farish Street, a few blocks north of downtown Jackson, Mississippi: “One ear hot.” “Two ear mild, three smoke.” A dollar-fifty gets you a pig ear sandwich with sauce, or a smear of smoked sausage meat on a bun.
A light rain falls outside and drips through the roof. Paint is peeling off the walls. The women making sandwiches call everyone “baby” and work behind a cracked Perspex screen held together with duct tape.
Above the Big Apple is a small, derelict room with broken windows. It used to be the office of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963. “The city wanted to buy the building, fix it up, and put a Medgar Evers museum upstairs,” says Geno Lee, the fourth-generation proprietor of the Big Apple Inn.
But the building’s owner wanted millions for a building appraised at $35,000, because of its historical value and future earning potential, and no one was willing to pay his price. “I haven’t made money here in years,” says Geno Lee. “I stay open for nostalgia’s sake. Right now, I’m ready for anything to happen down here, no matter what.”
The Big Apple Inn is the last surviving eatery from Farish Street’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was a bustling thoroughfare of black-owned businesses known as Little Harlem.
There was a bank, a hospital, law firms, realtors, clothing stores, bars, nightclubs, 20 restaurants, and a recording studio where Blues legends like Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson recorded some of their immortal hits.
The great African-American novelist Richard Wright went to high school in this neighborhood, which was founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War, and turned into a sanctuary for blacks all over Mississippi.
Today, this part of Farish Street is a patchwork of historical markers, empty lots, boarded-up buildings, and failed redevelopment schemes. It is a wound in the heart of this city of 173,000 people, less than a mile from the state capitol building. What happened here? And can it be fixed?
Like almost everything in Mississippi, the story of Farish Street is inseparable from race, and from racism.
“Under segregation, it was illegal for African-Americans to go into a white-owned business, so they spent all their money down here,” says Lee. “Then Civil Rights happened. It was a great thing for the black race, and a terrible thing for black business-owners. Our people started spending their money elsewhere, in McDonalds and department stores and all these other places they could go now. We forgot our indigenous businesses.”
One by one, through the late 1960s and 1970s, the stores and offices on Farish Street closed down. Residents started leaving the neighborhood for better services and prospects. The school closed down in 1971. Crime increased in the late 1970s and 1980s, further accelerating black flight.
Today, only a handful of businesses are left. Doris’s beauty shop clings on next to the Big Apple Inn. Dennis Brothers Shoe Repair is still going in a rundown building, with cowboy boots in the front window. The old Alamo Theater occasionally screens films, and opens for benefit concerts.
The Baptist church and the funeral home, by contrast, look well-maintained and prosperous. “Folks keep on praying and dying,” says Lee with a smile.
For at least three decades, there has been talk among and between residents, city and state leaders, citizens’ groups, and private companies about revitalizing Farish Street. In the 1990s, developers working with the city rebuilt 36 shotgun houses, hoping to lure permanent residents back to the neighborhood, and to preserve its original character. But no one wanted to live in them. They fell into disrepair, and were bulldozed before they were ever inhabited.
In 1998, the city of Jackson went into partnership with the developers of the Beale Street entertainment district in Memphis. The idea was to build a Beale Street copycat of blues bars, nightclubs, restaurants and music venues, and let the tourists pour in. But the partnership soured and fell apart.
In 2008, the city partnered with local developer David Watkins and his fledgling Farish Street Group, in another effort to get the entertainment district underway. The development team outlined plans to renovate and rebuild. They invited Geno Lee and six other Jackson business owners to open up restaurants, clubs and bars in the new and improved buildings they were going to develop.
A bit later, the proprietors learned the catch: “They wanted $300,000 just for the privilege of doing business on Farish Street,” says Geno Lee. “I turned them down, because I was here already, and there was no way I could afford it. The other six turned them down, too.”
Watkins and the city’s Jackson Redevelopment Agency (JRA) have completed a total of zero building projects on Farish Street, and are currently mired in lawsuits and countersuits. Accusations of broken promises, mismanagement, and missing funds abound. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has ordered JRA to repay $1.5 million in misused HUD money.
The entire entertainment district project has ground to a halt without a single structure being built. Tony Yarber, the current mayor of Jackson, once described Farish Street “an albatross,” comparing it to “an old car that needs to be put in a shed with some good mechanics.”
The only real progress has come from local entrepreneurs with no affiliation to JRA. John Tierre, a Jackson businessman with a barbershop, restaurant, and entertainment company elsewhere in the city, opened Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues in 2015. It occupies the old Crystal Palace building about halfway down Farish Street.
“The Crystal Palace used to be the upscale place on Farish Street, and we’ve stayed with that theme,” he says. Drinks are expensive, and so is the food, with lamb chops priced at $38. The clientele is well-dressed, professional, and almost exclusively African-American, although everyone is welcome, and Tierre reports its busiest time is “midnight to 2 a.m. on weekends.”
Unlike Beale Street in Memphis, which is characterized by fake and franchised blues joints for inebriated tourists, Johnny T’s feels like authentic Mississippi. “Instead of trying to copy something that’s fake to begin with, like Beale Street, we’re starting to see something real and connected to the community,” says Tierre.
A few blocks south of Johnny T’s, Farish Street runs into Capitol Street, which used to be the main commercial thoroughfare of white Jackson under segregation. It, too, suffered when the 1964 Civil Rights Act movement brought integration to the city: Some businesses willfully closed down rather than serve black customers. Others joined the white flight to the north and east of the city limits.
Jackson today is more than 70 percent African-American, with a low tax base, a struggling school system, high crime, and collapsing infrastructure. The city has more pressing and urgent concerns than redeveloping the old downtown, but there have been a few success stories.
The King Edward Hotel, a 12-story Beaux-Arts landmark on Capitol Street, built in 1923, used to be the center of white Jackson’s social and political life. It closed its doors soon after integration, and sat moldering for 40 years, surviving numerous calls for its demolition.
David Watkins, the Jackson developer currently embroiled in lawsuits over Farish Street, finally restored the building to its former glory (in partnership with former New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister and Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans), and the hotel reopened for business in December 2009.
Another notable conversion is the nearby Standard Life building, a block south of Capitol. This beautiful 22-story Art Deco ziggurat underwent a $33.5 million renovation in 2010, and is now a fully occupied apartment building. A one-bedroom “flat” rents for around $1,200 a month, on the high side for Jackson, where the median home rental clocks in at roughly $800 a month.
On a recent Saturday night, I took myself on a tour of Capitol and Farish Streets. I started out with a cocktail at the elegant bar of the King Edward; the hotel is technically a Hilton Garden Inn, but no Jacksonian calls it that.
The bartender, CJ Johnson, believes that downtown Jackson will come back, but very slowly, “We’re a small, poor Southern city. Downtown needs major investment, and we don’t have that. We don’t even have a grocery store down here.”
I walked down the block toward the battered neon sign of the Mayflower Cafe, open since 1935, serving seafood and steaks in a diner atmosphere. Outside the door of this beloved Jackson institution was a long line of people drinking BYOB wine and bourbon from plastic cups and telling uproarious stories. By 11:30, I was feeling pretty good about downtown Jackson.
Next I traversed three blocks of windswept urban desolation—boarded-up buildings on Capitol Street and the monstrous grey fortress of the federal building at the intersection of Farish—to reach the dive bar F. Jones Corner. Friends talk about it with reverence, and I’d been meaning to go there since I moved to Jackson a year ago from elsewhere in Mississippi, when my wife got a job here.
From the outside, F. Jones Corner looks like a concrete block painted blue. Inside, a band was playing funk and blues for an easygoing audience of black and white people. F. Jones Corner is owned by two blue-collar white guys, Daniel Dillon and Adam Hayes, who have carefully cultivated the bar’s harmonious atmosphere. Troublemakers are barred entrance, or ejected swiftly.
And the general scruffiness of the place tends to dissuade uptight people from coming here. “We’re a 1960s dive bar with live music,” says Dillon. “We don’t like racists, of any color, and we don’t take any bullshit.”
No bank would lend them money to start a business on Farish Street, so they scraped and scrounged to buy the old dilapidated building. “We had friends who were electricians, and plumbers, and construction guys, and they all worked for free,” says Hayes. “When we first opened, it was only beer, and no air conditioning.”
Now it has a full bar, central air, and a kitchen turning out Southern bar food: fried pickles, fried catfish, hot dogs and first-rate burgers. The air is full of cigarette smoke, laughter, and electric blues, the dancefloor is packed and happy, the bartenders wear T-shirts that say, “Revitalizing Jackson. One Beer At A Time.”
Around 2:15 in the morning, off-duty bar and restaurant people start showing up, including CJ Johnson, the bartender from the King Edward Hotel. I asked him how he would describe the vibe at F. Jones Corner.
He sat back on his barstool and pointed to a sign on the wall: “No Black. No White. Just The Blues.” He stirred his drink and leaned across to make himself heard over the music. “This is Jackson like it ought to be,” he said.
Richard Grant is the author of the New York Times bestseller Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.