Photos by Michael Barrett
On a frosty day more than one hundred years ago, a smartly dressed gentleman in a dark overcoat and derby-style hat stood alone in the westbound lane of Jackson’s most well-known boulevard. He seemed oblivious to the world around him as he awaited a ride on an approaching Capitol Street trolley. Behind him loomed the old state capitol building, its elected inhabitants just recently sent to their new gold-leafed digs a few blocks away. Across the street, the driver of a mule-drawn cart parked his load at a corner business. What happened in the moments that followed will forever be left to assumption and imagination.
As I study the black and white photograph, I consider that gentleman and all the other people who came before us; all those who spent their lives in downtown Jackson. The best places to live and work must be the ones where a person can feel the spiritual presence of those forebears as he or she traverses the streets and sidewalks past vintage storefronts and the more contemporary structures that have become brick and steel neighbors.
On this morning, like many before it, I watch from the balcony of my apartment above Parlor Market restaurant as the central business district ambles to life. Through my mind’s eye, I can see the hundreds—if not thousands—of merchants who opened their doors here each day, offering goods and services since Jackson’s founding in 1821. I can hear the whistles of long-gone steam locomotives piercing the sky on Capitol Street’s west end. I can feel the beat of hooves as horses pull carriages along packed dirt streets. During its darkest time, I can taste the acrid smoke from scores of burning buildings, set ablaze by advancing Union troops as the Confederacy crumbled into the pages of history along these thoroughfares. And I am witness to the city’s rebirth, the ebb and flow of growth and prosperity; and its present renaissance as a newly-minted residential district.
Though small for a metropolis, downtown Jackson has its own cadence, a tempo that’s at once quick-moving and pulsating, and then laid back and soothing. It’s difficult to feel that flow from the confines of a car, so I take to the streets on foot or on the seat of an electric-fueled motorbike that looks like something from the early 1900s. For me, it’s about edging as closely as possible to the surrounding cityscape. My office is situated in the apartment where I live, and so after a morning of work I might walk or ride to Hal and Mal’s restaurant for some red beans and rice with downtown cohorts, almost always unplanned. From the kitchen, my friend P.J. takes a break from his duties and pulls up a chair to discuss the day’s doings. Afterward, I spot Charles outside the county courthouse, assisting motorists who need help installing newly-purchased license plates. Some would call Charles homeless or a street person, but he’s simply a downtowner like the rest of us. One of the great satisfactions of my decade as a downtown resident has been the friendships I’ve established with business owners and fellow residents who work and live side by side knowing that we’re all neighbors regardless of our social or economic standing.
At some point in the afternoon, I’ll head south from my apartment to the central post office, and it’s on this trek where the past and present collide in a smooth integration of time and place. As I cut through the concourse of the city’s glass-front convention center, I glance at the marquee for upcoming events and shows. On those days when the parking lot is overflowing, I know that downtown has suffocated the voices of the increasingly few naysayers who are unable to believe in its success. A left turn onto Court Street takes me past Cathead Distillery, a thriving concern that produces its southern spirits from a perfectly situated, venerable brick warehouse featuring a loading dock turned neighborhood front porch. Across the street is the Mississippi Museum of Art and adjacent garden with its generous green space that attracts hundreds of families to its concerts and outdoor movies.
Underneath these city streets, like some secret passageway, runs Town Creek, an age-old urban stream that makes its appearance in certain exposed sections. At one of these fragments, I stop and think about the sheer volume of water that has rolled through downtown Jackson over the past two centuries. Did Thomas Hinds, Charles Manship, James Smith or any of the other early residents who built this place ever stand on those creek banks and imagine that it would bloom into an important center of business and government? What would they think of us today?
The men and women who laid the cornerstones of our city weren’t born here. They were transplants from other states and immigrants from other countries. No walls prevented their arrival and their places of origin didn’t matter. They had a singular mission to build a new city from a wilderness and in this they achieved their goal. Likewise, I wasn’t born in Mississippi, but most of my adult life has been spent here as a college student, journalist, political consultant and, most recently, part owner of a downtown blues club.
Since its inception, downtown has celebrated its entertainment offerings. An 1824 advertisement in the now defunct Pearl River Gazette touted the Eagle Tavern at the corner of State and Amite Streets as an unrivaled “House of Entertainment.” A local judge described it less favorably as, “an underground, dark and cavernous saloon” and an “airhole of hell.”
Today, nearly 200 years later, I find myself leaving the post office on the walk to a new underground saloon, a subterranean juke joint on President Street called Underground 119. Though not an airhole of hell in the strictest sense, this blues club is a place for friends to meet, drink, laugh and listen to the music that defined Mississippi.
Renowned bluesman Jesse Robinson is checking his sound on this Thursday afternoon before the happy hour crowd finds its way to the long bar to quench its thirst. Photographs of other legendary blues artists line the wall, watching over a sanctuary for string-bending musicians and the patrons who enjoy their craft. As I watch Jesse prepare for his show, I feel a heartening confidence that this man will be remembered for being an integral part of downtown Jackson long after his electric guitar goes silent—just as the old Eagle Tavern was recollected in this story, centuries after it closed its saloon doors.
The well-dressed gentleman awaiting his trolley on that cold day so many years ago was a marker of sorts, a signpost for the rest of us. A photograph can only cradle a whisper of time. Outside of its borders, on either side of the image it presents, are the people who were either too early or too late to be suspended in permanence. So more photographs are taken as new additions enter the frame and others make their exit. The best part of living and working in downtown Jackson is knowing that the photo album will continue to grow. I’m privileged to be included among its pages.