Photos by Michael Barrett
Jackson’s famous Belhaven community tells a unique story of charming homes and cozy streets.
While attending Millsaps College, I occasionally ventured outside the “Millsaps bubble” and across State Street to take a walk through the Belhaven neighborhood. On these treks, though I enjoyed looking at the houses, I inevitably found myself a bit lost and not quite sure how to find my way back.
These days, as an adult who lives in the neighborhood, I find wandering its streets one of my great pleasures. Several mornings a week, I pop in my earbuds to listen to a podcast….and walk. Never following the same route (though by now, I can easily make my way back home), I enjoy taking in all that the historic neighborhood has to offer.
Belhaven is a protected neighborhood (with designated historic status), and while that leads to continuity in some aspects, as young families move into the old, historic homes, they make their own mark (and improvements) to the spaces. Friends of mine who, like myself, lived in downtown apartments as single 20-somethings have now moved into Belhaven, coupled off, and are making homes of our own there. It’s fun to experience building together that way. I can see the renovations taking place at their homes or find them sitting on their porch swing with their babies as I walk by and stop to visit. One friend even refers to the Belhaven “porch scene” for these kind of impromptu gatherings.
Thinking about my own (and my friends’) move from downtown to Belhaven also reflects the development of the neighborhood (and Jackson) in a larger sense. In its early days, Belhaven was considered a “streetcar subdivision” sitting on the outskirts of town. As Jackson’s streetcar expanded its route to the neighborhood, folks who worked in the city were able to more easily travel from town to residences there.
A walk through the Belhaven streets leads to discoveries. I sometimes stop to look in one of several Little Free Libraries that have popped up in yards. Little Free Libraries are just what the name implies; a miniature library where people can leave a book or take a book. Instructions for anyone wanting to build one are available online, with the intent of cultivating a love of reading and sense of community. The fun thing is that each location can personalize the structure. So the one at Eudora Welty’s house is a miniature version of her Tudor-style house; one in the yard of some Millsaps professors is painted with colorful flowers to compliment their vibrant garden; another mimics a red schoolhouse. Given Belhaven’s ties to Eudora Welty, the libraries seem a perfect fit, and being able to share books with neighbors feels like a meaningful way to connect with the people in the neighborhood.
As I walk past New Stage Theater, I’m grateful for the fantastic performances that it (and its warehouse space in Belhaven Heights that houses the Unframed series of plays) stages each season. This year marks its 50thanniversary season, and to have it be such a constant through the years while continuing to innovate and engage with the community through kids’ camps, talks after the plays, and performances outdoors in Belhaven Park is special.
When my route passes McDade’s Grocery, Lou’s Full-Serve Restaurant, and The Manship Wood-fired Kitchen, I’m reminded how nice it is that Belhaven is a neighborhood where I can easily access places to feed and water myself that don’t require getting in a car. Through its history, those locations have remained gathering places throughout the years, although the iterations have changed (Perkins Pharmacy used to be where the Jitney, now McDade’s is; Morgan’s Pharmacy is where the Belhaven is now). So while the neighborhood evolves, it still maintains a strong sense of place where people live and gather together.
Of course, like with Jackson as a whole, what makes Belhaven special are the people who live there. They have pride in their community and seek to make it their own, and to make it better. I see that as I notice houses flying a proposed new state flag. I see it with each change in season as festive holiday decorations pop up in yards (the nativity complete with Christmas octopus and alligator on Poplar Blvd. is eagerly awaited each year). I see it as new people and places appear, like Deep South Pops, which a young family opened to serve up gourmet popscicles and coffee, yes, but also to build community by hosting monthly art exhibits, having a room available as a designated meeting space and taking a mobile cart to community events. I see it as I head home and pass Belhaven and Laurel Street Parks, where friends and families gather and play.
And I see it in one of my favorite things I’ve discovered on my walks…the flamingos in yards. Inspired by a friend who chronicles the many cats she encounters on walks on her Instagram account with the hashtag #catsofbelhaven, I’ve followed suit with #flamingosofbelhaven. It’s a fun way to look for yards with some extra personality. And a reminder that I live in a neighborhood full of color and life.