I have never been to a ghost town. I don’t view this as an unfortunate shortcoming of my youth; I have seen enough Westerns in my years that I get the idea. I don’t imagine that they are really ghosts towns anymore as much as they are the idea of a ghost town with souvenir stands with t-shirts and snow globes.
The closest thing I have ever seen of a ghost town was when I was working for Pearl River Glass Studio after graduating from Architecture School at Mississippi State. After living in the South for most of my life, I was taken aback by the affluence of the suburbs of Detroit. “Affluent” was not the first word to pop in my head when I was first told I was going to work in Detroit, but from the cars to the homes Bloomfield Hills was just that: affluent.
But as I drove into downtown I found the ghost town. It appeared to be desolate with abandoned manufacturing centers and plants and more than 10,000 abandoned homes. It was as close to a ghost town as I could image. It was almost post-apocalyptic in places. I will also add that it was the single most segregated city I have ever been in, but I will save that for another day. I couldn’t fathom that one city could thrive so much while its neighboring city center struggled to remain economically viable.
I grew up in East Memphis and watched similar things happen there. The core of the city center suffered from neglect and abandonment while the suburbs flourished with people and an influx of new development. Downtown Memphis in the late 80’s and early 90’s was a pretty desolate and scary place to be. There was very little residential. There were businesses leaving for the east’s quite literally greener pastures. But there was always something about downtown that brought me there. There was something that was compelling about it. I think it was the river and the idea of what it was for the city. It is iconic. It is mighty. Maybe it was the good times at Memphis in May and the BBQ Fest. I’m not sure, but despite the neglect and decay, it was a grand place.
Some of the resurgence began happening with the artistic influx and investment on South Main Street. This is something that a lot of other major cities have seen, too. The artists move into a dilapidated underdeveloped area because it the rent is cheap, a couple restaurants pop up to support the galleries, a couple more apartments move into the neighborhood, and bodega on the corner opens to support them, etc. This is not a new concept.
Since I left Memphis, downtown has a thriving, strong city center. It has a thriving residential, cultural, and business base. It is the core of the city’s economy. That density within the boundaries carries the city. It has seen the addition of the Redbirds stadium and Grizzlies Fed Ex Forum that have helped bring a city together to rally behind its teams. It has seen Beale Street become a hub of international tourism and entertainment for countless visitors.
Memphis still has its problems, but it has a Democratic city mayor and Republican county mayor working together to make greater Memphis a better place to live. It is a lesson we as a city and a country can learn from. Sure, they have differences, but they have rallied behind sustainability as a tool for economic development. Sure, there are people that are cynical about the city, but there is also a base in the city that has real pride that has rallied behind its many successful identities: barbecue, baseball, basketball, and the river to name a few. Focusing on just the negative without focusing on the reasons to celebrate fosters cynicism. City pride is important.
Developing in already established cores of the city is good business. Annexation is not the answer. Memphis had the wherewithal to recognize that it had an abundance of underutilized property that didn’t need to be abandoned; it needed to be reinvested in. Both groups understand now that without Memphis, the county doesn’t thrive — or else it has to drastically reinvent itself. Density is a strong tool that works within this concept of sustainability. USGBC’s LEED rating system is instrumental in helping this plan work.
Jackson, where I hang my hat now, has been facing these same issues. As the capital city, Jackson needs some more pride. Jackson needs us all to work together and get involved. We need to understand that while Mississippi gets beat up in the national press a lot, we have a variety of things to be proud of. We have a lot to offer the rest of the country. We need to be better about celebrating all that we have to offer.
We need a strong draw for downtown to help encourage this density. There have been several ideas that I have heard pitched over the last couple years that could do just this very thing. Is it Twin Lakes? Is it One Lake? Is it a River Walk? An arena? Capital Green? Farish Street District? What am I forgetting? They all are avenues of serious economic development for the city as a whole and offer the citizens of Jackson something so much more than what is currently offered. All these ideas offer economic growth beyond the original scope of the idea. Let’s pick one and run with it. I mean, really run with it. Think of how many jobs could be created from the construction and the tourism alone. With the people come more businesses to support them. Downtown exists more than just 8-5, Monday through Friday.
I was just in Greenville, S.C. for a conference and was blown away by their city’s development. It was incredible. The city had a beautiful natural waterfall within the downtown corridor with a road and 4-laned bridge over it. They spent $12 million developing this area by demolishing a four-lane bridge and putting in a really nice pedestrian bridge. This move took this area that was once populated with drug dealers and prostitutes and created a city park that generated $120 million of business investment to that area of Main Street in a very short amount of time by just reinventing a blighted area.
Having these focal points or draws create density within cities. Again, density is a smart and sustainable economic development concept. It is cheaper to reinvest in the stock that we have. It is cheaper and makes more economic and fiscal sense for the cities to support building in the city centers that already exist. What other cities have realized is that this growth and investment means that other underserved areas can see the benefits and we can all grow from this. This growth is contagious. As the city grows and develops smarter, the fences start to come down as more economic opportunities present themselves and we become safer. We can’t turn our backs on the problems of this city, but we have to all work together to make Jackson a better community. This is what LEED and smart sustainable development have done in countless other cities.
Now is Jackson a ghost town or as bad off as Detroit? I don’t think so; we have seen some amazing investment and advancement in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods in the last five years. We need to see more of it. I want us to all have something to rally behind. I want us to have vibrant city center that we once had. This is a doable reality. It is just going to take some time, the right investment for our future, the right leaders to see it to fruition, and we will have something that all of Jackson and Mississippi can be proud of and celebrate…or we might was well just pack it up and be a ghost town.
Jeff Seabold, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Homes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the Principal Architect of Seabold Architectural Studio www.seabold-studio.com and the Chair of the US Green Building Council — Mississippi Chapter www.usgbcms.org.