Home » OPINION » Columns » JACK WEATHERLY — A nocturne for Smith Park

JACK WEATHERLY — A nocturne for Smith Park



There are signs of life in Smith Park.

Office workers stroll through the green space. A few pause for a while on the benches.

It wasn’t that way a week or so earlier, before a host of dead or dying trees was taken down.

The effect was immediate. You can see all the way through the block-square park in the daytime, revealing some of the beautiful architecture of downtown: the gothic Catholic cathedral and the Romanesque Methodist church and the Greek Revival Governor’s Mansion.

At night, some of the tree trunks sparkle with miniature lights, a holiday touch.

It is beginning to look a little like an inviting place.

It hasn’t been that way for years.

When we left Jackson in 2002, it was a place where you could eat your sack lunch and refresh from the humdrum of work.

I returned to Jackson two years ago and work on the fourth-floor of a building that overlooks the park and whose lobby’s picture window captures the scene.

What it might not show are the homeless men who live in its shadows.

They are a problem.

Ask the woman who was sexually assaulted in a parking lot across Congress Street from the park in early October.

Word from Downtown Jackson Partners is that timing of the attack and the removal of the trees was a coincidence.

One night last week, something was afoot.

Light stands had been set up and people were milling around, amplified music was playing, faces were smiling.

Another sign of life.

Yes, but it was not a movement toward reclamation.

It was an act of compassion: food and spiritual outreach.

There is an unintended consequence of such gestures, which happen daily from different churches.

The homeless stay because it works for them.

Signs say that the park is closed at dusk. That is not enforced. No doubt it at the bottom of  the city’s laundry list of priorities.

The morning after the nighttime event, a man tends to some sort of business in a clump of bushes.

Smith Park is the city’s only surviving “public square” from Peter Vandorn’s original city plan in 1822.

In the southwest corner is a granite  drinking fountain beneath a stone pergola dedicated in 1918. There’s no evidence the fountain has functioned in years.

The 2.4-acre park was renovated in the 1970s, when water courses complete with “boulders” were added. The stream beds are dry, save for when rains fill them till the water evaporates, leaving a mush of fallen leaves. The concert shell’s stage floor is warped and splintered.

Concrete checkers tables and stools, some of which have been vandalized, have not seen a jump in a while.

Court Square in Memphis is about the same size as Smith Park. It, by all reports, is a vibrant gathering place that the citizenry puts to good use.

The tree removal was the first step in Smith Park becoming just such a civic asset. The plan calls for a $2.5 million renovation, though fund-raising is a long way from reaching critical mass.

Meantime, one of the security guards hired after the October attack to look out for workers leaving the 200 N. Congress St. building parking lot said his unofficial count of overnight guests was 15 or 20.

But they were lying low so they couldn’t be seen.

“Them Christmas decorations don’t put out enough light,” he said.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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