The events, places, people, and things that we remember in our lives can be extremely non-discriminant. In a singular moment, I sometimes think that whatever I’m doing or whoever I’m talking to in that moment is so important or emotional that it will be burned into my mind forever, only to realize a few weeks later that I can’t even remember the moment. I simply remember thinking that I would remember the moment. There are other times that seem very mundane when they are occurring and I discover that those moments are the ones that seem to appear out of nowhere from time to time. Our memories choose us more than we choose them.
When I was seventeen years old, I had a friend who lived on Division Avenue and I would sometimes ride my bike to her house to watch a movie or shoot basketball. During the winter, I would drive my car and, most of the time, I would drive down Snake Hill to get back to Westwood. I can still remember a January day with patches of snow on the ground and the view I had from the top of Snake Hill. I saw the same thing I had seen my entire life, but that I don’t remember seeing my entire life. I know I must have seen it, though, because I grew up in the same part of town for my entire eighteen years that I spent at home with my parents. I know I passed this place, walked through this place, rode through this place, drove through this place—countless times as a child, an adolescent, and a teenager, but I only remember this one time—this one view from the top of that hill.
I remember this time specifically because it didn’t look like anything that I had seen in Jackson, even though it had always been in Jackson. I saw a cluster of homes with smoke from heaters or dryers or chimneys billowing from the rooftops. I saw driveways and cars and an old store. Looking back, I felt this was a scene from a Springsteen song, but I didn’t know that then. Back then, I imagined it was in Green Bay because I was such a huge Packers fan. I knew then, and I know now, that what I was seeing was a housing development that was known as Westwood Gardens.
Last summer my daughter and I were walking to my parents’ house. She always wants to walk or drive down Snake Hill if we’re going from my house on Division to my folks’ house near the hospital. I’ve told her (more than once) about sledding down Snake Hill on my dad’s back when I was very young. I’ve told her about riding my bike down that hill in high school . . . and wrecking it there, too. I’ve also told her that there used to be houses and a store where the overgrown brush and grass now sit at the foot of Snake Hill.
I had always been under the assumption that the city of Jackson owned the lot, and I always wondered why they had never developed it. There are multiple acres of undeveloped land that have been sitting for over ten years in an area of town that is slowly, but surely, seeing some revitalization. There are many families with young children and adolescents who would benefit from a park that’s in walking distance from their home. Not to mention an open, green space that could be used for community gatherings in a fairly diverse area of town is one of a number of reasons that this land should be developed.
Scott Conger is the city councilman who is the representative of district five, which is where Westwood Gardens is located. When I spoke with him over the phone, I was surprised to learn that the city had sold the land to a group of investors in 2006, nearly ten years ago. Honestly I was pretty disappointed when I heard that news because the entire focus of my story started to change. Since I had been under the impression that the city had owned the land, I had planned to write a stirring article that would rally the people of midtown and we would make a strong request for a park and get the park and have a huge celebration at said park. That was not to be, but Scott pointed me in the direction of one of the investors: Jim Anderson.
The original plan for developing Westwood Gardens was for it to be a residential development which would consist of single lot homes, zero property line homes, and condominiums; that’s when the housing collapse of 2008 occurred. Once the recession started, all plans for a residential development ceased to exist and two of the initial investors filed for bankruptcy. The plans for tree lined cul-de-sacs and craftsman-style houses were all put on hold. Mr. Anderson absorbed the percentage of investment of the then vacant investors, and he and a silent partner began to look for ways to market their investment.
Mr. Anderson explained to me the challenge that the Westwood Gardens property has presented. Since investing in the property, Mr. Anderson has borrowed money from family, refinanced his home, and invested nearly half a million dollars in Westwood Gardens. At one point in the conversation, I thought I might be talking to Frank Semyon (the tragic land investor from the latest season of True Detective). In his original vision for Westwood Gardens, Mr. Anderson saw a park for the children of the neighborhood, a community convenience store for the surrounding area, and some retail stores in the development as well. He seems to now understand that the vision will never be a reality.
At this point, Mr. Anderson’s focus is on selling the property to companies with an aging related development in mind. This would include an assisted living home and housing for elderly people who are in need of healthcare. He assured me that a park will be attached to whatever company purchases the land. He wants to make sure that he at least does something for the surrounding neighborhood once he sells the land.
There is a context for everything we experience in our lives, but we normally see what we want to see. I had built an entire story that I thought was true based on assumptions I had made each time I walked by that vacant lot or remembered the affordable housing that once occupied that space. Those assumptions were shattered once I talked to Jim Anderson. This piece of land that I believed held so much potential, turned out to be a burden for a man who desperately wants to sell it. The beginnings of things are usually when they’re at their best—when we can form our vision for what we want them to be or think they can be. Maybe we overestimate ourselves and the plans that we make. When Jim Anderson and his fellow investors purchased that piece of land ten years ago, he probably never imagined that I would walk by that vacant lot with my daughter ten years later and wonder when someone was going to develop it. The best laid plans of mice and men . . .
Until that land is developed, though, it’s helping make memories for the people who live near it. Each time my daughter and I walked past it this summer, she wanted to pick the white flowers (which were essentially weeds). When we reached the bottom of Snake Hill that summer evening, I looked south and there were the trees that were still there and an open space of green land in the middle of the city, and I recalled the last page of The Great Gatsby when Fitzgerald wrote the famous lines, “Gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams.” Once I realized how hyperbolic that comparison of literature was, I settled for the more realistic view of what is currently a nice, green place that is still not developed but has the faint hope for something that can contribute to our community. Even as an open lot, the idea of potential is a beautiful thing. The beginnings of things hold the most hope.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photographer Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. One-half of Souvenir Design Company, she currently works as a freelance graphic designer. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.