At some point over the last thirty years, our society became afraid. I’m not sure exactly when it was or what it is we have grown to fear. Is it the unknown? Is it our cultural differences? Something has made us collectively afraid. We left neighborhoods and cities for gated subdivisions and homogenous housing. Our front porches vanished and were replaced with garages, insulated from the world. Fences were built, square backyard by square backyard, and we’ve stumbled into the second decade of the new millennium still quite segregated from people who aren’t like us.
About a year ago, and to the skepticism of some friends and family, I decided to open my home to strangers who needed a place to stay as they traveled. One man was traveling across the country from New Hampshire to California. I opened my doors to two travelers on the way to New Orleans from Brooklyn who needed a stopping point along the way to rest for a night. A college student from Copenhagen, Denmark, who was biking from Nashville to Memphis because he had never seen the southern United States, stayed at my home during his excursion.
These are a few of the many people that I’ve hosted in my home using a website called Airbnb. If you’re not familiar with the site, here’s a quick synopsis: Airbnb is a global website that connects people who need a place to stay while they travel with people who want to host people who like to travel. Pretty simple concept, right? The host home decides on the price to charge per night. Prices can vary depending on what’s offered or where the host home is located.
But here’s the best part: Airbnb is a tool that actually connects people to people. Its philosophy is people-centered and built around the premise that people still want to connect despite the growth in technology, the growth of subdivisions, and the socioeconomic divide in America. Airbnb was a chance for me to meet new people—but also allow new people to meet Jackson.
Last May, I received a booking for my house from Anna and her friend, Leah. They were residents of Brooklyn on the way to New Orleans to edit Anna’s documentary on human trafficking. Leah was an editor at the Huffington Post and Karen was an artist who dabbled in performance and film-making. I was working until late that night, so I wasn’t able to meet them in-person until the next morning, but we communicated via text throughout the evening when they arrived. I live close to Lambuth and also close to downtown. When the girls asked for somewhere they could go, I happily told them to try the Downtown Tavern.
The next morning as Anna and I sat on the porch, she told me how much she and Leah had enjoyed the Tavern. She kept commenting on how nice the people were and how the line at the bar wasn’t eight people deep like the establishments she frequented in Brooklyn. She commented on how much she loved my street, how the trees that hung over the sidewalks, the design and originality of the homes, and how well built old houses were. It’s not every day that Brooklyn comes to Jackson.
In October, a man named Todd was researching Civil War battlefields in the South. He was from San Francisco. He needed a place to stay for one night, and my home was available. He said he was a fan of pizza, and I immediately recommended Rock'n Dough. Todd said it was some of the best pizza he had eaten on his trip. We spent the evening watching the Giants game on television and talking about the history of Jackson. When he left the next morning, he made sure to mention how much he loved our town.
However, by far, the most interesting person that I have hosted was a man from Copenhagen, Denmark. His name was Hans and he was a student at a university in Colorado. He had never seen the southern United States. He decided to fly to Nashville and ride his bicycle to Memphis, stopping along the way to camp in his tent. After two nights, he was missing sleeping on a bed and having a roof over his head. He made a reservation on a Wednesday morning at my house, and he arrived about six o'clock that evening.
I was in the process of grilling chicken for myself and when Hans came to the door, he looked tired and very hungry. I threw another piece on the grill, and we sat in my kitchen on Division Avenue and ate together. We talked about his childhood growing up in Europe, the South (and all of its intricacies, good and bad), and Jackson. I told him that I was a school teacher and explained the challenges and joys of my job. I tried to explain the demographics of Jackson, only to realize that it seemed pretty segregated when I talked about the different areas of town. I told him that the neighborhood we were in was probably the most diverse. He said he had been downtown during the day and went into OZ Rare and Used Books. He commented about how much potential he saw in downtown. He said he had interned in Copenhagen at an urban planning company and had some interesting theories on the planning of a city.
When I left the next morning to go to school, Hans was still at my house resting up for his bike ride into Memphis. When I got home, there was a note with some recommendations on books about city planning and a novel he had read recently. I haven’t spoken with him since he left, but I couldn’t help but appreciate that someone from Copenhagen was concerned about and even inspired by our town.
While parts of this piece may sound like an ad for Airbnb, I can promise you that it’s not. If anything, it’s an advertisement for connecting. It’s a desire to expose our town to people who aren’t from here. To take a piece of who they are and where they come from and place it here—and for them to take a piece of Jackson to wherever they are going. To take our faults and our shortcomings and strive to see our potential and what makes Jackson unique. It’s a way to trust and be open to meeting new people who might be different from you or me or the people who we have lived near most of our lives. It’s encouraging to help people from Brooklyn, San Francisco, Asheville, and Copenhagen to see Jackson from a fresh perspective.
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.