I watched a film a few months ago that has more or less floated along the periphery of my thoughts ever since. It was titled A Ghost Story and was about the passage of time and the way humans seem to find a way to tear down and rebuild everything over and over again. More than that, however, it’s about one man’s attachment to a physical place. Throughout different scenes in the movie, a young couple is seen discussing the possibility of moving from the house where they live. The house is inauspicious. It’s a two-bedroom ranch with a living room, kitchen, and a den/study. There’s nothing particularly elegant or beautiful about it, however the man doesn’t want to leave it. In one particular scene, his wife asks him, “What is it you like about this house so much?” He responds with one word: “History.”
As the film progresses, we find that the man passes away and is stuck in this house as a ghost. He is anchored in that dwelling as time moves past him, and he sees the new occupants of the house generation after generation. He watches as the house begins to crumble under the weight of time. He’s there when the house is finally demolished to make way for an office park and, eventually, high-rise office buildings. By the end of his journey, the place where the house once stood is unrecognizable. What’s in its place, however, is capitalistically successful and thriving. The stories that the original house once held are gone. The house, itself, is gone with no remnant of it to be seen.
More than any other manmade structure, individual houses have the most stories to tell, especially the old ones. The conversations that were had around a table. The Christmas tree decorating in the living room. The mother caring for her sick children in their bedroom. The light floating through a west-facing window at the end of a day. A late night dance to a Roy Orbison record in the kitchen of a newly married couple.
If a house could record and play back what it has seen over the course of its life, scenes like these and millions more would be told. At some point, though, houses weather, neighborhoods change, and we tear down and begin to build again. Those stories dissipate in the dust or are painted over with the semi-gloss of renovation and restoration.
Downtown Jackson is going through a facelift of its own right now. As phase two of the Jackson Walk progresses, many old homes are being razed or renovated. Three state-of-the-art apartment buildings have recently been completed on the land where the old West Jackson Baptist Church used to stand. Morgan Street Development signs mark empty lots where old houses once recorded their own stories. Concrete steps lead to empty spaces, a part of the past lingering in what is to become a revitalized district.
Change is normally something that is seen when looking back from a distant point in the future; rarely do we see it as it’s happening. Phase two of Jackson Walk is an exception to that rule. In order for change to occur, however, something must be replaced or removed. There are always casualties of change.
In the summer of 2013, I purchased a home on the three hundred block of Division Avenue. It was a mile from where I grew up. The previous thirteen years had been spent living in north Jackson. When I moved to Division, it felt like I had moved to a different a town. Truthfully, nostalgia brought me back here. I couldn’t bear to see any more subdivisions or apartment complexes or chain restaurants. I wanted old trees and sidewalks and houses with full front porches. I wanted original craftsmanship in my house. I wanted high ceilings and thick walls and built-in bookshelves. What’s more, the three hundred block was extremely affordable. My end of the street was (and is) diverse. Ages vary from young adult to senior citizen. There are multiple races living on and around my street. It was exactly where I wanted and needed to be.
In the last few months, however, I have started to notice things I hadn’t seen before. There were houses being renovated, and “for rent” and “for sale” signs were being put up in front of them. A house two blocks down was being sold for $120,000! That’s almost double what I paid for mine. Personally, this is a great thing for me. My home value has risen and will continue to rise. The homes that are being restored add beauty to my street. I see more people walking their dogs on the sidewalk in front of my house. These are things I envisioned when I moved here. However, I still can’t help but wonder what happens to all the people who were renting those houses that were unkempt and falling apart. Where do they go? Are they the casualties of change?
This past December, my school held our staff Christmas party at Rock’N Dough. It was the first time I had ever been a part of an official school function that took place anywhere remotely close to downtown. (I’ve been teaching for fifteen years.) I decided that I would walk to the party from my house which is just under a mile from downtown.
As I walked south on Prospect, my neighborhood began to change. I walked over to Hawthorne Street and saw the beautiful old homes that date back to the early 1900’s. Then a home on the left side of the street caught my eye. It had clearly been restored, but it looked like a new house trying to be old. I couldn’t quite decide what I thought about it, other than the fact it stood out from everything else on that street.
Just south of Hawthorne, the change was complete. Through the December trees, I could see the new construction of Jackson Walk, phase two, but right in front of me was a house with two pit bulls chained in the backyard. Half the ceiling was sagging on the front porch. Two blocks south, there was what appeared to be an abandoned multi-housing unit in which every single window was shattered. The next four blocks were more of the same. My ears were filled with the incessant beeping of heavy machinery in reverse. Nearly all of my senses were impacted by change in the present moment.
I began to wonder then (and continue to wonder now), as downtown continues to progress, how long can two distinct neighborhoods survive simultaneously? Is it even possible? I know, without a doubt, that this change is benefitting me personally and the city overall, but are we benefiting at the expense of people who are limited in their socioeconomic progression?
I’m a member at the LIFT Fitness Center, the cornerstone of everything that is the Jackson Walk. The route I drive from my house is always the same: Prospect, Arlington, Campbell, Deadrick, Johnson. As construction began this summer, my daughter and I would always see a man on the front porch of his old, white house, watching the bulldozers level the land. As I was walking to my school Christmas party, I wanted to stop and ask him what he thought of this new progress. When I made my way down Morgan Street in his direction, I noticed that it was gone. Gone—like there had been a rapture for old homes. How had I not noticed it? How long did it take for that house to disappear? In all honesty, it probably only took an hour to wipe away whatever stories and memories that house held in its bones. Where did that man go? Was he even there at all? Logically, I know he was. I know that house was there, too, but now there’s just a leveled piece of land where it used to stand.
Downtown Jackson is on its way to being something truly special. We’re in the beginning stages of growth that is only going to strengthen our city as a whole. With the additions of theLOCAL, the Shoppes of Seven Three One, and other small businesses like Tattoo Station, people are choosing to build their lives downtown. Phase two of the Jackson Walk offers people a residential version of that same choice. Recently, I heard a high-ranking member of the school district say, “People are moving downtown because they want to, not because they have to.” Ten years ago, the majority of people who lived near downtown did so because it was affordable. Now people are living near downtown because it’s an exciting place to be. And therein lies the challenge.
Can we as a community find the balance between progressing toward a promising future and caring for the stories and lives that exist on that road to change? Is there way to preserve that history other than faux architecture that mimics the past? What are we doing to make sure there are no casualties of change?
In the past thirty years, multiple studies have been done to improve the diversity of low- and middle/high-income neighborhoods. A common thread ran through many of the studies, and that thread was the ability of children of poverty to escape that cycle by having their family placed in affordable housing in a middle-income neighborhood. Could this be something that Jackson could do before our next development starts up? We could have renovated districts and lessen the concentration of poverty at the same time. These types of solutions are also exciting parts of change, not simply new restaurants and new boutiques.
Three years ago, two women stayed at my house through Airbnb as they made their way from Brooklyn to New Orleans. One was an editor at the Huffington Post and the other a filmmaker who was finishing up some footage in New Orleans. We sat on my porch on a Saturday morning in May and talked about my neighborhood. Anna Leah (the filmmaker) kept commenting on how much enjoyed my street because of the character of the homes and the diversity of the neighborhood. She mentioned (more than once) how gentrified Brooklyn had become over the last several years. She told me that my neighborhood reminded her “of what a real neighborhood should look like.” Yes. A real neighborhood has history and diversity. Let us all strive for that. Let’s add to our story while taking precious care of our past and all who make up our community.
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.
Header image by Hannah Heckart.