Let’s suspend our thought for the next ten to fifteen minutes and imagine what could be. Let’s not think about dollars and cents or logistical structure. While those things are necessary, they’re not for us right now. What we need are open minds and unencumbered ideas about what our downtown might possibly be if we could just think a little bit beyond what we’ve always thought. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen beyond. I’ve seen what downtown Jackson could be if we could just all get on board. I’ve seen the future of a vibrant court square with restaurants and bars and live music and boutiques and antique stores. I’ve seen sidewalks crowded with people walking from shop to shop as lights glisten on trees on an early July evening. In fact, this place isn’t a vision or a dream but a reality. I visit this place twice a month actually.
McKinney, Texas, is a suburb thirty miles north of Dallas. Two weekends every month, I find myself walking the streets of McKinney and wondering if it’s even real sometimes. My daughter lives in a town near McKinney, but her town (along with every other suburb around Dallas-Fort Worth) doesn’t compare with McKinney. For a long time, I struggled to find something redeemable about the entire area. One December night, we found McKinney, and hope wasn’t far behind.
A former courthouse anchors the square. “Former” is the key word in that sentence. Nearly ten years ago, the city of McKinney decided to transform the courthouse from a place of legal proceedings to a performing arts center. A building that once was home to divorce cases, lawsuits, and misdemeanor trials now hosts art shows, concerts, and plays. One Friday a month, it even shows a movie dripping with nostalgia. The transformation of that building was symbolic, aesthetic, philosophical, or any other adjective you care to place there. It was the culminating shift in the values of that town and that decision has paid off in every way.
Like a heart of culture, the courthouse-turned-performing-arts-center pumps life into everything that surrounds it. There are numerous boutiques and antique shops. There are restaurants ranging from high-dollar “foodie” establishments to an old-fashioned country diner. There’s a pie shop and a gelato parlor and a “mom and pop” popcorn/candy store. If you want to stay out a little later, you would have the choice of two wineries or three pubs. On the second Saturday of every month, all the shops on the square stay open until 9:00 P.M. (or whenever the last customer leaves).
And to prove that McKinney isn’t stuck in some time warp, a year and a half ago, a true vintage store known as The Groovy Coop opened. They sell vinyl albums ranging from Radiohead to Waylon Jennings. There’s also an assortment of vintage clothes and furniture and profanity-laced t-shirts, aprons, and hand towels. In the last few months, they’ve started hosting original music in their store that showcases independent musicians. It’s my favorite store in the town.
At first, I fell in love with McKinney because it reminded me so much of Jackson. The neighborhood surrounding the square in McKinney was filled with old, originally styled homes that mimicked so much of the LANA area in Jackson where I live. The square of McKinney was a stark contrast to the oppressive suburbia in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and I immediately connected it to our downtown in Jackson. The buildings were full of character, and I could stand in one of the alleys and not discern if I were in McKinney or Jackson. However, the more I visited downtown McKinney, the more I realized how empty downtown Jackson was and how much potential we were wasting here.
The layout of Jackson is far superior to that of McKinney. Jackson’s downtown square has several parallel streets from East College all the way south to East Baltimore that could be developed beyond the square, which is boxed by Lafayette and Main Streets. Our entire downtown area is begging to be revitalized with retail stores and eateries and multiple night spots. Instead, our downtown is laden with local government buildings and lawyers’ offices. The courthouse sits in the middle of our square, as well, but there’s no cultural life blood pumping from it.
There are spots of progress here and there that stick out like sore thumbs. Miss Ollie’s and the Downtown Tavern are popular night spots, and the Vintage Market has shown staying power since opening nearly three years ago. The Ned has been a giant step forward in promoting theatre and art shows; we even had a movie shown there over Christmas. However, downtown Jackson still mainly caters to the people who work in the area until 5:00 P.M., only to shut down after that. Downtown should be the cultural heart of a city like Jackson, but instead tumbleweeds blow across the street after 6:00 P.M. every night.
Not only is the layout of our downtown superior to McKinney’s, the culture of our town is superior as well. As much as I love McKinney, that town doesn’t have the burgeoning culture of art and music that we do. In fact, McKinney is just now trying to establish an independent music scene, and we’ve been doing that for years at the Downtown Tavern. We have so many talented musicians in our town, but we shuffle them through the same predictable venues that are spread all across the city. What if we developed the middle of our city into a place where creative people could thrive? We could have multiple establishments that nourished original music and creativity. Our artists could have a place to sell their creations in the shops and boutiques that surrounded the courthouse. Speaking of the courthouse, what if we followed McKinney’s lead and transformed the seat of our local government into a vintage theatre where independent films and old movies were shown? We could also host concerts in a building that would provide an intimate setting instead of the fire-hazard-loaded Civic Center. Downtown isn’t only about eating and drinking, it should be a place that nurtures artistic expression of all kinds.
Instead, our downtown is being choked by civic buildings with their broad-shouldered structures ominously blocking the light and artistic progress from downtown. While the Jackson Walk has been a positive start toward a thriving downtown, its development still sits a bit removed from the square. The expansion of Jackson Walk is actually moving away from downtown toward midtown. The boutiques, Rock’n Dough, and Grubb’s Grocery have been outstanding additions to our town, but the lack of development in the actual heart of our city will eventually catch up to the progress we’ve made. Even phase two of the Jackson Walk is pushing the opposite direction of where development truly needs to happen. It’s time we thought beyond more housing options and apartments and thought about the culture we want to establish.
Outside investors from Memphis and Nashville have purchased properties downtown, but the only investment they have in our town is monetary. As Jacksonians, our investment needs to be personal. If a business owner takes a chance on an establishment downtown, it’s imperative that we support it. If rent needs to come down in order to attract local business owners to take a chance on a lease downtown, then sacrificing a few dollars for the greater cultural good should be a priority. The Columns and Vann Drive are convenient and affordable, but they will crush the soul of our town if we’re not careful. I wish that last sentence was hyperbole, but it’s not. It’s fine to shop at chain stores and eat at chain restaurants, but they can’t be our sustenance. We’re just filling ourselves with empty capitalist calories. We need the nourishment of something original and something local. We need to abandon the idea of downtown being a place to pay a traffic ticket or purchase car tags. Let’s expand our thoughts and try and see beyond what we’ve always seen. Downtown Jackson wants to be developed. As citizens of this community, we need it to be developed with something substantial.
A few weeks ago, I was in the record store in McKinney and one of the employees asked me if I wanted to go to Tupps Brewery with him. I had heard of Tupps but never seen it or been there and had no idea where it was. He explained that it was a little south of the square and that it was originally a cotton mill. Instead of tearing it down, a brewery was housed there.
I immediately thought of our own mill that sits south of our downtown in Jackson. It’s currently in deconstruction mode and has been for three years. When the decision was finally made to tear it down, Mayor Gist summed it up well when he said, “It’s not what we wanted, but it’s the best with what we had.”
Was it really? Obviously, the mill in Bemis was uninhabitable at the end and would have taken millions of dollars to restore. But our answer to everything can’t be to simply tear it down. There should have been a plan years ago for what that mill could have been before it got to the point of no return. We need to invest in the plan for what downtown can be, as well, or that mill might end up being a symbolic representation of what our downtown eventually becomes. Vision and foresight start well before we’re at a last resort.
Progress and vision are always a process. And although there has been a vision laid out for the center of our city, we all have a responsibility in adding to that vision and supporting that vision. From projects like The Local to the creative and interactive experience of Terrinopolis, there are people who are making a creative investment in our downtown. Make no mistake—there are many risks to take in order to make even a small turn toward a cultural shift, but that can’t stop us from dreaming of what could be. McKinney has meant so much to me and will continue to evolve in the way I view it, but right now it’s a touchstone for the potential I hope our city can reach one day. It’ll be the day we shake off the shackles of tradition and really begin to see what Jackson could be if we just take a few chances.
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.
Photography by Gabe Hart.