The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good in time for Thanksgiving, back to the mountains, to the house you love that keeps me on the road to turn it into the home you dream about, back to you and the woods I love that keep me coming back. When I am there, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.
It’s been four months since I got here last August. (I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel!) This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of interaction, not just of being, but of living there, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, even tasting it, developing a feel for it, and all that I have done, since repaving these streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights, though admittedly most of my time was spent downtown, which in many ways can be considered the strangest part of the city, yet paradoxically the most characteristic. I can only try to explain.
Jackson is not an old city like New Orleans or Boston, not even neighboring Vicksburg or Natchez, and it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Art Deco-era towers and none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings, and the face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with the now-prerequisite roundabouts and pretty narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. In short, the city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.
Poverty is one of the two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, which is closely intertwined, is race or more accurately racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here. While a great show is made in the local media of progress, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office and funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed to achieve that end. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself.
I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the side of a mountain under the starry sky.
All my love,