In 2005, Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood passed two landmarks: the first Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights, and, shortly thereafter, the most devastating storm ever to impact the state of Mississippi. The damage wrought by Katrina has long since healed, and tomorrow, for the thirteenth year, Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights will illuminate the capitol city. In this excerpt, Virgi Lindsay, former executive director of the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation (GBNH), remembers how Jackson’s biggest neighborhood event all began.
“Camp Best, who was director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation at the time, suggested that the GBNH should have a neighborhood festival in Belhaven. We’d been working hard on Fortification Street, and we wanted to do something fun and visible to bring people to the area. Camp and I were having coffee at Cups, and he said that we needed to do a street festival. I agreed; we already had the Belhaven Market going on, which was a Saturday event, but it was clear that we needed to take the next step.”
“There were several occasions that Virgi and I met for coffee at Cups in the early days of Fondren Renaissance Foundation and the Greater Belhaven Foundation,” Camp said. “We were fellow urban warriors in the trenches together back then, supporting each other in whatever way we could. The Fondren Renaissance Foundation had experienced some early successes with our Arts, Eats and Beats, Fondren Unwrapped, Symphony at Sunset and ARTMix (the early precursor to Fondren After Five). All of these events had one purposeful thing in common: get people outdoors in your neighborhood to show the world that it is safe to have fun there. Make it free, so everybody can come, and, use local music and art as the draw.”
Camp said that when he suggested to Virgi that she consider doing the same thing in Belhaven, she worried that they didn’t really have any restaurants or galleries for people to come to back then. “I said it didn’t matter. Make it up; make it look like you do, put the music and artists in the street and people will come. And they did.”
“So in a couple of weeks, I really began thinking about where it could be and when,” Virgi said, “And I began research on a good time to have a festival in Jackson when we wouldn’t have a lot of competition. I quickly found out that every month when the weather could be expected to be great was just full of events. But about that time, Chuck and I went to New Orleans in August, and just happened upon White Linen Night, one of the first ones they held. At that point, it was still a very quiet little event run by the residents on Julia Street. I looked around at this lovely, wonderful neighborhood event, and I thought that if New Orleans, Louisiana can have an outdoors event in August, then Jackson, Mississippi can, too.”
Virgi said another reason the Belhaven foundation chose August was because they knew that if they were doing an event in April or October that the competition for sponsorships would be very tough, so scheduling an event in August helped guarantee that the sponsors would be more generous. “And yes, everyone thought we were nuts, but we decided to give it a go. We worked with the theory that it would be the last party of the summer, so we’ve always held Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights the weekend before school starts, the weekend before football season starts.”
The very first year, 2005, Katie Hester and Cheryl Grubbs were the co-chairmen of the event. “We were going to open the gates at 5:30, still figuring things out, not sure at all how it would go. We looked up at 5:15, and there a good 500-600 people walking down to Carlisle Street. We had over 1500 people to come that first year. The Belhaven Improvement Association (BIA) volunteered to cook hot dogs and hamburgers in McDade’s parking lot. It was probably the hottest year we’ve ever had, with temperatures hovering around 100 at five in the afternoon. We had some food vendors, and BIA bought every hot dog in McDade’s, but we still ran out of food, we ran out of drinks, we ran out of everything, but as far as we were concerned, that was the most wonderful problem to have.”
Virgi remembers many near misses. “That July, Winn-Dixie had pulled out of the old Jitney 14 space, which was the second time in a short period that the neighborhood almost lost its grocery store. But just four days before the first Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights, GBNH could finally announce that McDade’s was going into the space. “There was a time when we thought that we were having our first festival and our one big anchor in the neighborhood would be lost. It was touch and go, but a week before Bright Lights, Greg McDade moved in. So instead of there being a big, dark, padlocked building at the festival site, we had a vibrant neighborhood grocery with all the energy associated with it.”
“Nobody knew what to expect,” Virgi remembers. “McDade’s ran out of change, everybody ran out of water. Then nine days later came Katrina, and retrospect it’s very emotional when you think about what a wonderful time we all had together that Saturday night, when we came together as a community without any realization that within a very short time we would pull together again in a totally different way.
We had grounding; we came to know that we’re here, we’re together. It’s a powerful memory.”