The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love that keeps me on the road to turn it into the home you dream about, to you and to the deep old woods I love.
When I get home, 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 three months since I got here in July–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 engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it, and all that I have done, since surveying the 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 mostly downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet paradoxically its most characteristic.
Jackson is not an old city like New Orleans or Boston, nor even neighboring Vicksburg and Natchez, and it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, 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 empty or shattered windows like missing or 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. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.
Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, 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; though 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, a shattered glass best melted and recast.
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 mountainside under the starry sky.
All my love,