Sept. 4, 2003
Hope was palpable in the new Union Station the evening of Aug. 26. Mayor Harvey Johnson had wisely chosen the almost-completed "multi-model transportation center" as the site of his annual State of the City address. The building itself is remarkable: the renovation keeps (or replaces) the retro styling of a train depot of the past, while avoiding the mistake of over-designing that so often makes new construction tacky and uninviting.
The major tenants of the building, so far, will be Amtrak and, poetically, Greyhound. The city hopes for retail and restaurant tenants as well. (Caribbean restaurant, anyone?) Clearly, the folks behind the new station are willing it to have even a fraction of the positive impact of, say, the renovation of Washington, D.C.'s Union Station.
On this Thursday, several hundred people poured into the building from doors facing a section of West Capitol Street repaved that day. (What a coincidence.) Yes, across the way you could easily see the depressing ruins of the old Ironhorse Grill and, of course, the King Edward. (Although that historic building may be standing a little taller these days, knowing that three potential developers have bids in on the aged monarch.)
Inside Union Station, though, everything seemed fresh and vibrant, including the mayor. In the former Shed House, a large open space that will become the new mall area, the mayor told the crowd of mostly supporters that he chose the location as a metaphor. "It's symbolic because, just like Jackson, Union Station is being restored to its original grandeur, and will also be adapted to the future."
Seeing the retro Greyhound symbols already in place, I couldn't help but think of a particular symbolism—the city's first black mayor was calling for unity and optimism for the future in a Greyhound station. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson pretty much started when Freedom Riders ended their tortuous journey on public buses at the old Greyhound Bus Station at 219 South Lamar, where they were arrested. (That building is a remodeled marvel in its own right as architect offices, with a neon Greyhound leaping in front.)
Johnson cheerfully checked off a list of accomplishments, including a balanced proposed budget; favorable bond ratings; progress on the King Edward; the Telecommunications Conference Center; the Metro Parkway. On the subject of the oft-delayed Farish Street Entertainment District, he repeated one of his favorite jokes: "The other day someone asked me, as they often do, 'How far behind are we?' and I responded, about 50 years, but we're moving ahead." He didn't give a firm date on Farish completion plans, but said that the "effect of years of neglect, benign and otherwise" must be overcome before beginning the visible work.
De riguer for such events, Johnson honored several people during his speech, including developer Ted Duckworth who is partnering with Entergy to bring residential living to Downtown (one of a growing roster of private-sector partners in turning Jackson around). He also called out Police Chief Robert Moore who is increasing the police force by 100 officers by the summer of 2004, and has started implementing a five-point plan to deal with crime increases, especially robberies and burglaries.
Johnson heralded the Blue Knights, a 12-and-under JPS soccer team that recently won a national title, and scored his most important point of the day. As they stood up, giggling and looking proud and giddy (and drawing the most sincere standing ovation at the event), the mayor said: "In honor of the Blue Knights, I'd encourage you to get involved in the life of a young person—mentor, tutor or volunteer to coach a youth sports program, but get involved."
Near the end of the address, Johnson touched on the sticky politics of holding public office in Jackson, surrounded by detractors seemingly willing to tear the baby apart in the political process. "Leadership in Jackson today comes from a vision bordering on pure faith with little encouragement; it comes from dogged determination, and a few willing, risk-taking partners," Johnson said, adding an invitation: "If you want to join in, please don't worry about feeling welcomed. You're welcomed more than I could ever express."
He closed with words from a 1960s Curtis Mayfield song:
People get ready, there's a train a-comin./You don't need no baggage, you just get on board./All you need is faith to hear the diesels a-hummin./You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
(Read full State of the City address.)