What if you threw a block party and nobody came? Last year, Tonja Murphy was a little apprehensive about throwing the first Millsaps-North Midtown Block Party on the college's west lawn. After all, the imposing iron gate along West Street had been locked to the North Midtown neighborhood since the mid 1980s. Would anyone from North Midtown even want to walk through?
North Midtown Community Development Corp. and the Millsaps Work & Faith Initiative co-organized the party. As a resident of North Midtown and a board member of the North Midtown CDC, Murphy shared the other organizers' concerns that they would be left holding the potato chip bag.
But once the long-locked gates opened, all fears were assuaged. Murphy recalls, "We were surprised … there were so many residents that came out." In the end, nearly 500 North Midtown residents, Millsaps students, faculty and families joined together for a day of music, games, food and neighborly goodwill.
An instant tradition was born, and block-partiers on both sides of the fence eagerly await the chance to do it all again Friday, April 18, when the gates will again swing open wide for the second annual Millsaps-North Midtown Block Party.
As Murphy puts it, "It's a much bigger issue than, ‘Yeah, we're going to have a block party.'" For decades, the long iron fence along West Street has kept Millsaps and North Midtown apart, foiling students' attempts to grab an Inez Burger at CS's and cordoning off North Midtown residents from the campus and easy access to surrounding neighborhoods. Although Millsaps and North Midtown never experienced the acrimonious "town-gown" conflicts seen elsewhere, the fence fostered a perception of Millsaps and North Midtown as separate entities, with separate priorities.
It wasn't always this way, though. Up until 1982, there was no fence, and the main entrance to the Millsaps campus actually faced West Street. But rising concerns over crime and student safety resulted in construction of the fence, and in Millsaps' reorientation toward State Street and Belhaven, while essentially turning its back on North Midtown.
After decades of lukewarm relations with the North Midtown neighborhood, Millsaps administrators, faculty and students recognized that a change was needed. A planning luncheon in January 2006 with residents and representatives from North Midtown resulted in the establishment of Millsaps' One Campus One Community project. Run through the Office of the Chaplain and the Work & Faith Initiative, the 1C1C initiative formalized the school's commitment to re-establishing ties with North Midtown.
The annual block party seeks to further the goals of 1C1C by restoring the sense of a single, continuous community encompassing both Millsaps and North Midtown.
Millsaps professor and Work & Faith Initiative director Darby Ray remembers the moment at the initial planning luncheon when the idea for the block party was born. She recalls one residents' comments: "From our perspective, you are the college on the hill behind the fence. Most of us have never been on your campus, and what we see of you is your back, and a big foreboding fence that signals, ‘Keep out.'" A primary outcome of that luncheon, Ray says, was that Millsaps "thought about ways of making our borders more porous and more inviting."
In addition to the block party, 1C1C supports an after-school tutoring program, provides scholarships for North Midtown youth to attend Millsaps summer sports camps and organizes semiannual community service days. Last summer, organizers rented the famed Jackson Trolley and brought children from North Midtown to watch the New Orleans Saints practice. Next year, Millsaps alumni John Kellogg and Laquanda Sims will live in North Midtown and work on cooperative community projects as the first 1C1C post-baccalaureate fellows.
The fence may not be going anywhere anytime soon, but Millsaps and the residents of North Midtown are trying to prove that open gates make good neighbors, and that walls are no obstacle to cooperation. "1C1C is trying to make that gate invisible," Murphy says. "Whether there is a fence there or not, the same things that we set out to accomplish, we're going to accomplish." Ray shares Murphy's optimism, and points out that at any rate, neither community has any choice in the matter. "Millsaps and North Midtown ... are married," Ray says, laughing. "To recognize that and to get serious about making the relationship work for the long haul is an exciting step."
The Millsaps-North Midtown Block Party will be held Friday, April 18, from 4-6 p.m. on the west lawn of the Millsaps campus.
Actually I don't think the fence went up until about 1985 (not 1982). I was living on "Popcorn Alley" on the east side of Millsaps in 1983 and used to routinely cross campus to walk to CS's and also to visit friends on West St. and Millsaps Ave.
- ed inman
I love it when Ed starts spouting his vast historical knowledge! You really should be the city historian, Ed. Thanks! ;-)
Block party? This Friday? I'm there, dude!
- golden eagle
let's get bloggers there, yeah!