Recently, Todd and I happened to be driving throughout downtown Jackson on a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly, we drove by one of the new art boxes. "Oooh," I squealed. "Pull over!"
He whipped the Insight to the curb, and I started snapping Instagram photos in all sorts of fun angles. We then drove around looking for more colorful boxes. Suddenly, I'd see one. "There!" I instructed, and he slid over to the curb. I hopped out and took another photo.
This little impromptu artist date probably didn't last half an hour, but it was delightful. It was like a creative treasure hunt in the heart of the city we've grown to know and love so much over the last decade. The exercise fit the exact definition of being in creative flow: We were driven by a goal (to find as many boxes as possible); we were fully present; and we really enjoyed what we were doing.
We both realized the creative-class coup the mayor and the Greater Jackson Arts Council had pulled off with these boxes. As fun as the catfish were a few years back, turning something necessary and dull into exciting pieces of art is so much cooler.
Engaged people will notice. It will help draw more people here to invest their time and resources into our future. In a creative-class world (to borrow a good idea from Carnegie Mellon professor Richard Florida), little things can actually matter a whole lot more than big, expensive concepts. Colorful art boxes peppering downtown sends a clear message that Jackson has decided to invest in its own creativity and wants to involve our artists in the process.
This story was the cover of the first Jackson Free Press on Sept. 22, 2002.
This will help us create the sense of place that today's young(-at-heart) creatives and professionals want around them. It is very 21st century to DIY, to make something out of nothing.
As the JFP approaches our 10th birthday in Jackson, we're going to be talking a lot about how far the city has come in a decade and how far we still have to go. Certainly, there is amazing progress, and the city as a whole (thanks in no small part to the late Frank Melton's disastrous term as mayor) seems to have matured past our previous obsession with crime into a city with a greater awareness that if we want it, we all have to build it, not wait for some hero to come along and do it for us.
And those of us living and working amid Jackson's renaissance know at least anecdotally that what we're all doing here, and the city's creative maturation, is showing signs of working. We all know many young people who crave living in Jackson now; a decade ago, it was the exact opposite. And how many do you know who left and can't wait to move back?
Governing magazine last week reported news that, if it sustains, could be very good for our city. After years of population loss (averaging about 1,100 people a year), the city may have grown by more than 2,000 people in 2011. If this is true, it wouldn't really be a surprise. Across the United States, a suburban backlash is occurring with a reverse migration back into cities. People aren't enjoying commuting as much these days, and big-box outlets are losing their appeal for creative people (and creativity is a buzz word these days). As for people under 30, and increasingly 40 or so, they want to live in dense communities where they can walk and bike to work and to friends' houses. They want sidewalks. They want to be near fun, locally owned businesses.
Light Box Art Project
For the past few months, snatches of color have been popping up on downtown street corners, as local artists put their stamp on traffic signal boxes as part of a public art initiative launched by Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr.
When we started the paper in 2002, Todd wrote the first cover story, "Creative Class Rising." In it, he reported that Richard Florida's research showed Jackson's immense creative-class potential and even ranked us higher than Memphis or New Orleans on his scale.
The city hasn't been immune to the recession, and we still have challenges, but there is so much more of a cohesive creative spirit than existed 10 years ago. We encourage the city's leaders, residents, business owners and developers to feed this innovative funnel as much as possible.
We've always said that Jackson has a tendency to count on heroes and big, expensive projects to save us some day rather than digging in and making it happen here and now. A lot of the empty spaces downtown, with exorbitant rents attached, have long been a testimony to this problem. Somehow, the people who can make even more creativity happen don't always put aside their collective egos long enough to sit around a table and figure out how to, say, fill empty storefronts downtown with colorful art displays or information on local groups and events. Or to turn empty retail space into an arts and crafts vendor collective as we see when we visit Austin, Texas, or Asheville, N.C.
No doubt, Jackson has come a long way, but we still have some hurdles. Too often, we see people not supporting a great idea because it comes from a particular public official or developer or political nemesis. And as we get closer to election season, this problem is always amplified.
We need to choose a better way to work together to remake our city. Just as spouting empty crime rhetoric is no way to run for office, neither is refusing to get on board with great ideas because someone around the table might put it on a campaign brochure one day.
Jackson, there is no savior who is going to come in and make it all better for us. If we want to reduce crime, we all have to figure out ways to help do it. (see jfp.ms/crime for lots of ideas in a package that won us a national award recently).
If we want a creative-class city that attracts and keeps our brightest young people here, so they can in turn take their turn at the wheel, we have to dig deep and search wide for ideas that don't require a TIF or GO-Zone funds to make happen. And the last thing we have to do is ask permission to make exciting things happen; we didn't get the mayor, any mayor, or city council "on board" to do this paper. We pooled our meager resources; got people excited; encouraged creativity, and here we are still growing and raising hell 10 years later.
Put another way, Jacksonians need to believe we can be great, and then look for ways to make greatness happen. That kind of creative spirit can move mountains,not to mention build great cities.