When I moved to Mississippi in 1997, the recommendations on where to live went something like this: Forget about Jackson. I settled on Madison County.
Every day for years, I trekked to Jackson to work. For a few years, I bypassed the city's streets altogether and drove to Clinton. Other than complaining about drivers on the interstate, I gave little thought to the city of Jackson. After all, I moved here from the Washington, D.C., area, where I mostly lived in the suburbs for 17 years. My excursions into the nation's capital, like trips into Jackson, were for work or entertainment.
It wasn't until I started working for the Jackson Free Press that I began to understand what my city-avoidance cost me—and the city I've grown to love.
Every city has problems, and Jackson is no exception. Surely, D.C. keeps its streets in better condition than Jackson does, a coworker once exclaimed. Well, no. D.C.'s street maintenance budget is undoubtedly larger than Jackson's, but those of us who used those streets complained about the lack of snow removal, the craters from the chemicals the city used to clear snow, buckled roads in the hot summers, and how slow the city was to repair them. You can't get across D.C. without navigating orange construction barrels that regularly narrow lanes and slow traffic to a crawl. And try to find convenient on-street parking in downtown D.C. Fugetaboutit.
To its credit, D.C. has decent public transportation. Much of the city, but certainly not all of it, is accessible by subway. By all accounts, Jackson's bus system is inadequate for all but a few residents. Bus lines date from the days when the city's black residents used it to get to work—primarily, buses made it convenient to get to the homes of white folks where many of the city's African American women worked as domestics. To this day, you can't get to the city from the suburbs on public transportation—or vice versa—keeping those without a car stuck.
And yes, Jackson has a higher crime rate, more poverty, more abandoned housing and higher property taxes than the suburbs. That's not unusual for cities. They're problems complicated by declining tax bases and little opportunity and exacerbated by moribund public schools. Jackson's huge amount of tax-exempt government, school and church property doesn't help.
But enough about what's wrong with Jackson. The reason living in the suburbs was detrimental to me personally was the lack of community. In that sense, the 'burbs just don't compare.
Look around: Where else in the metro area can you find the vibrant energy of the city's colleges and universities? Our little city boasts a nationally ranked liberal-arts college (Millsaps College) and a top Christian university (Belhaven University). It also holds a highly regarded medical school and teaching hospital (University of Mississippi Medical Center), a thriving city university (Jackson State), a renowned HBCU (Tougaloo College) and Mississippi College School of Law. Jackson fairly bursts at the seams with youthful exuberance and creative vigor.
Every day of the week, Jackson offers live music from blues to rap to classical. The city's cultural events—from plays to book signings to ballets—are unparalleled to anything found in Madison or Flowood. Art studios and galleries are everywhere. That's not to say the suburbs don't offer those things, but it's nothing like what you'll find in Jackson.
Then there are our museums. You could easily spend a day or two exploring the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Arts Center of Mississippi, the Russell C. Davis Planetarium, and then relaxing in the Art Garden—all in a square block. You can run the kids ragged between the Mississippi Museum of Science, the Mississippi Children's Museum and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, not to mention the Jackson Zoo. And history buffs find plenty to amuse at the Old Capital Museum and the Smith Robertson Museum. The Mississippi History and Civil Rights museums will open before you know it.
And don't forget the food. Whether your tastes run to the traditional meat-and-three or ethnic favorites from the Middle and Far East to old Mexico, Jackson has you covered. Finding soul food and barbecue is a snap, as are fine-dining options with terrific wine lists, and even good vegetarian food.
All that culture serves one important, overriding purpose: It creates community. Filling Jackson's neighborhoods are folks who know their neighbors. Jacksonians celebrate community often, turning out for talks and lectures and street festivals. They come out as much for the fellowship—the simple pleasure of hugging friend's necks—as for the music, dancing and shopping.
Sure, the city has its problems, but Jackson is much, much more than the sum of its issues. The city's people are what make Jackson a special place. Come join us.