On a recent Tuesday a bunch of folk gathered for a cookout outside John Lawrence's place. It was kind of like the stoop cookouts we used to have when I lived at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. John had a grill and tons of hamburgers, hotdogs, Bocas, all sorts of chips, sodas, beer. His guests—some from the Ironworks Building, others from the Dickies Building near the downtown post office, others of us who love downtown in spirit—came to the Downtown Neighborhood Association's first gathering outside the Hal & Mal's complex; John has a loft upstairs.
We were on the other end of the building, the north end down by the Pearl Street overpass. You couldn't really see us from the front, but everyone driving up the side street happened upon us, and we waved them over to join us. Several did, including Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., still nearly two weeks away from his exoneration on what sure seems to be trumped-up bribery charges. W. C. Don's bartender Jay Lossett drove by on his way to work and shouted "two for ones!"—an offer we took him up on later.
The cookout was a blast—hot and sticky, great food, lots of B.S. and carrying on. We were a bit hard-pressed to remember that we were there to fight crime.
It happened to be Aug. 2, National Night Out, an evening when people get out of their houses and make a presence in their neighborhoods—standing up to the criminals, as it were. Frankly, I do this most days and nights of my life—that is, I believe in getting out and about in our neighborhoods, walking, talking, shopping, leaving the car parked as much as possible (a really good idea with gas prices; my little Miata is costing over $25 to fill up now! Imagine!).
I've always found National Night Out to be a little like the way I've always felt about New Year's Eve—just say no to hanging out with a bunch of amateurs sure to get in a fight or a wreck after two sips of beers and request way too much Pointer Sisters (that was when I was a deejay). But that night the only time the whole thing felt a bit stilted was when Mayor Frank Melton's flashy bus-motorcade roared by on the overpass above us on their way to other Night Out festivities. That seemed over done, if you know what I mean. But down on our piece of the pavement, life was good.
I didn't think much about the purpose that night; I was too busy O.D.-ing on the potato salad. Stephen Barnette (Ironworks resident/JFP ad director) had picked up at McDade's, and enjoying the chitchat. But over the next few days as I listened to the typically overblown talk of what it takes to fight crime in the city—lots of kicking in doors and raids of sex clubs, it seems—I thought back on that night. Oh, the answer to the puzzle is so simple, yet so elusive.
Get out of the house. Live in your neighborhood. Get to know the people around you. Watch out for each other. Support public schools. Mentor community kids. Ensure that plenty of jobs stay in the city. Help young people—and older ones, for that matter—feel good about themselves and not view themselves as criminals. Rehabilitate. Teach. Believe. Have neighborhood cookouts. Gouge on cole slaw.
The truth is that neither the new mayor, or the new police chief, have much to do with preventing crime in Jackson. That's the job of each and every one of us every day. A vibrant city is not, cannot be, built on fear. It is built on a foundation of a strong community and people who care about each other's well-being. It rests on the idea that people who live closely together have to support each other, not tear each other apart. We have to bolster our own: our children, our locally owned businesses, our schools, our institutions.
Since the Jackson Free Press launched nearly three years ago, we've been all about helping build a strong city from the inside out. We have both chronicled and encouraged the renaissance of the city due to collective efforts of its citizens, not by throwing up our hands and expecting someone to "clean up" the messes the citizens themselves created, or wait for a great film to come out on DVD. Screw that noise. We introduced the meme "Think Global, Shop Local" to Jackson because we believe that in order to live and thrive in a larger world, we must live—trade, shop, educate—as locally as possible, not hidden behind gates that take us hours each day to travel to and from.
Jackson's recent progress as a Creative Class city (as we like to call it, thanks to author/academic Richard Florida's very progressive ideas about strong cities) is simply palpable. The evidence is everywhere we turn, and at no time more apparent than on the nights when we all have to run to four or five events, one after another. Most years, for instance, Todd and I go to the Saturday night Crossroads after-party at Hal & Mals in formalwear we wore to the Tougaloo Two Rivers Gala. Or, how about the line-up of events on the night of every single Fondren Art Mix (which starts again Sept 1)? This reminds me of my life in New York City—the nights when I went from event to event, a cocktail here, some yummy appetizers there, great art over yonder, dancing 'til dawn (OK, not that part).
In Jackson, I like to say, you can make a difference simply by showing up. It's true: Every time you go out to a Jackson event, or simply leave the quiet of your own home to dine out or see an indie film, you are building community, feeding the Renaissance and, yes, fighting crime. The more of you out there, the fewer crimes there will be. This is a fact. Sadly, so is the opposite.
This weekend is one of those times. Friday night alone is incredible—a talent show at the Mississippi Arts Center; trivia at Timne Out Sports Bar; a benefit at Rainbow Plaza for another local business, Video Café, with dancing, food and fellowship; and then Todd and I are rounding out the night with Southern Fried Karaoke in the Hal & Mal's Restaurant.
Then Saturday is the perfect crime-fighting event. The Greater Belhaven Bright Lights Arts and Music Gestival has something for everyone, of all ages, starting with a children's parade at 5:30 and leading up to King Elementary, with lots of activities in between. For just $2 entry, it's theperfect way to make a difference by showing up. And that's just a start; see 8 Days (page 22) for even more options.
The point, of course, is that you are an idiot if you go around whining about nothing to do in Jackson. You are terribly misinformed if you think it is up to someone else to make your city safer for you, or more creative, or hipper, or more fun.
Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is simply showing up. True. You never know what will happen when you make the effort to participate in your community. Or, what may not happen.
Finally got a chance to read this and have one word: Amen!