A couple weeks ago, Todd Stauffer and I went to Michigan to speak to the Knight-Wallace journalism fellows in Ann Arbor about how we've managed to grow the Jackson Free Press (and BOOM Jackson) over the last decade, during a tough economy and a time when so many newspapers have shrunk.
While we were there, we did an extended tour of Detroit, a city that at once manages to capture the American imagination and bring out the most negative comments a city could possibly provoke. And I'll be honest, we saw a lot of sadness and need in that once-grand city.
It's a large city in area--similar to the size of Jackson. But its population has shrunk by 25 percent in a decade, while our shrinkage has started to reverse again in the same period, a reversal after years of flight. Because Detroit was so populous at one point, though, its shrinkage is so much more dramatic appearing than Jackson's. Motown has very little density, and a lot of houses have been burned or torn down over the years. We saw entire city blocks with one or two houses left on them--and clearly houses that were once surrounded by lovely homes.
I also saw nothing in Detroit that scared me. Sure, the city has high crime, which is highly associated with the illegal drug trade (as here in Jackson). What I saw and felt most were sadness and hopelessness.
Even though I heard stories about efforts to revitalize Detroit, the narrative was much more like the ones we used to hear a decade ago in Jackson (and which some shortsighted people still try to hawk): The city is hopeless, crime-filled; the leaders are miserable; it's all "their" fault. I couldn't help but think, over and over again: "Detroit needs an urban warrior class."
"Urban warriors" is what I've dubbed the growing group of people of all ages in Jackson who are determined to reverse the narrative here. These are people who know that crime is a symptom of much larger problems, and who don't try to use the problem as a way to get cheap votes or attention. These people know that each of us plays a role in making our city into what we want it to be, and that we must continually challenge and motivate others around us to get on board. They are also people who are willing to challenge the status quo, but who also know that demanding "change" in elected officials is a tiny part of the equation (and can be devastating; think Frank Melton).
Jackson has long had a strong base of urban warriors. Years before I moved back to Mississippi and co-founded this newspaper, for instance, Malcolm White and his brother, Hal, dug their heels into downtown Jackson and wouldn't uproot them for anything. They weren't "wait until" thinkers; they just got out there and opened Hal & Mal's. And 31 years ago this week, they started a parade that would become one of the largest St. Paddy's parades in the country (and one that is possibly the most diverse at this point).
The White brothers seem to know a few things that can escape other less creative people. First, that every person has power if we'll use it. Second, people in a city need to have fun together in order to then be willing to stick their collective noses to the grindstone and reverse a history of decay and neglect in a city. They seem to get that crime is a symptom of deeper problems--and one great way to counteract it is to get more people in our communities, our downtown and on the streets. Does knowing this mean they don't care about crime? Of course not. It means the White brothers are willing to do their part to liven up the community, its economic base and its spirits.
This is urban warriordom at its finest.
The best thing about the White brothers, perhaps, are the huge masses of family members, friends and complete strangers they've motivated to join the pro-Jackson movement--even if all those folks didn't know they were joining a movement. That's the best kind, in fact.
We've watched the St. Paddy's parade, and about every other event worth going to, get more diverse over the years, both in the participants and the folks lining the streets to watch and scramble for beads. (The same spirit of inclusiveness has also spilled into the Sweet Potato Queens' Zippity Doo Dah parade a week later in Fondren, another excellent event that spun off from the Whites' parade.)
I go to these events, and I'm ever so proud of Jackson and what we're accomplishing together as a citizenry.
In Detroit, I heard so much that I used to hear just about every day in Jackson, from the (false) meme that you have to "cure" all the crime before redeveloping the city, to suburban dwellers talking about how it's not safe to even drive into the city. I also heard a lot of whining about Detroit's leaders--including from people who don't live in the city with the ability to run for office or vote for our elected officials. Sound familiar?
I'm not naive enough to believe that Detroit's problems are easy to repair or that a new parade is the answer: Just as Jackson does, the city suffers from intense poverty (worse than ours, in fact) resulting from a very difficult history that has left deep wounds and immense anger, not to mention distrust between the races. And just as in Jackson a decade ago, its locally owned media tend to display either nearly all black faces or all white faces (an archaic media approach that is about as dated as land lines and black-and-white TVs as this point).
But from being involved with Jackson's effort to reinvent itself into a more inclusive, prosperous city, I know that it takes people willing to take chances, get to know people unlike them, be uncomfortable, and just get out and do cool stuff to convince others that it's worth their time to live in and invest in a city that other people love to put down.
When smart people talk about the danger of negative "perceptions" in a city--whether about the hopelessness of crime or any other issue--they are warning about a real threat that kills a community's spirit. Hopelessness is the exact opposite of hope (duh). When we have hope, we are inspired to take action and join together with others to rebuild neighborhoods, bring creativity to empty storefronts and hold cool parades. When we're mired in hopelessness, which is often pushed by politicians, we whine and point to other people who aren't doing what we don't bother to do ourselves.
The moral of the story? Come up with an idea and make it happen. Just be sure to tell the JFP about it so we can help get people there to support you and be inspired to help or do something cool themselves. Send events info to jfpevents.com. Free, of course.
P.S. All you Jackson urban warriors, send Detroit some good vibes and a prayer or two. And go for a visit and spend some money there the next chance you get.
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