JACKSON The small-statured, thick-accented former billionaire mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, descended upon Jackson on Nov. 29 to announce a $1-million public-art grant, while perhaps putting out feelers for a 2020 presidential bid.
At a small downtown parklet in the shadow of the Governor's Mansion and in eyeshot of the Mississippi Capitol, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba joined Bloomberg and other city and state leaders to celebrate funding for "Fertile Ground," a public-art project designed to inspire dialogue about food access.
"We welcome you to the deep-fried South," Lumumba said in his introductory remarks. "We take often a lot of cultural pride in our food and our history here. ... Many of the things that we cook and take pride in today are because our forefathers and foremothers had limited access to fresh fruit and fresh opportunities. When you go all the way back to the plantation, people cooked things that they had available to them."
After some pleasantries about the beautiful fall day, Bloomberg talked about the role of public art in cities. He said the Statue of Liberty is probably one of the best examples of public art reaching people and delivering a powerful message.
"I've always believed that arts are a smart investment for cities," Bloomberg said. "Art makes cities more beautiful and enjoyable places to live, and I've always thought that culture attracts capital a lot more than capital attracts culture."
He said this tends to set off a cycle of artists being driven out as droves of people flock to the city everyone wants to live in, and artists move on to do the same thing in the next city. Although Jackson's planning department is working hard to ensure no one gets priced out of Jackson as it undergoes development, the art community will get a boost from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
"Our judges—I was not one of them—were impressed with your project called 'Fertile Ground: Inspiring Dialogue About Food Access.' Food access, as we all know, is an important topic both here and around the country," Bloomberg said. "This will be a community-wide effort I hope that not only leads to greater access to healthy food here in Jackson, but that it also inspires a conversation that spreads out across our country."
About Fertile Ground
More than 200 cities with populations of 30,000 or more submitted proposals for temporary art projects around civic issues. Fertile Ground will bring together artists, architects, filmmakers, farmers, chefs, nutritionists, and community members to create a city-wide exhibition to address the vast number of fast-food restaurants in the area and the lack of access to healthier options.
In 2017, Physician's Weekly labeled Jackson as the fattest city in America.
"In spite of all these problems, we can almost never have a comfortable conversation about food," Mukesh Kumar, director of the City's planning department, said. "Most of the time it goes into judgmental points, and we typically just gloss over the entire thing. So we figured the best way to handle it is actually through public art."
Kumar said this project is rooted in the mayor's commitment to food justice, healthy citizens and affordable quality of life for every citizens, but it is also a testament to the tenacity and hard work of the City's Department of Planning and Development.
This project will take place across three sites.
The Ecoshed is situated between Fondren and the Virden Addition on the other side of the tracks, one of the blackest and poorest areas of the city. Fondren, originally a suburb of Jackson, has been split in recent decades between mostly white residents on the east side of North Street with more African Americans on the west side, but has become more mixed as whites and some businesses have moved in over the last decade. The installation here will make use of the open-roof, courtyard-style building to develop a floating installation about food sovereignty and the food system.
The Galloway Elementary playfield sits behind a thoroughfare of fast-food eateries on Woodrow Wilson Drive. The installation would be a large land bank, or "berm," to block the school's view of the "food swamp."
Cindy Ayers, who operates Footprint Farms in Jackson will help with this initiative.
"We've always taken a stand about having access," Ayers told the Jackson Free Press. "For me, it's all about making a difference holistically. I think our City is truly moving, and our mayor understands the importance of what it takes to be a healthy city. To have Mayor Bloomberg say this is a place to do some things, I'm sure it's going to cause more pleasant activities, more investors coming in.... I'm so proud to be a farmer, I'm so proud to be a citizen of Jackson."
The third installation will be downtown on Congress Street near the Governor's mansion. It will expand upon the parklet where Bloomberg made his announcement with more lighting and furniture with the help of an AARP grant. A mural from Adrienne Dominick and Scott Allen will go in the alley on Congress Street, and an experimental food lab will go into the 426 Capitol Street building, one of developer Kip Gilbert's recent purchases. Chef Nick Wallace will help with the food aspect.
Salam Rida, urban designer with the planning department, who also co-designed the parklet with fellow designer Travis Crabtree, hopes the project will help with long-term planning in Jackson.
"I'm very excited to be part of the public-art challenge. I think it's great not only for Jackson but for the whole State of Mississippi," she said. "I think it's really invigorating to have someone on a national presence being here in Jackson. I think it really shows not only the City's commitment but a national commitment, which I think is hopefully going to encourage other people who could potentially invest in the City."
Bloomberg for President?
The interaction between the two mayors was jovial, but this was not their first time meeting. This summer, Mayor Lumumba was part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a three-day, immersive classroom experience for 40 mayors across the world. Through a partnership with the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, the training gives mayors who may not have a lot of management experience the skills they need to be effective, Bloomberg said.
"We got to know each other in New York, and you're very lucky to have this guy," Bloomberg said of Lumumba.
In response to a TV reporter's question about a potential 2020 bid, Bloomberg said he will give more thought to it in the beginning of 2019.
"If I had an opportunity to do something in Washington, I would certainly think long and hard about it," he said. "But what I'm trying to do now is to go around the country and talk to people and listen and see what's on their minds and how receptive they would be, and there are plenty of other people who will probably run, and we'll see what happens."
Bloomberg on 'Stop and Frisk' in New York
During a question-and-answer session immediately following the announcement, this reporter asked about Bloomberg's controversial "stop-and-frisk" policing program from the early 2000s, and whether or not he had suggestions for Jackson, a city in the thick of police reform.
Mayor Lumumba quickly interjected to clear Jackson's association with the controversial strategy, which was greatly reduced in New York City after a federal judge found that it targeted mostly black and Hispanic people and was, thus, racial profiling.
"I do want to emphasize this point, the City of Jackson does not have stop-and-frisk; we do have food insecurities," Lumumba said. "I think that as we look at the best outcomes and the best ways to protect our cities, we need to be able to have fruitful dialogue in how we accomplish that. We can't take reductive measures when there are so many things our communities are faced with, and right now we're talking about the food insecurities that our food insecurities are dealing with."
Like someone preparing to re-enter the public eye, Bloomberg did not shy away from any line of questioning about the controversial stop-and-frisk strategy that began under previous Mayor Rudy Giuliani and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, but exploded when he was mayor from 2001 until 2013 with Raymond Kelly as police commissioner.
"I'm not familiar with the crime here in Jackson, everybody's got some crime, and some places it's terrible, and some places it seems to be at low-level, although any crime is more than you want," Bloomberg said.
"When I got into office back in 2002, we had 650 people getting killed every year, when I left, it was down to about 300 people.... Crime is a problem, and crime unfortunately generally is something that hurts young people. Certainly the violence in the streets is a young person's problem, and so we've just got to do something about it."
Young black men in Jackson's Washington Addition have told the Jackson Free Press they have been stopped and frisked by Jackson police officers for no reason.
A federal judge ruled in 2013 that the stop-and-frisk practice was unconstitutional and the New York chapter of the ACLU found that since 2002 when Bloomberg trumped up stop-and-frisk as his signature public-safety program, New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 5 million times since. Fifty percent of those stops every year since then have targeted African Americans, with Latinos as a close second. The NYCLU says nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent.
Crime did fall in New York City under Bloomberg, but crime nationwide has been on a downward trajectory since the 1990s. Crime rates remained low after the judge ordered a rollback of the discriminatory practice.
Bloomberg, a former Republican who endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, also managed to touch upon climate change, the NRA and his legacy as a three-term mayor in New York City—clear national talking points. New York City has strong gun-control laws; stop-and-frisk practices were designed to take weapons from New Yorkers, as well as find people with outstanding warrants.
"I focused very hard then and now as a private citizen on fighting the NRA," Bloomberg said in Jackson. "We need background checks on people who have criminal records, or psychiatric problems, or minors shouldn't be able to buy guns. That's what we worked on, and we were very successful in bringing down crime. I'm happy to say that my successor has kept crime down; In fact, it's a touch lower since he came into office than it was when we left."
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at [email protected].