Farish Street – A Slightly Different Perspective

According to a former city official, feasibility studies on an “entertainment district” on Farish Street date back to the Danks  Administration.  Has anyone done a study to determine whythe multiple Farish Street redevelopment projects have failed over the past 35 years? One reason may be that Farish Street has been preempted by other projects which were more lucrative for developers, most recently the round aboutson Capitol Streets.  With the extra helpings of stalled progress now being heaped on by legal drama, this a goodtime to step back and think.

Previous developers have not seen fit to talk substantively to some business and property owners. Before we put our collective trust in another developer(s) on Farish Street, we should expect more consideration forthose who are paying propertytaxes.  Families such as The Holly’s, have been property owners on Farish Street for over 100 years. Dr. Sandra F. Holly successfully renovated her building many years ago.  It can be done, but officials should demand more transparency and accountability all along the way. Paying for a study may seem unnecessary, but if there is one false rumor about FarishStreet, there are a thousand.  It has been said,“If you do not know your history, you are doomed to repeat it”.

Google Farish Street or related topics, and several articles will appear. It would be refreshing to know that media reports have been fact-checked. For example:

  • What happened to the $6 Million in low interest loans, designated by the State Legislature in 1999 for redevelopment in the Farish Street Historic District?
  • Were additional funds allocated from The State or other sources for the Farish Street project?
  • Is there corroboration that the savvy, successful David Watkins did not know HUD money was involved before he and his partners signed a contract assuming a $1.5 Million debt from Performa?
  •  It has been reported that no money came to the developers from The City.Was it not previously reported that the City Council approved additional millions at the developers’ request, prompting then City Councilman Kenny Stokes to call for an audit?
  •  What happens if the loans are not repaid?
  • Is there money left for anyone else for improvement of The Farish Street Historic District.
  • What is the relationship between Farish Street and The Downtown Partners?  How will that relationship be affected since David Watkins was the president of the Downtown Partners?
  • Where is the asbestos report!?

Although some of the answers may be deemed private, much of the information should be a matter   of public record. Elected officials, as well as ordinary citizens, deservefactual information. Black History Month, 2015, is a fitting time to reflect upon the last 15 years, searching for missing links, honestly evaluating miscalculationsand missteps, however well intentioned, with the goal of getting it right this time.This saga has been going on much too long. Peoples’ memories have gotten fuzzy.People have died. Meanwhile, a whole new generation has come into its own. Those who know the truth have an obligation to set the record straight, or at least to be able to say to our children, “We tried.”

When you hear people talking about the “storied” past of Farish Street, that is just what they mean – the good, bad, and the ugly. That is part of the allure. That is part of the history. That is a part that can be revived.In addition to the stories, documentation is necessary.  To that point, do youremember hearing aboutthe coming of BB King’s Restaurant, Wet Willy’s, The Subway Lounge, and others as far back as back 2004?Negotiations have continued since Performa, but this is not new.Hopefully, the City and the State can convinceinvestors to stay in negotiations. As they work to obtain new developers, the City should insure that fair and realistic termsare offered to the intended occupants.  Previous propositions and conditions offered to investorswere outlandish,relative to theJackson market, currently and into theforeseeablefuture.

TheCity has reasserted itself as interim leader of The Farish Street Project.  As such, some people are cautiously optimistic that construction andoperating projections will be revised.  It should be obvious by now thatthe development should not have been attempted as a whole. By the time they figured out they could not manage two blocks, the die was cast.  How long before it was obvious to everyone, did the developers conceal their realization that they could not even complete one block? The City maynow have to come to the conclusion that the only way the project will be successfulis to complete one or two buildings at a time. Is it possible that some parcels could be sold back to private citizens if they could assure timely development of the property?

Regarding the two block area of bricked street and sidewalks on Farish St., fancied by some as the “entertainment district”, it may be in order to examine a timeline. By some means, the City paid for the street improvements approximately 15 to 20 years ago. Reportedly,millionsof dollars were spent in recent yearson plumbing the street. Does that imply that infrastructure was not replaced when the bricks were first laid? The City kept Farish St. torn up and impassible for at least two years, crippling businesses. Owners, operators, and everyone involved helplessly waited for the detour to be lifted. If the City paid for repaving the street the first time, where, exactly, are these bricks that the developer purportedly paid forwith his own money?  Was that called for? Who agreed to it?  Who knew about it at the time?  Moreover, what was the rationale for bricking the street, leavingthe infrastructure undone?  Was it in the public’s best interest to insure higher future costs,by removing bricks to place infrastructure,and thenrelaying them?  How long after the “infrastructure” was replaced did the contractors walk off the job for which the plumbing prep work was done? Is anybody responsible for wasted time and resources, or nobody? Then we were confronted with another two year barricade of Farish at Amite in 2010 and 2011?  The street was fenced off day and night,work or no work. Days turned into weeks without a worker in sight through that fence.  It appeared that progress was being made when the developer was forced by The City to remove the blockade, finally responding to the mounting protests of Farish St. business owners. One day the workers returned no more.  Who was monitoring the employees, the hours, orthe payroll? Does that have anything to do with why the City is being forced to pay $1.5M+ back to HUD?

Turning our attention north of the brick sidewalks for a moment, when is the “infrastructure” replacement going to be done for the rest of Farish St.?  Promises were initially made to repave the street all the way to Monument St.  Do we have to take a back seat behind Capitol Street and all the other areas of Jackson?  Some say the City has no intention of doing anything beyond “the first two blocks”.  Are they right?These are just a few of the previously unanswered questions about the contrasts, contradictions,and discrepancies that make the Farish St. project a source of pain and disappointment for so many Jacksonians.

One might imagine, when a take-over occurs, corporate, or otherwise, one of the first obvious signs is disruption of normal patterns.  Several years ago, there was a change in the traffic flow at the intersection of Farish and Amite Streets, marked by arrows painted on the street. Now faded in the aftermath of renovation of the entrance to the McCoy Federal Building, the arrows indicate two left turning lanes.From the middle lane of the 100 Block, one is directed to turn left, whereas going straight would be the more natural thing to do.  In order to keep straight from the right lane as designated by the arrow, one must swerve back to center to avoid running into the corner building. That building, by the way, has been under construction seven or eight years.  Was this a subliminal message, to foster the agenda propagated by the developers, that the 200 and 300 Blockswould be destined to becomea pedestrian walkway,permanently eliminating vehicular through traffic? Such insidious plans revealtheregard they had for the fate of those striving to make economic gains in the ascending blocks.The sell-out crowd at the recent Hip Hop Awards, held at The Alamo,showedthat the brick sidewalks are ample for pedestrians. In fact, they are wide enough, and sometimes necessary, for parked cars.  Farish St. should remain as a major Downtown thoroughfare for vehicular traffic. The people of Farish Street should have a say.  This decision is up toThe City of Jackson and MDOT.But, after seeing what is being done on Capitol Street, one is left to wonder who is really in charge.

Another sign of a take-over may be a name change.  So it seems, with terms such as “the first block”and “the entertainment district”. When did the focus change from “the Farish Street Historic District”?Sadly, the African American community didnot make significant headway toward redevelopment. Nevertheless, no matter who ultimately develops it, the two block area should not be reduced to a bunch of bars.  Suggestions that it is different or segregated from the rest of N. Farish St,.should be viewed with suspicion.The history of Farish St. is part of the reason tax credits are available in the first place, is it not?   Thebenefits stemming from that legacy should be inclusive of those who have contributed to the history and have waited with anticipation for the dream to be fulfilled for so long. Regarding the business about “the first block”, since when is a building with an address in the 200’s located in the first block or one with an address in the 300’s in the second block? What about an address in the 400’s? Answer: “That’s a different neighborhood.” No, that’s when it’s time to get nervous.  References are being made to ‘the safe end’.Where is that?  Precinct 5 was returned to a museum.  The 1st block,” supposedly refers to the 1st block of redevelopment or the 1st block of the “entertainment district”.  Again, just to set the record straight, Capitol St. marks the dividing line between North and South Farish St. Therefore, the 100 Block, as it was traditionally called, is the first block. So it follows that the 200 Block is the second block; the 300 Block, the third; the 400 Block, the fourth,etc. Don’t worry. It will become clear when you actually walk up the street.

From a historical perspective, the 100 Block was where the largest concentration of professional offices and businesses owned by African Americans was located.  The original McCoy Building, Dr. A. H. McCoy’s dental office, housed 6 other businesses. One of them, Marshall’s Music and Book Store, is still on Farish St. Dr. McCoy also owned a building across the street, the office of, Dr. David White, the only black optometrist in Jackson.   At the time, there were no black ophthalmologists.  Both of those buildings,almost identical to the Crystal Palace Building architecturally , were taken by eminent domain along with the sweep of both sides of the 100 Block. The powers-that-be decided to locate the Federal Building in the 1st block of N. Farish Street (despite its preferred address being 100 Capitol St.)  So you see, the 100 Block actually was the first to undergo renovation, uprooting and destroying thriving businesses. Some of the much touted esprit décor left along with them.

A few people still alive today have first-hand knowledge of the brain trust which was lost, especially in the realm of independent entrepreneurship. For example:

  • The law office of Civil Rights Atty. R. Jess Brown, who helped to get The Freedom Riders out of jail, was in the McCoy Building.
  • Partially because of his strong family legacy, and because of his body of work, some of which is preserved in the William Winter Building, many people are aware of Mr. Richard Beadle and his studio.
  • How many people know about Armstrong’s Photography? Mr. Armstrong was one of the first distributors of Jet and EbonyMagazines.  Hesold the newspaper, and other publications.He also had a Coca Cola machine.  Along withThe Jackson Advocate, Mr. Armstrong was one of our main conduits for information. He is another unsung hero who refused to relocate, standing up to strong arm tactics and intimidation. Around the era of the Emmitt Till murder, white and Jewish merchants and customers, mainly from the 2nd and 3rd blocks,also patronized Mr. Armstrong’s stand.  A woman who worked at Hunt and Whitaker, used to buy from him. One day she did not have enough money.  He told her she could have a Coke and to bring the money another day. She apparently mentioned it.  Reportedly, a man named Red Hydrick, who had a reputation as an extremeracist who terrorized blacks, felt he was goingto teach Mr. Armstrong a lesson for making sexual advances to a white woman.Mr. Armstrong was beaten, but he remained in business.  Years later,another newsstand opened on Capitol St.  A white man came repeatedly to threatenMr.Armstrongto run him out of business.  He stood up to him with a shotgun. The man did not return, but people in power are known for coming back around a different way.

As the story goes, it was hypothesized, and the theory was applied, that, if you cut off the head, the snake will die. Coincident with the acceptance of integration of stores on Capitol Street, Westland Plaza, Meadowbrook, Highland Village, The Jackson Mall, and other places blacks had dreamt of going, Farish St. was never the same. Businesses such as the law firm of Anderson, Banks, andLeventhal,  Attorneys Young and Abrams,  Security Life Insurance Co., Mrs. Thelma Sanders’ Millenary Shop, The YWCA, the beauty and barber shops, Dotty Cab, the Farish Street Package Store, and others gradually disappeared.Arguably, the sentinel event, marking the beginning of the end, was the seizure and demolition of private property in the 100 Block of N. Farish Street.

Many people saw the naming of the Federal Building in honor of Dr. A. H. McCoy, as a source of pride and victory, but it was also a healing balm, symbolic of a monument to our heritage, to economic achievements despite the worst of the segregated South, to the places of our civil rights strategies and struggles, and to the potential for continued growth which, as history has borne out, apparently has been lost there forever.

In the 1980’s and ‘90’s young black lawyers and other professionals frequented Farish Street for work, networking, and recreation.Crime and vice were coexistent with the finer side of life, as Farish Street was a microcosm of society.  In the late 1990’s and the 2000’s the negative aspects were amplified, causing the loss of the neutralizing effects of the black intelligencia.  Pharmacist George Harmon and Dr. A. B. Britton were the last surviving medical professionals, along with business owners such as the Dennis Brother’s (Shoe Shop), Mr. Griff Dixon (City Barber Shop), and Cameron’s Upholstery Shop. Mr. Cameron is still in business on Bailey Ave. as is the Apollo Barber Shop.  Except for the funeral homes, the churches, The YMCA, Mr. R. M. Smith’s properties, and a few small businesses, there is little left to remind us of the hustle and bustle which characterized Farish Street during the first three quarters of the 20th Century.

It turns out that the revitalization of Farish Street in the minds of some was quite different from what has now been perceived as being the vision of others. The few owners who managed to hold on despite decades of despairknew something was not right. The names changed, but the lack of progress was the same. While Jackson is booming allaround, not a single light has been turned on as a result of theestimated $20 to $30 million in government subsidized/backed development.  It is quite understandable that there were more problems than anticipated. In fact if they had asked, some of us may have been able to warn them. They may have bitten off more than they could chew. Yet, they were the onesentrusted with millions of dollars at their disposal,giving them farmore advantages than most.

As with the Mayor and City Council, through several administrations, few people, if any, could get a straight answer out of either development team of the last 15 years. It seems most people reluctantly went along because many Jacksonians wanted desperately for them to make something happen. Without them, Farish Street had little prospect for anything but further decline.  By now, people have lost what optimism, enthusiasm or trust they once had. Many have abandoned Farish Street for a number of reasons, including crime. In 2008, a request was made of the City Council and Jackson Police Departmentfor reinstatement of the 500 and 600 Blocks into The Farish Street Festival and increasedpolice protection on Farish Street, even suggesting a traffic light with surveillance cameras. A dual purpose was to raise awareness and urge completion of the languishingproposal, instituted by the City, itself, The Dr. Jessie Mosley Dr. Extension. The denial was coupledwith an attitude of indifference. There was not enough man-power to warrant increased patrol for the people in that area. “Just wait” was a common refrain. Wait for what?Is that code for gentrification? That has not happened, yet. So where does that leave the people who are dealing with danger and desertion leading to decreased business prospects on one hand,  and apathy and neglect on the other?

For a time, Farish St. was outside the boundary of the Downtown Partners’ security grid.  After David Watkins took over the development, that was modified.  Precinct 5 was suddenly teaming with policemen in 2010 and 2011, but they disappeared within days after the Birdland closed. This summer, police onSegways could be seen on the brick sidewalks as well as in front of the McCoy Federal Building.There indirect benefit for the dilapidated sidewalk area. The criminals who have beenapprehended will notmaketheir way past the brick sidewalks, either.

Please allow another point of clarification.  There has always been an entertainment district on Farish St. Quite a bit has been publicized about the Alamo Theater, Peaches Cafe, Big John’s (The Big Apple Inn), and more recently, the rebirth of Frank Jones’ Corner by Daniel and Adam. Many others are in the annals of history.  Just as on Beale Street, momentum draws tourists past the highlighted area. Some may even prefer to have the lights down low. As a corollary, the attractions on Farish Street have not and will not stopat the end of the brick sidewalks. By extension, you will not turn around. That is why, as per the National Registry of Historic Places, Farish Street is the oldest, continuous, black, business district in the United States. Farish Street has another distinction.  Since post-Civil War maps from the days of surveyors such as Helm, Hobson, and Clifton, Farish Street was the center of the City of Jackson, the dividing line between Eastand West.Thecity limits, as well asthe demographics, have changed, but Farish St. it is still at the center of controversy.

By car, there are just a few short blocks to Monument St.,after cruising past the brick facades.Urban drugs and violence have plagued Jackson and metropolitan areas all over the country. Farish Street is not alone.  Increased participation from citizens and police is improving the image of Farish Street, paving the wayfor a true tourist destination.Although a far cry from New York, “The lights will inspire you,” as Alicia Keys said,in the 500 Block. Some might be curious to see where the movie,    Same Kind of Different AsMe, was filmed.One set location wasbetween the Crystal Palace and the former Fish House. Plans are rumored to be moving forward therefor completion of the Dr. Jessie Mosley Drive Extension.  The City began eminent domain for that purpose in 2002. The stated rationale was direct traffic access between Farish Street and the historic Smith Robertson Museum.  After at least four different design blueprints on the City’s payroll, nothing has been followed through enough to placeone stake in the ground.  Here we have yet another Farish Street project, started many years ago, for which the City received Federal funds, but has not kept its end of the bargain.To keep the gossip from incessantly swirling about the City’s taking of more African Americans’ property for some ulterior motive, hopefully, unencumbered  funds have been designated to complete this Farish Street project and to fix those dilapidatedCITYsidewalksand water main leaksin the process. Dr. Jessie Mosley Dr. should be two-wayat Farish Street!  If HUD is responsible for getting the City’s attention, let me be the first to say, “Thank you.”

Anyone who has taken the time to read thisinformation in its entirety, has demonstrated that they care. Your concern is truly appreciated.  Fact checks, corrections, and additions are encouraged. This is a call to action- black, white, Hispanic, Asians, to anyone concerned about poor and middle class, inner city people. The same thing is going on all over the United States. The economic potential is there. The question is who is going to cash in on it. Change is going to come. 2015 is a turning point. If you areinterested in preserving the legacy of Farish Street for the next 100 years, this is probably the last chance. To quote a phrase,“ You are either going to be part of the steam roller, or part of the road.” If we can make a difference against the growing threats posed by income inequality, Farish Street could be an incubator for a model of change, once again.  A worthy goal would be to invite President Obama to return to Farish Street while he is still in office, to behold what the citizens of the Capital City of Jackson, Mississippi, have done.

Roslind McCoy Sibley, MD