“God’s blessings on you… God’s blessings on you…”
We had breakfast in the Waffle House just off Route 51, up from Jackson, Mississippi, on the way to Memphis, Tennessee. An old man came in, supported by a cane. He announced in a loud voice that it was his birthday.
“Well, happy birthday,” said one of the black women behind the counter.
“Huh?” he asked.
“I said, happy birthday,” she repeated.
“I don’t hear too good.”
Then the black women and one other customer, a heavy white man, began singing “Happy Birthday.” We joined in. But when the familiar words to the song were exhausted, the white man didn’t stop.
“God’s blessings on you,” he continued, using the same tune.
This is rural Mississippi. It’s easier to get washed in the blood than soaked in the sauce. There are more churches than bars.
But this is the New South, as they used to say. The Old South was bigoted, backward and dry. The New South is prosperous, progress oriented and open to suggestion.
We can confirm the prosperous part. Everywhere you look, there are new cars on new roads going to new malls and buying new stuff. At least, everywhere within 50 miles of the new Nissan plant in Canton.
The white building is huge. It takes up acres. It has what looks like thousands of autos in its parking lot… and thousands more in inventory, waiting to be shipped out.
But let’s check in with the markets before we tell you more about Mississippi…
Stocks jumped up again yesterday after St. Louis Fed President James Bullard assured investors that the US central bank had no intention of backing away from its EZ money program.
Goldman Sachs added to the fun by advising stock market investors to get ready for 33% gains through the end of 2015.
Blah. Blah. Goldman is talking its book. The more people get excited about the stock market, the more money Goldman makes. But further increases in stocks come with great risk. And Goldman’s insiders are probably selling!
The Dow rose 52 points. Gold dropped another $6 per ounce.
So back to Mississippi…
Nissan was a godsend to this part of Mississippi. It was once the poorest state in the Union; maybe it still is. But all around the Nissan plant, new housing developments are going up.
We criticized La Jolla for its failure to come up with a distinctive style – a vernacular architecture that unifies the city and gives it a brand. But here in the Jackson/Vicksburg area, the architecture is worse.
The area had a gracious and elegant style – white clapboard houses with generous porches. The kind of place you see in the picture books. The kind of plantation houses the Yankees burned to the ground.
You still see them in the old areas of town. They can be as fancy or as simple as you want. Porches in front. Porches behind. Porches on the first floor. Porches on the second floor. Round porches, square porches, all kinds of porches. And on these porches you can still drink a mint julep or a lemonade and enjoy the long Southern evenings.
But the locals have completely rejected porches. First, the porches got smaller and smaller, as the California ranch house invaded this area in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. And now, the new Normandy style is growing faster than kudzu.
Practically every house built in the last five years shows tendencies toward this foreign genre of architecture – heavy brick walls, small windows and steep hip roofs. There are no porches – a sin against nature in this part of the world.
“I wonder what people do in these houses,” said Elizabeth. “I guess all they can do is close the doors and turn on the air conditioning, cutting themselves off from the place they live in.”
Although this part of the New South seems prosperous, there are backward parts too. In Canton and in Vicksburg… as well as in the country in between… there are still shacks worthy of Tobacco Road. Men still loiter on busted chairs in front of them. Rusty appliances and broken-down autos still litter the area around them. Beat-up pickup trucks still head to liquor stores on Friday evening.
And the towns – Canton, as well as Vicksburg – seem to have been abandoned. Canton is a beautiful place – with a central square that was the scene for much of the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Of course, it is a nice place largely because it hasn’t been tampered with. The buildings around the square are much the same as they were 50 or 100 years ago. But the town is dead.
“It seems very quiet,” we said to the pretty woman at the tourist office.
“Well, it’s still early. It gets busier later on.”
She was talking her book too. Her job is to sell the place to tourists. We passed through downtown later in the day. It was as dead as it had been in the morning. Most of the parking spaces were empty. Most of the buildings around the square were for rent or for sale. The New South seems have forgotten Canton.
It forgot Vicksburg too… and all that happened there. Despite a bloody campaign in which 19,000 soldiers and civilians died or were wounded, the city flies the flag of its conqueror from every lamppost. And though it has never been liberated from the Northern grip, it seems to bear no grudge.
More on the Battle of Vicksburg, tomorrow…