Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First Impressions: City of Justice, Shelby, MIssissippi

In my last post, I promised a follow up on Shelby, and my first impressions.  First Impressions is a "program designed to capture the thoughts and feelings of visitors as they observe for the first time the characteristics of a community" (Mississippi State Community Action Team, report from the site visit of Shelby, conducted October 1, 2009).  I was searching the Internet for any information on why the city's motto was "City of Justice" and ran across this report.  I will note that they use a team--although I do not know how many people comprise the team--"with diverse backgrounds" and I am only one individual, with perhaps the non-typical background of a first-time visitor to Shelby.  None the less, I don't see myself that far out of the mainstream.  After all, people would visit Shelby most likely due to its location along the Blues Highway, and its historical significance.  There's just not that much else there to draw tourists that I could observe.

The first section of the report is the "Five Minute" impression, literally taking a five-minute drive through the community without stopping.  Their impression:
The city slogan, "City of Justice" is not actually a very welcoming, positive slogan.  We would encourage a new vision and slogan indicative of what Shelby wants to become and be known for even 30 years from now.

My first impression:
Wow!  Did you see that sign?  Why are they the city of justice?  I have to turn around and go back and take a picture of that!  I wonder who the Shelby Foundation of Black Men are?  I'll have to do some research to see what I can find out about this.  I'm so glad I decided to take this detour through town and see what is here.
Of course, I happen to have a passion for peace, justice, and equality.  I was co-founder and co-director, along with my good friend Jane/Gigi, of the Abilene Peace and Justice Center.  I have spent most of my professional career in the arena of peace, justice, and equality, and remain deeply connected to those areas now.

That being said, I just didn't "get it" about why the sign was seen as not welcoming and positive.  To whom would it not be welcoming?  Why would anyone feel unwelcomed in knowing that a city saw itself as being a place of justice, where people received fair and equal treatment?  Was it the Shelby Foundation of Black Men section that the team thought not positive?  The city is majority African American at this time, but that is not all that unusual in the Delta.  Was that indicative that tourists and first-time visitors might focus on the racial aspect, and even see the sign as some type of veiled threat?

 Their impression:
It looks a little dangerous to own a business in downtown Shelby, especially a liquor store...if crime is not as bad as it looks, then, take the bars down.  If it is, do something about the crime.
I probably have to agree with them here.  Reminded me of my first stop in a liquor store in Pearl, Mississippi about 10 years ago.  I mean, who wants to go buy something where the cashier and the merchandise is behind bars?  This is a tough issue, though.  You can drive through any community, anywhere these days, and see bars that protect businesses and homes.  Others simply retreat behind gated communities.  This issue is about a lot of things, including economic development.
This is not the liquor store; it is a vacant building, and those bars are probably to protect it from vandalism.  I noticed the bars less, however, than the sign promising fashions from Los Angeles and New York, right here in Shelby.  It reminded me of a store in Clarksdale.  The Clarksdale store has bars as well--like many stores in many communities, but I tend to see the building, the architecture, the sign, and not focus on the bars.

Their impression:
Another observation about the downtown area was the group of grown men hanging out under a shade tree at the corner of Beale Street and Third Avenue. We were told that these men are there every day and the group grows in number throughout the day. We also were told that they really have not caused any problems and are not a threat. In a way, this group acts as a watchdog for the downtown. Since they are present every day, they easily notice something (or someone) out of place. However, this group of men is very intimidating for visitors, especially women. Visitors do not know that the men are there every day and do not cause problems, especially since the men gather on a prominent corner of downtown. This also may not be a great example for the local children of Shelby. We also were told that some residents are not comfortable with the men loitering downtown.
My impression:
I saw the group of men as well.  I drove into town and stopped to take some pictures downtown.  I observed them sitting in the prominent corner, under a shade tree.  It reminded me of when I was a child and the group of men who sat in the shade outside the domino hall in Elbert...the men who sat outside the feed store in Newcastle.

I walked down the street both directions past the men, and I did not feel intimidated or threatened in any way.  I'm uncomfortable with the word "loitering."  Loiter means "stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose; hangs around and appears to be deliberately wasting time; a verb that connotes improper or sinister motives."  So, the men are not a threat, and don't cause problems, but they are idle without apparent purpose, deliberately wasting time with improper or sinister motives?   I'm disturbed by the terms "grown men" and "hanging out" and the message this implies.

On a subsequent page, the report goes on to say:
The park area on the old railroad bed is attractive, and we understand from talking with folks that it is used by community residents. There is a wonderful shade tree in the park that is really nice. This is a terrific spot and links well to the depot. 
 So, let me see if I understand this:  Residents could sit under the wonderful shade tree in the park, but not on a corner lot?  Would they be seen as loitering if they were in the park as opposed to on a vacant lot?  Which group of city residents could use the park and shade tree and not be seen as loitering?

The final question in the report asks: What will you remember most about this community six months from now (positive or negative)?  Their impression:
Probably, one of the most memorable things from a visitor's standpoint is the crowd of folks visiting under the shade tree day in and day out...
It's gone from a group to a crowd?  To me, a crowd is the amount of folks at a football game or a concert or festival.  I observed what appeared to be 10 or so folks, but I wasn't counting them.  I'd have to say that I barely gave them a passing glance.  It was like "I see some people sitting under the shade tree talking" and then I was right on down the street taking my pictures.  I've spent more time thinking about and remembering that group of men since I read the report than I did after immediately seeing them.

Here's my conclusion from my first impression: The City of Justice would do better to get this report off the Internet and be less concerned about their sign and the men under the tree.  (Maybe they are, since the report was done in 2009 and two years later the sign and the men are both still there).  If I were thinking about visiting Shelby, and read this report, I'd think twice about it.  The report is a much worse first impression than actually visiting the town.  I plan to contact the mayor and share my first impression of the town ("what a cool little city") and my negative reaction to the report ("were they in the same place I was?").

Every single person I saw, walked past, or met while driving smiled, waved, or nodded to some way acknowledge my presence and that I was welcome.  I am now intrigued to visit again, and find out more about this little city, based on my first impression.


Gigi said...

Wow, I am with you, sister! I want to live in a City of Justice. I would be thrilled. And yes, take that damned report down!

jgazelle@gmail said...

Hello, I literally stumbled on your blog, specifically about Shelby, MS. As this was the town I was born in, grew up in and graduated from high school in (poor English I know!)...I was intrigued by your comments. The picture of the church on your blog used to be First Baptist Church (all-white back in the day). My parents are both buried in the Shelby Cemetery, so on my rare returns to the Delta, I go to there. Driving through the town is so very bittersweet and depressing to me. Not very much left that evidences the town of my youth. My father's dental office long gone, along with so many other recognizable places. Of course, I did grow up when "Cotton was King," and it was a fairly prosperous community...for whites only. Following the passage of Civil Rights, the town was abandoned, and left to the Blacks who were already in poverty, and it is such a shame that that situation remains today.