Unfolding the Map
We skirt the environs of Jackson with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) who thinks urban sprawl is like an aneurism. That's a pretty cool metaphor, in my opinion. To check out where Jackson is, and even perhaps use Google Maps to look at the urban sprawl thirty years later, click on the thumbnail of the map at the right. Leave a comment if you've been in Jackson, or just want to say hi.
"Then I went back to the Trace and followed dusk around the spread of Jackson highways that had broken open like aneurisms and leaked out strawberry-syrup pancakes, magic-finger motel beds, and double-cheese pizzas."
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6
I've never been to Jackson. My experience in Mississippi is limited to traveling on I-10 from New Orleans to my wife's parents' home in Sarasota, Florida. Basically, my experience has been passing by casinos as the interstate bypasses small Gulf cities like Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.
In one way, I am of two minds about the sprawl and spread of cities. When I was a child, I used to love when we drove from my small town down to the Bay Area. When we got close to San Francisco and Oakland, I was fascinated by the urban city-scapes. The tall buildings with their shapes (the TransAmerica Pyramid was a favorite of mine). But what I really enjoyed was the freeway over and underpasses, particualarly those "cloverleaf" formations that accompanied interchanges. The roads wound smoothly in arcing curves, up and over, and then back down - but repeated. On those curves cars motored along, looking like blood cells in arteries. To me it looked so futuristic. I remember the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that zipped along the waterfront, the buildings so close you could almost touch them.
I still get that feeling. When I lived in San Antonio we had opportunities to go to Houston often, and way outside the downtown, near the Galleria, at I-10s intersection with one of the loop highways, the ramps towered high above the interstate. I don't understand anything about engineering and architecture, but I loved the look and the futuristic feel.
Of course, there is the downside of the interstate and interchanges, which LHM refers to in his quotation. I've written about it before. In San Antonio, urban sprawl, like the "aneurism" that LHM uses as a metaphor, broke out along the loops around the city. The inner loop was filled with the IHOPs, the Motel 6's and the Super 8's, and the Pizza Huts and every other chain store you can think of, bleeding its residents' business away from the downtown. The outer loop had not yet developed quite as much, but will probably get there considering that San Antonio is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country.
To build interstates through cities, it must also be realized that cities often used eminent domain, and many times displaced minority residents, to build these ramps and skyways that so enchanted me as a child. In Milwaukee, where I lived in the 1990s, a whole swath of housing was cleared along the city's north side. The planned freeway never happened, and that housing was never recovered. In New Orleans, the I-10 skyway past the French Quarter was built down what was once a vibrant boulevard live oak-lined boulevard in an African-American neighborhood that was filled with small minority-owned businesses. In it's place, the skyway looms, but the residents have painted the columns with likenesses of live oaks and each Mardi Gras, families meet and cook-out underneath the roaring skyway.
But sometimes, cities realize their mistakes and reclaim the space once occupied by their freeways. That Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that caught my imagination? It was torn down, and San Francisco developed its waterfront including its ferry building. The area is now vital, and people come to the Embarcadero for its ambience, its shopping and its food.
If Jackson was as LHM described when he went through thirty years ago, I hope that it hasn't grown too much. I hope that instead of letting business dollars seep away to the outer sections of the city that Jackson, if it had a Southern charm, retains it in a downtown where residents like to shop, eat and visit. I hope that if Jackson started down the path of sprawl, that it did something about it. I'm not too hopeful given how other cities in America have been developing, but hope is always there.
If you want to know more about Jackson
Jackson City Website
Jackson Clarion-Ledger (newspaper)
Jackson Daily Photo (blog)
Jackson Free Press (alternative newspaper)
Jackson Jambalaya (blog)
Jackson, Mississippi Tourism
Official Jackson Website
Next up: Clinton, Mississippi