We must stop Mississippi’s youth drain

I spent the last weekend of February in Minneapolis, unexpectedly, after the American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon was canceled, due to inadequate snow. I have flown into MSP a number of times, but had not enjoyed the opportunity to explore the city. I missed a lot.

The experience is worth noting given the upcoming municipal elections. The amenities of Minneapolis provide a template of that to which Jackson ought to aspire if we want a city of which photographs, in certain areas, could be interspersed with those of bombed out Baghdad and Beirut with no one having a clue that they came from elsewhere.

Minneapolis developed below Saint Anthony Falls, the only notable cataract on the Mississippi, as it was the natural spot to build a port, in the days prior to railroads, from which to ship agricultural harvest to market. In other words, everything that they shipped passed within 50 miles of us, on top of which we had our own fecund soil and plentiful harvests. Yet we were unable to capitalize and prosper on our advantages. The difference is mindset, as the Minnesota winters hardly offer what ours do.

Granted that, in the days before mechanization, labor was needed to harvest the cotton crop. That does not justify, over a century and a half later, the ongoing attitude that the working class should be kept "barefoot and pregnant."

The sense that providing public amenities - whether that be public schools, public recreational facilities, or public arts institutions - only benefits the "other" has become a joke in which the butt of the joke is the "haves" who intend to impact the "have nots." There has been a geometric spiraling downward, if not out-of-control, toward the bottom in every conceivable category. I do not find that reality to be funny: Violence, crime, and a compromised future are no laughing matter.

Jackson has to own the crisis that has been created by underfunding education and encouraging ambitious, intelligent individuals to find fame and fortune elsewhere. (As a point of order, it was exactly that problem that caused the University of Mississippi to replace the two-year medical school in Oxford with a four-year medical school in Jackson: There was "a brain drain.")

It is telling that, when I see people who I have not seen in a long while, at weddings and funerals, they are always proud to tell me about their children and grandchildren who have moved to Nashville, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. How can we build a city of any repute if the best and the brightest want to cast their lot elsewhere?

It is not only the downtrodden who benefit from funding public education adequately. Professionals and business people cannot create strong revenue streams if they cannot find talented individuals to staff them. Merchants cannot optimize profits if there are not affluent consumers to patronize them. Businesses that would be most welcome as additions to our city will choose other locations in which to expand if there are not educated workers to hire and cultural amenities for the executives that they send to manage their outposts. And, of course, the entrepreneurial activity that is the crown jewel cannot incubate absent creative visionaries to steward it.

It is easier to be defensive and self-satisfied than cast an objective eye upon what has not worked, but that is what we must do. The streets and sidewalks in Minneapolis are not falling apart. One can walk the city, as the crime rate does not prohibit as much. There is a thriving downtown area with countless new office towers being erected and urban inhabitants, stores and restaurants in the mix. There are bicycle and walking paths. There is the magnificent Guthrie Theatre designed by the fabulous French architect Jean Nouvel; where I saw "King Lear" on Saturday evening. Old mills, depots, and bridges have been repurposed, and they add character and variety to the cityscape, instead of looking as if they were archaeological sites.

I spent Friday evening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but it reaches for the stars and provides the type of expansive intellectual space that makes such amenities into compelling community assets.

I hardly scratched the surface in two days, but the visit was a reminder of what Jackson needs to do when choosing a new mayor and city council. We need to hire professionals - they work for us as our public servants - who have a vision and want to build a city that has a future.

Jackson is doomed to failure if there is not a substantial mandate for better. The catalyst for a viable future where President Kennedy's description of "a rising tide [that] lifts all boats" occurs. To remain complacent in the face of an underclass that might have no future and doing nothing to attract other citizens to the city is a recipe for disaster.

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.


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