Urban renewal must not forget the past

By JAY WIENER,

Joni Mitchell sang, in "Big Yellow Taxi", that

"Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot."

Hopefully, someday, someone shall explain why, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority destroyed the urban tapestry which had carefully coalesced over 150 years, leaving a void of vacant lots and parking lots; what some have deemed "the second burning of Jackson."

Compelling cities are not created. Jane Jacobs' landmark "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" outlines how communities grow organically. Cities showcasing older buildings alongside complimentary contemporary construction are attractive. Jackson would be more interesting if its historic core not been razed in the name of "progress".

Time was that endless blocks of elegant homes extended from Amite Street north to High Street, Fortification Street, and beyond. Prominent citizens, whose descendants remain leading lights, inhabited its desirable dwelling places.

Forgetting what once was allows important, instructional lessons to be ignored. I spoke with Josh Green, on the occasion of his 95th birthday, this month, to learn his perspective.

Josh's late daughter Lynn was a close friend of mine. We were in the same carpool to "Miss Jo's Nursery School" and reconnected in early adulthood. Lynn might be the definitive Mississippi artist of her generation. Her murals in Bravo! are a municipal treasure.

Myra and Josh were living temporarily with his parents, while building their Woodland Hills home, when Lynn and I were in nursery school. Lynn and other children in the carpool inhabited areas rendered uninhabitable - because city servants incorrectly envisioned thriving businesses replacing what would be the most desirable housing stock today - had people taken exception to what proved to be highly misguided and unfortunate public policy.

Josh remembers 66 of his relatives inhabiting one block of North State Street -- that bounded by High Street to the south, President Street to the west, and George Street to the north -- during his childhood. The 1833 Nugent Home sat on the southeast corner. It was a landmark structure deserving to be remembered "until the end of time." Northward were the homes of the A.A. Greens, Dr. Dick Turner, Josh's paternal grandparents Lucy Garner and Marcellus Green, the Armstrongs, Josh's parents Winifred Calhoun and Garner Green, the Herrings, and a boarding house.

Josh's grandparents' home had been the Governor's Mansion before the completion of the current Governor's Mansion -- designed by William Nichols who was also architect for the Old Capitol and the Lyceum at Ole Miss -- in 1837. Supposedly indigenous Mississippians danced on its dining room table after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit was signed. Indigenes dancing in celebration of a treaty consigning them to the Trail of Tears are seeming falsehoods in service of a good story. Saint Andrew's Episcopal Day School was located there until the current Lower School on  Old Canton Road was constructed. The house burned about six weeks prior to the end of the final academic year there.

 

The Garner Green House stood on site of the headquarters of the Mississippi State Bar Association. Times changed enough that the Garner Green House was moved across the street, instead of being leveled, before the Mississippi State Bar built its headquarters.

Josh says that the Eva Hart and Myer A. Lewis House at Jefferson and Boyd Streets is architecturally identical to the Garner Green House on North State Street.

Josh was named for his great-grandfather. His oldest brother was named for his grandfather. His middle brother was named for his father.

Josh's father's first cousin who was also named for the first Green to settle in Jackson, left Mississippi for Seattle in 1886: That Josh Green created a successful steamship fleet between Seattle and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. When transportation options changed, he sold his ships and bought the People's Bank. The U.S. Bank ultimately purchased the People's Bank, making Josh Green a prominent pre-internet Seattle citizen. He was named Seattle's "Man of the Century" in 1968. The Stimson-Green House is a historic home in Seattle, and the Joshua Green Building is a city landmark. That Joshua Green lived to be over 105 years old. He was pictured in The New York Times on his final birthday alongside his 101-year-old wife, another Mississippi native.

Greens have inhabited Jackson for almost its entirety. The family's legacy is lengthy. Josh Green deserves heartfelt congratulations on the occasion of his 95th birthday, a reminder that great American cities emphasize the enduring rather than the ephemeral. The Phoenix arising from the ashes of "Urban Renewal" should reference the human scale and livability which existed in the urban core during the first half of Josh's life. Jackson should cherish its citizens who remember what was treated as expendable.

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.

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