~Then and Now~
by Dr. Jerry Dallas
West Capitol was once one of the most fashionable of all Jackson streets and west Jackson’s main thoroughfare. From 1948 to 1953, my family lived in the City Housing Project at the old Air Base, a low-income area, but with all the empty buildings and discarded military equipment this was a fascinating place for kids to play. Saturday mornings, weather and finances permitting, Mom would let me go downtown to the movies. Sometimes I went by myself, but usually I had to take my little sister. With just enough money for the bus, movie tickets, and maybe a bag of popcorn, we'd walk across Bullard Street and the railroad tracks, up Columbia Avenue to West Capitol and catch the Number Two Bus downtown.
To a “project kid,” all the homes on West Capitol with their well-tended yards looked large and imposing. Along the route toward town the bus passed Parkway Baptist Church, Livingston Park, the Old Ladies Home, Cedarlawn Cemetery, Barr Elementary (where we went to school), and the Greek Orthodox Temple. Just west of downtown were the Calvary Baptist Church with its steep steps and big columns, Central Presbyterian Church, and the Wahabi Shrine Temple, the later site of Saturday night teenage “sock hops.”
The Viola Lake home was just across the street from the Wahabi building. At this time the recently deceased Mrs. Lake was practically deified in Jackson because of the handsome endowment she gave for the establishment of public school libraries. I didn't learn until much later that she limited her generosity to the white public schools, but even had I known, the significance would have escaped me.
Passing by Poindexter Park on the south, one could glimpse Enochs Junior High. Across Capitol Street from the park was a movie theater and Greco's Spaghetti House, one of the best Italian restaurants Jackson ever had. A little farther on was the Capitol Street Methodist Church with its beautiful stained glass windows. Next, at the northwest corner of the intersection with Gallatin Street, was that strange, triangular shaped building bearing the sign "Eternity Where Will You Spend It." Diagonally across Capitol, just a few doors down South Gallatin was the Gateway Rescue Mission, which my Junior Sunday School class from the Air Base Chapel sometimes visited to "bring some cheer" to the down and outs who found shelter there. Darkness briefly enveloped the bus as it went under the railroad viaduct, but suddenly there was light again and the whole bustling panorama of downtown Jackson loomed before us.
Back then there was a lot to do. As I grew older and bolder my downtown jaunts expanded. The Office Supply Company with its many books was a nice place to stroll through. The Old Capitol was badly in need of repair at the time, but looking up at the interior of its dome still evoked awe and amazement. The New Capitol was even more impressive and had a museum besides. On the tattered Confederate battle flags, not yet a century old, were stitched such odd inscriptions as "Malvern Hill," "Gaines Mill," and "Sharpsburg," places where, as we later learned, our forefathers paid so dearly to uphold the cherished Southern right to be wrong.
But the most popular museum attraction was the "Mummy," which later proved to be a paper mache hoax inflicted on us gullible rubes. Anyway, downtown Jackson back then was a nice, safe place for kids to wander around, exercise their imaginations, and indulge a sense of adventure. One could even gain access to the top of some downtown skyscrapers and get a full panoramic view of the small but growing city.
Some very handsome structures adorn contemporary downtown Capitol Street, or at least that part of it from Farish east to State. West of Farish to the viaduct is another matter. A more depressing image of urban blight is difficult to imagine. But even East Capitol, with all its new buildings, lacks character and pizzazz. Most of the impressive new edifices appear to be office buildings or parking garages. Nowadays, people just come downtown to work. When the workday is done, they head for their suburban homes in Rankin or Madison County. Old downtown looks pretty empty at night and on the weekends. I keep reading about a downtown renaissance, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It didn't use to be like this. Throughout the '50s, Capitol Street was throbbing with activity, both day and night, weekdays and weekends. “Mississippi’s main drag,” someone called it. Not just the city, but the entire state seemed to come together there. To use the words of Walker Evans, downtown Jackson, like similar American central commercial and business districts, “was a beautiful mess.”
As a bike-riding, teen-age Western Union delivery boy, I saw a lot of it. When the school day at Provine was over, I took the Robinson-Belhaven bus downtown, arriving about 30 minutes before having to start work. By this time the Central and St. Joe kids were streaming down Capitol Street, with Central's ROTC cadets often in uniform. The Hollywood Sweet Shop and the Walgreen and H. L. Green soda fountains were favorite teenage hangouts, but the pinball machines at the Greyhound and Trailways stations also got their share of business--from the "hoodlum" element, as my mom was wont to say.
At some point in my two-year, bike-pedaling Western Union career, I dated a Central girl. To this day, just recalling our downtown meetings is one of my most pleasant and vivid reveries. We would usually grab a quick Coke and 12-cent hamburger at Krystal Number Two or, on rare occasions, something a bit fancier at the Mayflower before I began my telegram deliveries and she caught the “Doodleville” bus home.
We now know that the advent of the suburban shopping center was a big reason for the demise of the downtown business area. But at the end of World War II there were just eight in the whole USA. Construction of Jackson's first one, originally called Morgan Center (now Woodland Hills), began right after the war, soon to be followed by Mart 51, Battle Hill, Meadowbrook, Western Plaza, and similar ventures. They were popular and convenient, but downtown Jackson remained economically viable throughout the '50s. It wasn't until the '60s, maybe even the early '70s, that the continuing process of suburbanization--by then accompanied by the construction of enclosed, climate-controlled shopping malls--made the outlying regions of the city functionally independent of the downtown business district. In time, those who could afford it moved to the suburbs, shopped in the suburbs, and sought their recreation and entertainment in the suburbs. Only the poor, most of whom were African-American, remained in the inner city, which, deprived of its middle class tax base, began its inexorable decline.
But what adolescent could have foreseen this back in the '50s, when every Saturday morning Capitol Street’s sidewalks, from Mill all the way up to State, were full of shoppers and strollers and the street was clogged with traffic? When during rush hours a Jackson City Lines bus, often with more riders than seats, came up or down the main drag every three minutes? At this time the half-mile plus stretch of downtown Capitol Street was flanked by a vast array of hotels, banks, office buildings, retail stores, restaurants and other enterprises.
There were seven hotels. The "big three" consisted of the Edwards, Heidelberg, and Walthall, with their elaborate restaurants, ballrooms, and key clubs. But there were also smaller and shadier establishments. According to Eddie Cohen, the one over his family clothing store was an actual bordello! Of course, as any old-timer can tell you, the ostensibly respectable Edwards had a very casual attitude toward illicit sex and alcohol, largely for the enjoyment of our esteemed legislators.
The 1950 City Directory shows that downtown Capitol Street had nearly 50 clothing stores, 18 shoe stores, 14 jewelers, eight restaurants (not including those in the hotels), five movie theaters (six counting the new Lamar, just off Capitol), five furniture stores, four large department stores, four banks, two pool halls, a business school, a Jitney-Jungle grocery store, a dance studio, the Jackson Daily News office, and numerous drug stores, specialty shops and fast food places. Even the entrance to one of Jackson's most well-known nightspots, the Wagon Wheel, once fronted Capitol Street. The authorities later sealed it off and customers had to come and go via a new one on South Farish, probably because the rowdy behavior of its young alcohol-stimulated clientele offended sober Paramount patrons.
Most of the downtown movie theaters did not make it through the decade, just the Lamar and Paramount (the Royal, at the east end of Capitol, folded in 1959). But the remainder of Capitol Street stayed remarkably the same. There were changes, of course, like the new First National Bank Building and the remodeled Deposit Guaranty Bank.
After its buy-out by the Clarion-Ledger, the Jackson Daily News moved out of its old offices on East Capitol and into the new Hederman complex on Pearl. But the Capitol Street of 1960 was substantially as it had been in 1950 and projected an aura of stability and even permanence, at least to the naďve and unsophisticated.
Eudora Welty writes that children quite naturally think that the town they grow up in will stay the same forever. But permanence is a chimera. Two weeks after graduating from Provine, I joined the army. I got out in the summer of 1962 and returned to Jackson. At first, Capitol Street seemed about the same. There was a new First Federal Building but it was an aesthetic improvement over the previous structure, which I never liked anyway. Its slow, rickety, prone-to-get stuck elevator was the bane of a Western Union delivery boy. But nearby, on the north side of the 500 block of East Capitol, something terrible had happened. It took me a while to comprehend what. The old Century Theater building had been torn down and replaced—by a parking lot!
The destruction of the Century Building marked the beginning of the end of downtown Capitol Street as my generation knew it. I remember it fondly and regret its passing. But I'm sure not all Jacksonians do, and for good reason. Although there were several black schools near downtown, one seldom saw black students on Capitol after school let out because they, like all Negroes, were barred from its soda fountains, lunch counters and restaurants. Jackson in the 1950s, with its prevailing racism and Jim Crow laws, was no utopia by any means, but to those of us who were stumbling toward maturity these things are seen much more clearly in retrospect. Old injustices have been obliterated, and rightfully so, but I have to admit a nostalgic longing for the comfortable familiarity of downtown Jackson in the '50s.
Not long ago, after a Sunday breakfast with some old high school friends at the Walthall, my wife and I decided, for old time's sake, to re-visit some of our old neighborhoods. West Capitol was first on the list. We drove down Pearl to the Mill Street intersection where we were immediately confronted with a series of garish murals on the walls of the viaduct. These paintings, in a motif I would describe as primitive, are evidently a part of some kind of beautification project for this area of town. To me they epitomize and highlight the squalor. It makes about as much sense as trying to cover a big oozing sore with a band-aid. Like similar pictures in other American cities, they merely symbolize irredeemable urban decay.
Poindexter Park has been taken over by the derelicts and is no longer a safe place for children to play. The areas around Barr School and the Zoo looked pretty rundown and dismal. We tried to locate the site of Major’s Pig Stand, one of the more popular teenage haunts of our era, but couldn't do it. At the old Parkway Church building, occupied by the Amazing Institutional Church of God in Christ, we turned around and headed back downtown.
Just past where Capitol becomes a one-way street heading east, stands the old Capitol Street Methodist Church structure. This was Jackson’s second oldest Methodist congregation and for a long time its second largest. It, too, has disbanded, its magnificent stained-glass window of Christ the Good Shepherd now adorning a suburban Church in Madison County. But I was pleased to learn that the old church building has not been abandoned and was being used by United Methodist Metro Ministries to provide after-school care and supervision for disadvantaged and at risk inner city children. This agency also runs a similar program at the parsonage of yet another defunct inner city church, Grace Methodist on Winter Street in my former girlfriend’s old “Doodleville” neighborhood.
My wife suggested turning north on Gallatin and driving up Bailey Avenue to see her old neighborhood and the old Crestwood Baptist Church where we first met and later married. But being depressed and melancholy by what we had already seen, plus being a little bit wary for our own safety, we decided against it and continued east up Capitol Street.
Downtown was empty until we reached the vicinity of St. Andrew's where the congregation was arriving for morning services. Silently, we proceeded on to North State then out to the Interstate and on to our daughter's home in Madison.
Here's another great article by Dallas: The Kiddee Matinee, "Wagon Shorty," and downtown Jackson fifty years ago
Jerry Dallas was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended public schools in and around Jackson (Pearl, Clinton, Barr, French, Bailey, Peeples, and Provine, class of ‘59).
He served three years in the U. S. Army (1959-1962), then married Melva Crawford in 1964. Dallas received a B. A. from Mississippi State (1966), was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow (1966), and got an M.A. from Emory University (1968) and Ph.D. also from Emory University in 1972. He has taught at Delta State University since 1970. He and Melva have three children and a slew of grandchildren. He's done post-doctoral study at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Temple University in Philadelphia. He is currently working on a book about Jackson during the period from about 1945 to 1960, i.e, the period referred to by one historian as “the American High.”
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