Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Mississippi Delta 12: Clarksdale

This is essay no. 12 in my occasional series on the Mississippi Delta.

Clarksdale is the county seat of Coahoma County, the big city in the northern part of the Delta. In the early-mid-20th century, it was a bustling and prosperous agricultural, trade, railroad, and mercantile center. Feeding all this commerce were shops, office buildings, railroad repair shops, warehouses, and a thriving music culture. Many people consider Clarksdale to be the home of the Blues, and many famous Blues musicians either came from Clarksdale or got their start there.  Clarksdale had a thriving Jewish and Lebanese community in the early 20th century.

Today Clarksdale looks sad and beat-up, like many other Delta towns. The downtown commercial center is almost empty, shops are shuttered, and there is almost no traffic on a Saturday. I only spent part of a cold Saturday there, and surely missed many interesting places, but what I did see shows the town's rich cultural and commercial heritage.
First of all, where do you eat when you come to town on a cold, gloomy day, with wisps of snow in the air? You go for a big plate of ribs at Abe's Bar-B-Q at 606 North State Street. Abe's has been in business since 1924 and I suppose the tender ribs I ate have been smoking since then. Other than Abe's and a few other eateries, State Street looks rather forlorn.

Head north on Desoto Avenue and then turn left on 4th Street (also known as Martin Luther King Blvd.), and you head towards the Sunflower River and the old commercial heart of Clarksdale.
Unused railroad shed off Leflore Avenue
Turn right on Leflore Avenue, and you see a red railroad repair shed near the road. I can't tell if it is in use, but the dead locomotive has been sitting there a long time and the office is full of junk
Leflore Ave. has empty lots, abandoned houses, and gin bottles in the grass.
Yazoo Avenue, which is perpendicular to 4th Street, is pretty dilapidated in this area. Most of the shops are shuttered or imploding.
Proceed a couple of blocks closer to the river, and you reach Sunflower Avenue. At the corner was a former shop with the 45-degree corner facing the intersection. The former music center appears to be a lounge now.
Across the street is the historic Heavenly Rest cemetery. This is the resting place of merchants and prominent families - evidence of Clarksdale's wealthy past.
Turn the corner to 3rd Street and Delta Avenue, and you see some older commercial buildings with cheerful paint and some restoration. It is nice to see some degree of revival, but many of the storefronts here are still empty.

These are digital images from a Panasonic G1 camera and the superb Panasonic 20mm ƒ/1.7 Lumix lens. I processed some of the RAW files with Photo Ninja software to render them as black and white.

For older posts on the Mississippi Delta, please click the links below:
To see the funky Shack-Up Inn, please click this link

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Secret Playground, Vicksburg, Mississippi

This essay could be named The Secret Garden (apologies to Frances Hodgson Burnett), but I will call it The Secret Playground. A couple of weeks ago, my old car suffered a breakdown at the corner of Wisconsin and Confederate Avenues, near Toots Grocery, in Vicksburg. I coasted into the parking lot of the New Mt. Elem Church at 3014 Wisconsin Avenue. While waiting for a flatbed truck, I walked up a dirt path that led away from the church lot, rounded a corner, and came across a semi-abandoned playground.
The first play machine you encounter is the merry-go-round. It still turns, so someone must have maintained it within the last decade or so. The site is not totally overgrown, so does someone cut the brush possibly annually?
The slide is reasonably intact, a slide to nowhere.
This is sturdy, old-fashioned playground equipment made of heavy-duty steel.  The nearby bench has survived the years.
Here is one of the children's seats. I remember these massive things from the 1950s, when they would have been equipped with a chain and a hook to keep a child from falling out.

I showed these photographs to several coworkers who lived all their lives in Vicksburg, and none knew anything about the site. It was too far from the old Ken Karyl School (now the Vicksburg Family Life Church) and across a busy street to have been associated with the school. If anyone has any information, please comment.

Update, March 23, 2013: I spoke to an old friend, a retired City of Vicksburg employee, about this site. He said it was still an official city playground but was not sure if the Parks and Recreation Department maintained the site any more. He recalled buying some of the playground equipment many years ago. He said the access road was once one of the National Military Park loops, but when the City and Federal Government exchanged land, part of Confederate Avenue was relocated and the city built the playground on the loop.

For a 2014 update: Click Here.

Photographs taken with a Panasonic G3 digital camera with Lumix 20mm f/1.7 lens. On this camera, I can set the aspect ratio to 1:1, which lets me frame square. I learned to appreciate the square viewpoint after using Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras for 30 years. Raw files processed with Photo Ninja software on a Mac computer. I recommend Photo Ninja highly (but I recommend using real film in a Rolleiflex even more highly).

For some genuine film pictures: Click here

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Historic Steel Bridge, Vicksburg National Military Park

Long-term Vicksburg residents may remember that Confederate Avenue in the Vicksburg National Military Park crossed Old Jackson Road on a steel arch bridge.  The bridge and four similar structures were built in 1905 and used for many years, but by the 1970s, the other four had been replaced with modern concrete bridges.  By the mid-1980s, the steel bridge over Jackson Road was still open to pedestrians, but the road had been rerouted over a modern concrete span parallel to and west of the historic bridge.  Sometime in the early-1990s, the bridge was closed to pedestrians, but it remained unused in place, a relic of sound early 20th century engineering and construction.
This is the view of the historic bridge from the new concrete span. As you can see, it spanned quite a deep valley with a road and creek below.
This is a postcard from the archives of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Sometime in the late-1990s, one of the footings on the south side washed away, leaving the bridge standing on only three footings. According to the Vicksburg Post (June 20, 2002), National Park Service officials concluded that the bridge was structurally in imminent danger of failure and that repairs would be too expensive. Jackson Road was closed because of the fear that the bridge would fall.
I examined the footings with a friend who is a mechanical engineer, and his opinion was that if the bridge was standing strong on three legs, there was no imminent failure mode. The footing could have been repaired with piles or a concrete pad. Regardless, the decision was made to raze the beautiful old bridge. This photograph shows one of the footings on the north side of the valley.
Here is the still-intact arch entering the brush on the south side. You can see the dangling footing in the lower center of the frame. The demolition job was contracted to Riverside Construction of Vicksburg, and the workmen literally pulled down the span using a bulldozer and dump trucks on June 20, 2002. The steel was cut up and taken away for recycling.

This is how we lose our architectural and engineering heritage: no one cares, and authorities take the cheap and brainless way out. For shame that this happened in a National Park.

Photographs taken with Kodak Tri-X film on a 4x5-inch Tachihara camera, using 180 mm and 75 mm lenses. I had to carry tripod and camera down Jackson road on my bicycle because it was closed to traffic.