Once considered little more than a swervy, pot-holed stretch of I-55 at best or a frightening urban wilderness at worst, over the past decade Jackson has redefined itself as the cultural and entertainment center of the state.
Not that there hasn’t always been fun and enrichment to be had. Locals and visitors have long enjoyed the world-class Saint Patrick’s Day parade that turns downtown upside down for one weird and wild day, the historic offerings like its antebellum capitol building and the underappreciated outdoors offerings like the wide beaches and old-growth cypress swamps along the Pearl River or idyllic spots like Crystal and Mayes Lakes.
It’s just that in recent years, a kind of arms race to see which neighborhood can offer the best venues, galleries and demographics has gripped Jackson, and that race is putting the capital on the map as a DIY destination for creative types, art lovers and the urban hip, creating some of the best contemporary cultural offerings in Mississippi.
Much has been said about the Fondren neighborhood, which – with its galleries, coffee shops and monthly music and arts festival – was an early comer to the arts race. But new venues are cropping up around town and offering a wider view of a resurging Jackson.
If you’re a family type, the downtown museum district is where it’s at. A renovated Mississippi Art Museum, a new convention center and the performing arts mainstay, Thalia Mara Hall, command downtown both architecturally and culturally.
The museum’s Art Garden, the newest baby in the family, opened in 2011. The garden, dotted with sculptures and installations from some of Mississippi’s finest artists, helps link the buildings and creates a nexus for downtown culture.
Jenny Tate, the museum’s director of marketing, describes the garden as a “space that’s for all.”
“If you’re a nature lover, we have our native garden beds,” Tate said. “We have a big green grassy lawn where school groups play Red Rover and tag and pass footballs. We have a performing arts stage that can host a solo act, a huge band or even a symphony. And then, of course, we have the children’s fountains, which are just absolutely beautiful. Children play in them all summer long.”
In the spring and fall, the Art Garden offers an evening music series, High Note Jam, and outdoor movies in conjunction with the Crossroads Film Society.
“We see the garden as the nucleus of the downtown’s cultural district, and the district as a creative place-making project that is helping to enliven downtown,” Tate said.
For accommodations, consider staying at the recently reopened King Edward Hotel (now the Hilton Garden Inn). For 40 years, the abandoned building was a derelict destination for adventurous local urban explorers, and now the lush environs of the King Edward, originally built in 1923, offer a corporeal connection to an aristocratic Jackson-past.
For dinner, stop into recently rebooted Penguin Restaurant & Bar. Once a hotdog shack for Jackson State University students, a new breed of restaurateurs adopted the long-abandoned name to create a fine-dining oasis that features live jazz and cold cocktails.
The downtown area represents the top-down approach to a bucking and burgeoning Jackson revitalization, but for the urban curious, Midtown is the place to be.
Back in 2006, a few creative types were attracted to this area of town for it’s vast and cheap warehouse space and near infinite potential. From one loft apartment and one unaffiliated studio – Pearl River Glass Studio, where glass-art visionary Andy Young has been creating nationally recognized glass art for decades– resurged the Millsaps Art District.
Currently, over 20 artists’ studios populate four funky buildings. Young can be found in his glass-filled mad-scientist lab and gallery. Local son and SwingLab proprietor Andy Hilton builds backyard creations alongside other craftsman, artists and musicians in his Building at 140. And the core of the district is The Midtown Arts Center, which hosts music events and art shows for those tired of the typical pretension.
“There’s an influx of younger artists that have decided to stay in Jackson. There’s also a group of older artists that are interested in being involved as opposed to staying in their studios,” Richard Stowe, artist and vice president of the Business Association of Midtown, said. “For us, we’re a place to go that’s not a late-night bar or a stuffy art gallery opening.”
Get a feel for the district during its Holiday Studio Tour when the artists will open their galleries to the public and the streets will be full of music, demonstrations, food and drink.
But for a more intimate look at the uber-hip goings-on of the district, check the center’s Facebook page for tighter-knit events, including The Blast monthly hip-hop jams.
And if you ingratiate yourself to the local artists, you might even score an invitation to the private open-air club, The Mosquito, where the locals dance the night away amidst the exposed metal beams and perplexing lights that could only be created by the high-energy artists who inhabit the district.
Not long ago, most residents and visitors wouldn’t venture west of State Street, where both Midtown and Downtown are reaping their cultural fruits, but, as Hilton put it, “Creativity and the arts have definitely reclaimed a lot of areas and neighborhoods that were probably considered lost.”
In doing so, Jackson may very well join the ranks of Portland and Austin as a sanctuary for the cool and culturally savvy.
Photo by Aaron Phillips // Story by Joseph Williams