On Developers, Modernism, and Fondren

After I wrote this post, I decided that it should be considered Part II of The Return of Modernism.

In the latest issue of the Northside Sun, editor Wyatt Emmerich discusses the recent talk given by developer David Watkins at the Rotary Club. Watkins is the lawyer-turned-developer of several historic properties in downtown Jackson, including most famously the King Edward Hotel. He believes in Jackson and he seems to really appreciate historic architecture, and he’s also apparently very likable, but last year he announced that he has also bought the oldest part of the commercial core of the Fondren neighborhood and plans to demolish almost all the buildings (most from the 1930s) and turn the area into Whitney Place, a “mixed-use” development in memory of his late daughter-in-law.

Here’s the relevant quote from the editorial:

By the time Watkins got to Whitney Place in Fondren I was delirious, so I can’t recall all the details. The Capri is staying but everything else is going and a huge new city will be erected in its place with underground parking and “neo-moderne” architecture [emphasis mine].

The buildings are falling apart and we can’t do anything with them,” Watkins said. Then he displayed an artist’s rendition of the proposed new Fondren. It looked like Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

Now . . . what’s this about Greenwich Village? And how is Greenwich Village considered “neo-moderne”? And . . . what’s this about Greenwich Village?

*sigh* I guess I should be glad it’s not yet another New Orleans imitation. But what about those of us who really really like . . .  well, Fondren? in Jackson? in Mississippi? Those of us who moved here because the neighborhood wasn’t afraid to be itself, wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t? I know these buildings aren’t examples of high-style architecture, but they are the historic heart of Fondren, they show the beginnings of our neighborhood as a separate settlement up the streetcar line from Jackson, and they sustain some of the oldest and most practical businesses used by most neighborhood residents on at least a weekly basis. And that’s going to be replaced by . . . . what exactly?

"Downtown Fondren" (1930s)--everything in this picture except for the blue building way at the far end will be demolished and replaced with a "Greenwich Village" development if David Watkins has his way.

Recently, I finished reading Preserving New York, an excellent book I heartily recommend to everyone who cares about historic preservation, its beginnings and its future. I was struck by a section in a chapter titled “The Bridge, The Castle, and Moses” referring to Robert Moses, who usually shows up in preservation literature as an evil villain intent on destroying all that is good and right in the world. The author, Anthony Wood, points out though that in fact, up until Moses decided to build a bridge over The Battery skirting Fort Clinton in 1939, he was very popular and was considered a civic leader of great vision and character. Here are some excerpts from the chapter that particularly seem relevant in light of the editorial above:

Moses enjoyed a level of public support that made him a political threat. . . . Already, he had built thousands of acres of parks in New York State and had constructed bridges and parkways. For New York City, he was delivering endless new playgrounds, stunning swimming pools, and such impressive new parks as Orchard Beach. . . .

At this point in his ascension, his great public works still blinded most observers . . . . [p. 46, emphasis mine]

This issue isn’t about personalities, it’s about ideas and whose ideas for a community should be carried out. Does one developer’s money and Grand Idea take precedence over everything? This project will completely change the character of our funky, artsy, mid-20th-century neighborhood center. Just because Watkins has had good ideas with the King Edward, Standard Life, etc. is this also assumed to be a good idea? Do we allow our delirium over those previous projects to muzzle us about this project, which is basically the 1960s Urban Renewal, Modernist mentality of wiping a slate clean and starting over?

Fondren’s new development to date has been great at combining historic and new. Fondren Corner is spectacular, the Duling project has kept Duling School intact even down to its built-in cabinets, and also added a new corner focal point on State Street. I’ve been a supporter of this development and have been so happy to see downtown Fondren fill up with people but still keep its funkiness and artsy cool.

Watkins’ Fondren proposal is different from these developments and the downtown projects in every way–he proposes to demolish the historic core of a very functioning neighborhood, a neighborhood that probably would not be functioning nearly as well as it is without the long-standing businesses that have operated from these simple commercial buildings through good times and bad. And unlike the King Edward or the Standard Life Building or Fondren Corner, which were long in coming, I don’t recall anyone or any group advocating for the need for a new Fondren core, much less one that actually gives downtown Fondren a new name and an underground parking garage. Most importantly, anyone who thinks that the small but necessary businesses in that commercial strip now, like a shoe repair shop or a paint store or a locksmith or even young artists will be able to pay the rent on what promises to be not only a gargantuan development but also very high-end, is deluding himself.

The statement that “we can’t do anything for these buildings” has never been substantiated in any press I’ve seen on the subject, although it has been repeated a number of times. These buildings aren’t grand, but they are real-live Fondren, not make-believe Greenwich Village. They’re part of the sometimes-gritty but always colorful and human fabric of the neighborhood that I (and I think others) love. They provide those of us who live here a center for valuable, everyday services we need (but perhaps significantly, Saturday tourists from Madison don’t).  I hope other Fondren residents will voice their opinions and maybe put the brakes on this bad idea.



Categories: Books, Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Gentrification, Historic Preservation, Jackson, Modernism, Preservation People/Events

3 replies

  1. Haven’t heard much about this lately.
    Any chance of an update, please?

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  2. The last I heard, which I believe was last summer, the developers were waiting for the credit markets to improve, and also David Watkins had gotten involved in the Farish Street project, so I think between that and King Edward, he’s busy for now. I’ve talked with a couple of movers and shakers in Fondren who aren’t that gung-ho about the project, mainly because of the demolition of the old commercial strip and re-building at a higher scale, but they also were hesitant to say anything publicly in opposition. So, for now everything is status quo, but . . .

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