City hearts must beat from within

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 18, 2010

Natchez and Vidalia may have little in common with Detroit, but there are lessons our communities can glean from what was once the nation’s fourth largest city.

The summer after I graduated from architecture school in 1991, I lived in Dearborn, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

Struggling to find a job in the middle of a recession, I drove many times into to downtown Detroit for job interviews.

I experienced first-hand some of the lessons I learned in urban planning class on that first drive down Michigan Avenue. Never before had I seen entire sections of a city decaying from the effects of urban sprawl. What was once a vibrant city had been left vacant and dying. The Motor City has lost nearly a million people to the suburbs during the last 6 decades.

For a small-town southern boy, my eyes were opened that summer.

Since then, I have been fascinated about the life and death of cities — what makes one town vibrant and another one wither away.

Construction of shopping malls and by-passes in the 60s and 70s bears the brunt of most of the blame for the demise of small towns. The conveniences of parking and shopping in an air conditioned building lured many businesses away from downtowns across the country.

With the construction of Seargent Prentiss Drive and John R. Junkin, many downtown Natchez stores moved to shopping centers and then to the enclosed mall.

Thankfully, tourism dollars and preservation efforts have kept the downtown area from turning into a ghost town. Now downtown mainly offers specialty stores, cultural and governmental institutions.

Still, the pressure to move outward continues. In recent years, Natchez businesses and neighborhoods continue their march beyond the city limits. In Vidalia, the rush to move West toward Ferriday builds with the announcement of a new recreation park and municipal complex.

As businesses move farther outward, already established neighborhoods and business districts are sure to feel the strain.

On recent drives, I have spotted signs of stress already evident. Once vibrant storefronts on the Natchez by-pass and Vidalia’s Carter Street are now left vacant as businesses move to the outskirts of each town.

Even once-successful business corridors are showing signs of a shrinking population and rocky economy. Stores sit empty in front of the Natchez Mall. Businesses along Carter Street have either dried up or moved to the new Walmart Supercenter.

Cities are living organisms, like plants and animals. They are made up of a complex system of interdependent parts.

Streets and roads act like veins which feed nutrients to the meat of the city — it neighborhoods. When one part of the system begins to fail the whole system suffers.

One of the most complicated jobs of any city is to plan for growth while maintaining the established city fabric.

Fortunately, signs of revitalization have emerged in both Natchez and Vidalia.

The intersection in front of Tracetown shopping center, billboards showing plans for revitalizing Magnolia Mall in Natchez and the recent demolition and redevelopment of the Vidalia Market shopping center offer some hope for these areas.

Even smaller developments like the Farmer’s Market on St. Catherine Street, the health center on Homochitto Street and the new infrastructure at Liberty Road are good signs for their respective neighborhoods.

But they are only a start. Hopefully as businesses rush toward the edges of both communities, leaders will do everything they can to keep the city from decaying from within.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3550 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.