The Mississippi Artist Paradise You Had No Idea Existed
The black sign on the front door of Government Street Grocery in Ocean Springs reads "Everyone."
A year ago, you would have thought it was some kind of droll meta-humor, like a sign reading "door" or "piece of glass." But in mid-2016, the simple black sticker with white lettering sends a serious message: we're not the Mississippi you think we are. And everyone is welcome here.
Mississippi's Gulf Coast, an hour closer to Bourbon St than to the statehouse in Jackson, is an outlier in the state, more Coast than Mississippi. This modest, 44-mile stretch of coastline is chockablock with artists, musicians, brewers, chefs, and other creative types who are leading by example in a state that badly needs to find a better direction.
Everyone is welcome here
The "Everyone" sticker is a reference to Mississippi's House Bill 1523. Somewhat lost in the election-year sideshow of bathroom regulations, this law allows anyone with a "sincerely held religious belief" to deny LGBT individuals a host of services related to marriage, adoption, or foster care services. It allows employers to fire or refuse to hire them, allows doctors to refuse to perform any treatments associated with gender reassignment, and allows landlords to deny tenants housing based on moral convictions. Really.
In 2016, when people are judged more harshly by how they order their steak than by whom they choose to date, the law rings archaic -- especially to the Mississippians who live south of I-10.
"Down here, it's easy to exist and just do your thing," says Corey Christy, the marketing director for the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs by day, bass player in the Blackwater Brass band by night. "It's relaxed, it's friendly. In the rest of the state you don't get that."
It is to Mississippi what pre-hipster Austin was to Texas before Dallas allegedly became cosmopolitan.
Within sight of where Christy sits, on the patio outside Government Street Grocery, three bars have live music playing. A few hundred yards away is his employer, a museum dedicated to the legendary American painter. Further down Government is the Mary O’Keefe Cultural Center, a community effort devoted to arts education. All of this, in coastal Mississippi.
Young entrepreneurs coming home, making it great
Government Street, Ocean Springs' main drag, stretches only about four blocks but has enough bars and restaurants to fill an entire weekend. Nearly all are run by young entrepreneurs, most of whom grew up in the area and returned when they saw the creative vibe emerging in the region.
"The owners of these places could be successful anywhere,” says Chris Vignes, who works in the mayor's office in nearby Gulfport. "But we've got a lot of young people coming back because they know this is a great time to be here. They know the wonders of this area."
Just west of Ocean Springs, Gulfport is the second-largest city in Mississippi, and emblematic of what this region is becoming. The historic Downtown, like an old lava field now overrun with wildflowers, is a place of ruin dotted with life.
Some buildings still remain boarded a decade after Hurricane Katrina, but most are filled with small businesses and inventive restaurants like Corks & Cleaver. This summer the city opens an alley in the model of Cleveland’s E 4th St, closed to traffic and lined with bars and restaurants for people to enjoy the coastal sunshine as they sip. Around the corner is Chandeleur Brewing, a craft brewery and beer hall run by local construction magnates who made good elsewhere then came back home to the Gulf Coast. Their weekend block parties are the centerpiece of Gulfport summers.
It started after Katrina
The new spirit of the Gulf Coast was born out of ruin. While New Orleans got the bulk of the Hurricane Katrina attention, cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- Biloxi, Long Beach, Gulfport -- were also demolished. But the adversity, and the people who came along to help fix it, are a big part of why the Gulf Coast has become a hub of creativity.
"A lot of artists have been through some sort of struggle and they identify with the people here," says Martha Whitney, who runs the French Potager floral/bridal shop in Bay St. Louis and heads the city’s arts organization. "Just being around people who've reconstructed and repainted the canvas that was their lives, it inspires those kinds of people. It brings them down here because of the vibe and community spirit."
Next door at the Starfish Café, a pay-what-you-want local foods restaurant staffed by culinary students and volunteers, owner Di Fillhart agrees.
"The blues began here," says the missionary-turned-restaurateur, who came to help after Katrina and stayed. "To me, it was a broken community that rebuilt itself with the treasures it always had: art and music."
The two women share a block along Main St in Bay St. Louis, a sort of Sausalito-on-the-bayou where antique shops, art galleries, and cafes like Starfish lead to an expansive beach and sparkling waterfront. It's an artists colony that feels like California, and has effectively become an extension of New Orleans.
"We've got a lot of layers"
Diversity has also played a large part in why the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not the Mississippi you'd expect.
"We're a port, and we've got a military base, which means we've got people from all over who've experienced things other Mississippians haven't," says Jessie Zenor, who runs the Greenhouse on Porter, a greenhouse-tuned-coffee shop in Ocean Springs that offers live music and yoga.
"There's a huge Asian population here, too," says Christy, the bass player, referring to the immigrant communities who came to work on shrimping and oyster boats. "We've got a community built on all kinds of people moving here, for casinos, military, whatever, so it's economically, culturally, and racially diverse. Most of this state is black/white, rich/poor. Here, we've got a lot of layers."
Natural beauty breeds creativity
The drive east from Bay St. Louis along Highway 90 is one of the most stunning, underrated scenic trips in the country. The Gulf Coast had the sense to leave most of the coastline void of high-rises. So as you drive through Long Beach and on into Gulfport, through minimal traffic, your left flank is grand old plantation homes, and your right is 27 miles of white sand beach and blue water.
Further east runs the Pascagoula River and the pristine old-growth swamps along its tributaries. A day trip through here is a glimpse of a unique ecosystem, one that may have inspired native Gulf Coaster Jim Henson to create his most famous frog.
"We rank pretty low in pretty much everything," says Jeff Wilkinson, who along with his wife runs Eco-Tours of South Mississippi. "But when it comes to management of natural resources, I'd put the southern part of our state up with anywhere.
"People may not have a swamp back home, but they have something in nature they appreciate. And when they see us dumb people in Mississippi can take care of our nature, maybe they can, too."
There's Mississippi, and there's everything south of I-10
While the people of Southern Mississippi are decidedly Southern, and therefore aren't likely to badmouth their neighbors to the north, their frustration with how the rest of the state runs is obvious.
"We used to be called 'coast trash' (by people in the north)," says Brandon Lewis, general manager for Chandeleur Brewing Company. "And that's funny, because those people don't realize we actually lead the state in everything. Industry, tourism, tax revenue, everything."
"Mississippi's really good at giving the rest of the world the impression that we're small-minded," says Kait Sukiennik, a co-owner of Greenhouse. "But I don't think that's reflective of the population in general. I haven't met one person who agrees with 1523, in this entire state. Not one. It's really just the politicians looking out for themselves."
Whatever the impression, the people of the Gulf Coast are quick to let you know they welcome anyone and everyone to their shores. In an area that depends so much on tourism, giving anyone an excuse not to come can be devastating to the economy. Hence the "Everyone" stickers on the doors of countless businesses throughout the region.
"People wrote us off a long time ago," Whitney says. "But to not come here is just going to cripple the people who want to change it. And it takes us longer to get things in Mississippi. But we'll get there, and when we do this place is going to be wonderful."
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