Natasha and Joe, circa 1976
SOMEWHERE IN THE POST-KATRINA DAMAGE and disarray of my grandmother’s house is a photograph of Joe and me—our arms around each other’s shoulders. We are at a long-gone nightclub in Gulfport, The Terrace Lounge, standing before the photographer’s airbrushed scrim—a border of dice and playing cards around us. Just above our heads the words High Rollers, in cursive, embellished—if I am remembering this right—with tiny starbursts. It is 1992, the year the first casino arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, with it, a new language meant to invoke images of high-stakes players in exclusive poker games, luxurious suites on the penthouse floor, valet parking and expensive cars lined up in a glorious display of excess. Scenes from a glamorous casino someplace like Monte Carlo or Las Vegas—nothing like the gravel parking lot outside the club, the empty lot beyond it, and the small, run-down houses on either side, each with a chained-up dog barking into the night.
Not far from the club, beyond the spot that held the old Gulfport City Limits sign, is the neighborhood my ancestors settled in when they arrived on the Gulf Coast. Roughly five miles from the beach and downtown, the place called North Gulfport was once the northernmost settlement beyond the city. Now, it occupies a middle ground in Gulfport, though—until just recently—the city of Gulfport’s annexation of outlying districts had skipped the entire area to incorporate the white and affluent residential neighborhoods that had developed, due north, beyond it. One of two historically African American communities that sprang up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after emancipation, North Gulfport has always been a place where residents have had fewer civic resources than those extended to other outlying communities. Isolated and unincorporated, North Gulfport lacked a basic infrastructure: flooding and contaminated drinking water were frequent problems. Although finally incorporated in 1994—not long after the arrival of the first casino—many of North Gulfport’s streets still lack curbs, sidewalks, and gutters. Before the arrival of the casinos brought tourists down Highway 49 toward the beach, there were few streetlights and North Gulfport was cast in darkness. In recent years, as developers have acquired land in the community for commercial purposes—as the city has redistricted homesteads as commercial rather than residential property—many elderly citizens have lost their homes. Higher property taxes have forced people out even as property values have declined. For Sale signs abound, and developers seeking to fill in the nearby wetlands continue to threaten the environmental safety of North Gulfport’s residents. Highway 49, rerouted and expanded after World War II, long ago cut the community in half. According to an article published in the July/August 2005 issue of the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce magazine, in a state as poor as Mississippi, residents in North Gulfport face “even higher rates of poverty, land loss and housing abandonment than the state average.”
When I was growing up there, North Gulfport was referred to as “Little Vietnam” because of the perception of crime and depravity within its borders—as if its denizens were simply a congregation of the downtrodden. Even now, it is a place that outsiders assume to be dangerous or insignificant—run-down and low income, a stark contrast to the glittering landscape of the post-Katrina beachfront with its bright lights and neon bouncing off the casinos onto the water. Were North Gulfport not along the main thoroughfare, making it necessary to drive through to get to the beach, it might be easily forgotten. Now, because the city is invested in improving that stretch of Highway 49, some residents face losing the right to make decisions about their own property. This problem is foremost in Cicero Tims’s concerns about the post-Katrina political landscape.
Across Highway 49 from my grandmother’s house and down the street from Tammy’s, Mr. Tims still runs the business he started years ago—Tims’s Snowballs—a little stand that serves as a gathering spot for a lot of people in the community. I haven’t seen him in years, but when I stop in, he gives me a free snowball, and we stand in the shade of a big live oak, reminiscing. A longtime friend of my grandmother and my great-uncle, Son Dixon, Mr. Tims has seen a good deal of change around here—and a lot of his stories include my family. In between telling me about what’s going on now, he interjects recollections of the past, revealing his thoughts on what he considers to be the two worst things to have happened to this place—one man-made, one natural:
“I’ve had to start over several times in my life when everything I had was destroyed. This time, the city won’t let me rebuild my business the way I want to. This old shack that my snowball stand is in—I can’t even tear it down to build a new one. If I tear it down, the city takes the land. I’m only here now because of the grandfather clause. If your business was here before a certain date, you can keep your property. But if you tear it down to do something else, it’s gone.
“I’ve been out here a long time. I remember when your uncle built his nightclub right over there. He was one of only three people out here who had a Cadillac. Owned the ball team too. A high roller—he bought Lizzie that pink Cadillac. I owned a motel back then, and all the colored acts had to stay in it. Son Dixon booked them at his club, and they stayed with me. I did a good business—until they desegregated the white hotels. Before Katrina, the worst thing that happened was desegregation. I lost all my business. Had to shut down the motel. You know where it was—back over there, off old Highway 49.”
I’m stunned at first that he has fond memories of a segregated Gulfport, but then I realize that he’s speaking figuratively, and I can see the comparison he’s making. He’s a man who is proud to have put all his children through college—at integrated institutions. Yet his nostalgia about the days of Jim Crow implies that the alternative hasn’t always benefited poor and low-income people equally and that reforms that should help all members of a society still privilege some people over others. Rather than simplifying the idea that desegregation was immediately and equally good for everyone, he focuses on the nuances of what some people lost: how suddenly owners of white hotels were able to benefit from the revenues brought in by black consumers at the same time black business owners were losing those customers. Whatever economic base the community might have had because of local businesses began to evaporate when they could no longer afford to stay open. And without a good tax base, the community would receive fewer resources from the city. In his nostalgia for a past in which he had a viable business, he underscores the ongoing discrepancies that have plagued the rebuilding effort on the Gulf Coast.
Turning to scan a blighted radius of North Gulfport that stretches from one side of Highway 49 to the other, Mr. Tims grows quiet. “What are you going to do with all that property your Uncle Son left?” he asks. Then he points to the vacant corner where several of my brother’s rental houses have been torn down, the last one standing with a Condemned sign on the front door. “That’s some valuable land,” he says.
A post-Katrina progress report and housing study published by the Mississippi governor’s office for the most recent anniversary reveals that of the 52,512 severely damaged housing units, most of which are located south of I-10, roughly 20 percent have been designated blight—vacant lots, lots with only slabs remaining, or damaged structures. Surveying North Gulfport—even from the highway—it appears that a lot of that blight is concentrated here. In an editorial published after the fourth anniversary of the storm, the New York Times reported on how much federal aid—assistance that should have gone to poor and lower-income residents—was used, instead, for other projects. Instead of replacing all of the low-income housing lost in the storm, the state of Mississippi found ways to divert those funds for such things as the refurbishment and expansion of the Port of Gulfport—a project that was in the planning stages long before Katrina hit. The editorial, titled “Mississippi’s Failure,” is certain to anger some coast residents concerned with a kind of historical memory uncritical of the state’s version of recovery. In another postanniversary article from the local South Mississippi Sun-Herald, the editor—noting that the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been rendered “invisible” by all the coverage devoted to New Orleans—calls for the coast’s story to be told. But the version the editor wants to tell—like many residents who responded to the article online—is the triumphant narrative of “the poor little state” that cleaned up, rebuilt, and succeeded in ways that Louisiana failed. This story, with its little-engine-that-could nostalgia, ignores the ongoing experiences of so many poor people whose lives have yet to be rebuilt. And with its “us” and “them” language, the comments also hint at the racial tensions implicit in this difficult story.
One of those tensions was inherent in the strange reopening ceremony at Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s last home, located on the beach in Biloxi. Anna Harris, curator at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, was there for the dedication. When I asked about her perception of rebuilding and historical memory on the coast, she described watching in disbelief as local politicians toasted and pledged allegiance to the Confederate States of America—“even as they had used federal funds,” she said, to help rebuild the historic landmark. “I tried to get someone at the newspaper to report on that fact,” she told me, “but no one would.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help worrying about the rebuilding narrative that was emerging and what was being left out or forgotten. Only a few years before, citizens on the Gulf Coast had been embattled in a bitter dispute about the Confederate flag. Back then business leaders had supported removing it from the flagpole between Gulfport and Biloxi to attract investors to the coast.
After my initial journeys back home, following Katrina, I stayed away for a long time, though my grandmother asked again and again to make the trip. I know I can’t live there anymore, she’d say. I just want to see it one more time. For three years I kept putting her off—saying one day—so that, at ninety-two, she could at least hold onto the hope of getting there. I never considered the consequences of this tactic, how it might haunt me later. When I started going back more often, it was because I had to, and by then it was too late. It occurs to me now that I had been waiting, foolishly, for the recovery to be complete. I had wanted to show her the place she’d spent her life without the narrative of destruction still inscribed on the landscape.
During the year or so after the storm, everything that had been disrupted seemed to be starting to settle, the narrative of recovery overwriting the devastation. My grandmother had lost a lot of weight during her ordeal, but in the nursing home in Atlanta, she started eating again. My brother too seemed to be on his way to remaking his life. Even without his rental units, he was earning a living; there was a good deal of work to be had on the coast. Government contractors were hiring crews for the work of cleanup—flagging and directing traffic, distributing supplies, scanning the beach for hazardous debris—and Joe was doing it all. I remember too that he called one day, excited about the possibility of a small business loan to rebuild his rental units, though later he’d learn that he did not qualify for assistance. Like a lot of people in North Gulfport, he wasn’t eligible for the kinds of programs that had helped businesses and wealthier citizens get back on their feet, and it wasn’t long before the initial “cleanup” was done—though “recovery” was still a long way off and still hasn’t occurred for some of the poorest citizens in the region. Just more than a year after landfall, the contractors pulled out of Gulfport and other devastated Mississippi coastal towns, leaving behind much less work for people struggling to recover and rebuild their lives. Even the retail store Joe had worked in part-time before the storm did not rebuild on the coast. The owners relocated the business farther north, where they had family. Not only were jobs leaving the coast, much low-income housing had disappeared too and wasn’t being rebuilt in the same numbers as before the storm, thus rendering recovery a lot harder to achieve for many citizens.
In the midst of all that devastation and loss—in the spring of 2007, nearly two years after landfall—with no money left from all the work he’d done on the houses before the storm, with taxes due on the vacant land and no buyers for the property, Joe made a desperate decision. When someone he’d known a long time asked him to transport and deliver several ounces of cocaine, he did. He made four thousand dollars. So he did it again. There was still the possibility of a life he imagined—prosperous, stable, perhaps even emotionally rewarding, as it had been when he was first renovating those houses. And it must have been in sight, reflected in the images of the “good life” plastered on casino billboards up and down Interstate 10 and down Highway 49 toward the beach: attractive people, in elegant clothes, laughing into cocktail glasses poised above plates of beautiful, abundant food. The casinos were among the first to rebuild and recover, and they broadcast their message of affluence above the heads of people struggling to reconstruct their lives from remnants.
I can’t help thinking too that the photograph we made in 1992 foreshadowed something else. Driving through the old neighborhood not long ago, I remembered that my brother and I had waited in line to have it taken. The line had stretched around the dance floor, and we stood there with everyone else that night to pay the five dollars to pose beneath those words—High Rollers. It was as if we needed to get close to that image of luck and money in a place where so many people had so little. Perhaps it’s better the photograph is lost. I know the desire to see the images of the past in light of the present would be too strong, and I’d be tempted to read into it—in our gestures, the way we held onto each other—what I would not see then: the irony of those words, the way they mocked so many of the people who had stood beneath them.