SHIPS ENTERING THE HARBOR at Gulfport, the major crossroads of the Mississippi coast, arrive at the intersection of the beach road, U.S. 90, and U.S. 49—the legendary highway of blues songs—by way of a deep channel that cuts through the brackish waters of the Mississippi Sound. Off the coast, ranging from just a half mile to nearly ten miles out, a series of barrier islands—Cat, Horn, Petit Bois, Deer, and Ship, as well as some long-submerged sand keys—bracket the coastline. I cleave to the window as the plane makes a turn over the water and then back inland toward the airport in North Gulfport, trying to see what aerial photographs show—the barrier islands, like a row of uneven stitches, hemming the coast. Some of the islands are invisible from the shore; others loom up in a rise of pine trees against the horizon. Only the legendary Dog Key has completely disappeared, and with it the site of the Gulf Coast’s early gaming industry, echoed now in the name of one casino: the Isle of Capri.
It is commonplace that the landscape is inscribed with the traces of things long gone. Everywhere the names of towns, rivers, shopping malls, and subdivisions bear witness to vanished Native American tribes, communities of former slaves, long-ago industrial districts and transit routes. We speak these names often unaware of their history, forgetting how they came to be. Each generation is further from the events and the people to which the names refer—these relics becoming more and more abstract. No longer talismans of memory, the words are monuments nonetheless. As Robert Haas has written, “A word is elegy to the thing it signifies.”
The ordinary markers are there—in Gulfport, a neighborhood named the Car Line, so called because it was the last stop for the streetcar, the end of the line. Across the railroad tracks that separate the areas closest to the beach and the center of Gulfport from the outlying areas is a community called The Quarters, so named, my grandmother tells me, for all the black residents, as if it were a slave quarters. There is irony in the signifying too: the Isle of Capri, near Point Cadet in Biloxi, was the first casino to open its doors, back in 1992, and it bears a name similar to a pleasure resort and casino that operated just off the Mississippi coast in 1926—The Isle of Caprice.
A glamorous structure on a raised pavilion, with boardwalks connecting the outlying cabanas to the main house, the resort hovered above the sand on what had been Dog Key. The Isle of Caprice was a popular destination for patrons of the sporting life as well as for families out for a picnic. Visitors from as far away as California and nearby residents from the mainland arrived on boats that left the dock three times a day. They could sunbathe or swim, then listen to big-band orchestras, dance, dine, and gamble in a setting that was opulent with stuffed divans, thick carpets, and mahogany gaming tables.
Aptly named, the resort was a place for whimsy and postwar revelry—a way for pleasure seekers to forget or move on from the past—and a boon for the coast’s tourism industry. Built on a sand shoal in an ecosystem characterized by hurricanes, erosion, and shifting landmasses, the resort’s name proved to be prophetic as well. After a few years the waters began to overtake the key, never fully receding. By 1932 it was gone, completely submerged, Dog Key retaken by the capricious Gulf waters—a reclamation engineered by the winds and rains of storms.
In 1932 my grandmother, the second youngest of seven children born to Eugenia McGee Dixon and Will Dixon, was sixteen. Her parents had moved to Gulfport around the turn of the century, just two years after construction of the deep-water port and the signing of the town’s charter of incorporation by the governor of Mississippi. The first boundary stakes had been driven in 1887, but Gulfport got its second start when multimillionaire oilman Captain Joseph T. Jones bought the struggling Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, continued its construction, and began dredging a deep channel from Ship Island to the end of the car line.
The young couple must have imagined the great possibility of work for Will on the docks in a budding lumber-shipping industry and work for Eugenia as a domestic in the mansions along the beach. The coast’s seafood industry, which had been established when the first canning plant opened in the late nineteenth century, didn’t employ blacks. Most of the workers were drawn from the influx of Yugoslavs and Slovenians to Biloxi in 1890, as well as other men, women, and children of European descent, many of whom were Polish immigrants brought in from Baltimore and Acadians transported from Louisiana as the industry grew.
Will and Eugenia left the cotton fields of the delta behind them, trading life along the Mississippi River for life on the Gulf Coast. They settled just outside the city limits, acquiring land from a man called Griswold, for whom the community was named. The area, now known as North Gulfport, has been—for as long as my grandmother can remember—a black section of town. It would be several years before the young couple’s troubles started, before Will Dixon would leave the family and never return, years before my grandmother would wake in the middle of the night and see her mother fall back onto the bed from the chamber pot where she’d been sitting, dead—most likely from influenza, a pandemic making its way into port cities around the world. Between 1918 and 1919—and even into early 1920—the pandemic swept the Mississippi Gulf Coast leaving at least ten thousand people, on record, dead. Like many forgotten histories, it is one of the narratives of the Gulf Coast that is rarely told.
Eugenia McGee Dixon (in center, left arm propped) and her children, left to right: “Son,” Hubert, “Sugar,” Bertha, Leretta, Roscoe, “Big Sister,” and an unknown child outside the original Dixon house on Jefferson Street in North Gulfport, circa 1922
Gulfport grew a good deal during the childhoods of my grandmother, Leretta, and her siblings—the paving of the roads in 1908, the first hospital in 1909, the library in 1917. In the early 1920s, raising themselves after the death of their mother, the children made money at all sorts of jobs. One brother, Roscoe Dixon, worked at a slaughterhouse and brought home meat. The girls took in wash, cooked, and cleaned houses. All of them crabbed in the Gulf and sold their catch to the white people whose homes fronted the coastline. Though segregated, the narrow, natural beach was open to blacks for the purpose of crossing over to the water to set crab traps and to carry their harvest to the back stoops of those big houses. The only part of the beach my grandmother recalls being designated for blacks was across from Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis—former president of the Confederacy.
Hubert Dixon, another of Leretta’s brothers, worked as a bellhop at the Great Southern Hotel. Captain Jones had built the hotel—a 250-room structure at the end of Twenty-fifth Avenue in Gulfport Harbor—in 1903. A three-story U-shaped building overlooking the water, it operated until its demolition in 1951. Leretta recalls in great detail the stories her brother told of working at the hotel—the excitement on the coast as visitors arrived, all the bustling to and from Union Station. One of the most notorious visitors was Al Capone—there to partake in offshore gambling—who upon arrival shook Hubert’s hand. In Leretta’s memory, Capone ran a casino out in the Gulf—on Ship Island—ferrying guests out there on a private boat. Ship Island was home only to a rustic fort once manned by black Union troops during the Civil War. More likely, while on the coast, Capone would visit the Isle of Caprice.
The year 1932 brought an end to that: Capone in prison and offshore gambling gone, for a while at least, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Much too late had the owner of the Isle of Caprice, Walter Henry Hunt, planned to build a protective seawall. The narrative of legalized offshore gambling had been written—then quickly erased by the Gulf waters. Even as the tourism industry again lagged, the shipbuilding, shipping, and seafood industries, and later the presence of a large military base—as well as revenues from “fines” for illegal backroom gambling—would bolster the coast’s economy for years to come. It was in such an atmosphere of growth and possibility that Leretta’s oldest brother, Son Dixon, a budding entrepreneur, imagined building a nightclub. He would return from his World War II naval tour of duty with a plan.
The Owl Club stood on two lots of land on Alabama Avenue just outside the city limits in unincorporated North Gulfport. Son Dixon built the low-ceilinged barroom and dancehall next to his own house—a driveway and a garage that held his wife’s pink Cadillac separating the two structures. Business was good. Every day working men sidled up to the mahogany bar to smoke cigars and drink. The walls were lined with bottles of whiskey and Regal Quarts cans of beer. A jukebox in the corner played records that Son Dixon bought on his monthly trips to New Orleans. Leretta worked for her brother in the kitchen, frying chicken or fish, simmering pots of red beans. Before long, he’d made enough money to start buying property in the area that had been known as Griswold Community.
Son Dixon, center right, leaning on the cash register in his Owl Club on Alabama Avenue in North Gulfport in the 1950s
Leretta Dixon Turnbough on the beach, Gulfport, Mississippi, circa 1940
Stacks of quitclaim deeds in a strongbox in the family safe show Son Dixon’s acquisition of large corner lots on major thoroughfares in North Gulfport—the intersections of old Highway 49 and a street now named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; MLK and Alabama Avenue; MLK and Arkansas—and other properties on Florida or backed up to new Highway 49. The dates on the deeds, the calendar from Leretta’s beauty shop, the early Eisenhower for President button—who knows why it was saved?—all hint at a story of 1950s Gulfport.
By near midcentury the protective seawall along the Mississippi coast had been built, the government had transformed Highway 90, the coast road, into America’s first four-lane superhighway, and plans were underway to create a twenty-six-mile-long sand beach in Harrison County fronting the towns of Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach, D’Iberville, and Pass Christian. County officials saw the creation of the sand beach as a way to boost tourism and the postwar economy of the coast. The highway literally paved the way for more urban waterfront development—hotels and restaurants—and began the inscription of several new narratives, cross-written over the landscape.
The “longest man-made beach in the world” was completed in 1955. The restaurants and hotels alongside it, lit up by neon signs, were for whites only. In a photograph, my grandmother stands on the small part of the beach designated for “colored” people. She is smiling, though it will not be until 1968, four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that the beaches are finally fully integrated. My grandmother remembers going to the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Gulfport, just a few blocks from the beach, and encountering an elderly white woman and her daughter. “When the woman saw me sit down at the counter,” my grandmother tells me, “she asked her daughter to take her somewhere else.” The daughter said, “Mama, they’re going to be everywhere.” “It used to be color,” my grandmother muses. “Then the only thing that could keep us out of those restaurants on the beach was money.”
Between 1940 and 1950, when Son Dixon began building tiny shotgun houses and duplexes in North Gulfport, Gulfport’s population increased by 50 percent. The installation of the beach stimulated the postwar economy in southern Mississippi—the Gulf Coast was again a tourist destination, and Gulfport was growing. People needed places to live, and Son Dixon’s properties—which as recently as the early 1990s rented for only two hundred dollars a month—were affordable. The inauguration of Mayor Milton T. Evans in 1949 marked the beginning of the biggest growth period in the history of Gulfport. In fact, the city underwent so much construction that a City Manager’s Association survey estimated that it had a higher percentage of new buildings than most other cities with similar population. This too would begin to inscribe a troubling narrative on the landscape of coastal Mississippi. Opportunities followed growth, but so did environmental havoc.
Shore erosion is a natural occurrence on the Gulf Coast. With rising sea levels, water overtakes land and marshes disappear as nature revises the landscape. Evidence of the loss of wetlands in the United States has been documented since the turn of the twentieth century, and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast significant changes have taken place since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1992, developed land usage tripled, and nearly 40 percent of marsh loss can be attributed to replacement by developed land—a man-made problem that would have dire consequences. Among the most valuable ecosystems on earth, wetlands are greatly responsible for cleansing polluted water, recharging groundwater, and absorbing storm wave energy. In Gulfport and Biloxi, where dredge-and-fill commercial, industrial, and residential development has been extensive, scientists have recorded high rates of marsh loss. Indeed, it was this man-made problem that rendered the Mississippi Gulf Coast more susceptible to hurricane devastation—the shoreline more vulnerable to the powerful storm waves that battered the landscape along Highway 90.
When Hurricane Camille hit in August 1969, just a year after the beaches were fully integrated, the surge in building and development along the coast that began in 1950 had already reduced the wetlands. With less marshland to absorb storm wave energy, the winds that battered the coast reached a recorded 210 miles per hour, and the storm surge reached more than 25 feet above normal sea level. The length of Harrison County’s beachfront was devastated. More than six thousand residential and commercial buildings were destroyed and many more damaged. The local death count was 132.
Every hurricane season I can remember began with footage of Camille on the news. Always there were the scenes of waves crashing onto the beach, palm trees leaned far enough over to brush the sand with their fronds. And then there were the images of destroyed houses and apartment buildings, a grave voice warning us to evacuate as the camera pans over the devastated site of a hurricane party where the revelers all died in the storm. On the beach in Gulfport, a small tugboat washed ashore. Someone renamed it the USS Hurricane Camille and turned it into a souvenir shop—a reminder of the storm, and a place to buy trinkets, the kitschy talismans of memory. It was still standing in the same place after Katrina—all around it destruction, the name of one storm emblazoned on its side in the midst of another: an ironic marker of an event in history to which the children of Katrina and beyond are distanced. It is perhaps as abstract to them as Katrina is real. As I write, though the USS Hurricane Camille still stands, the foundation of the Richelieu Apartments—where twenty-three people died during Camille—was bulldozed in 1995. For so long a reminder—a monument to the dead—the site now holds a shopping center.
Son Dixon fared well through Hurricane Camille. His house—made of brick and anchored to a concrete slab rather than perched on cement blocks—suffered only minor roof damage. Even the wooden shotgun houses he owned around North Gulfport were easily repaired with work he could do himself. Only as he got much older did he begin to hire laborers to do some of the work for him. Then too, at the urging of his sister Leretta he sold off several of the thirty or so houses he’d acquired over the years since 1950. When he died in 1992, the year the first casino opened its doors and several years after the death of his wife, he left most of the property to Leretta and her grandchildren. My brother, Joe, was eighteen when he moved into Son Dixon’s garage apartment next to the empty lot where the Owl Club had been. He was not ready—at least not yet—to move into his great-uncle’s line of work.
Joe recalls his own anticipation of the casinos’ arrival on the coast. On the eve of his twenty-first birthday he counted down the hours until midnight when he could enter the Grand in Gulfport for the first time and order a drink. To him, a young man who’d been born and raised half his life in Atlanta, the Gulf Coast was a string of sleepy little towns. For most of his time there, opportunities were limited and there was little to do. Mississippi had been hit by a severe economic crisis in the 1980s, but in 1990 state legislators drafted the Mississippi Gaming Control Act, which established the provisions for legalized gaming: first, no gambling was permitted on Mississippi soil but only on “vessels” docked along a shoreline; and second, these sites were only allowed along the Mississippi River and the coast of the Mississippi Sound and only as long as local residents did not object. Site restrictions limited the locations for the casinos in the three southernmost counties—Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson—to the beachfront. Jackson County rejected dockside gambling, so land speculators searched for spots in the other two counties—in existing ports, harbors, and marinas, and in historic urban areas such as downtown Biloxi and Biloxi’s declining seafood district at Point Cadet. That area would soon become known as “Casino Row.” The gaming industry had arrived, bringing with it something more for my brother to do.
Between 1992 and 1996 the number of hotel rooms on the coast increased from six thousand to more than nine thousand. There was work in renovating existing hotels and in constructing new ones, and Joe quickly got a job at Treasure Bay—a casino moored in the marina—demolishing and building walls and installing carpet and wallpaper in the old Royal D’Iberville Hotel across the street. He often worked among recent immigrants from Mexico, laborers who were at that time doing more of the unskilled jobs, all of them—including Joe—receiving their pay in cash. Without any health insurance benefits, including workman’s compensation, when any of the workers sustained injuries on the job, they paid for the trip to the emergency room themselves.
This kind of work lasted quite a while. Joe purchased his own tools and was frequently called to jobs at hotels along the coast and in other cities, including New Orleans. He’d spend weeks living in whatever hotel he was working on, in whatever city, eating some meals in the hotel restaurant or at fast-food joints. When he grew tired of that kind of food, he bought an electric grill and cooked in the room. At night he and the other men visited the local bars—especially those in the French Quarter. He was young, and this was an exciting life with good pay. He was a hard worker—efficient and likeable—and before long the contractors were seeking him out, often to lead a crew. When construction began on the Beau Rivage, Joe was back on the coast, living in one of the houses he’d inherited years before. And he was steadily gaining experience working at construction sites, doing remodeling—carpet, wallpaper, paint, interior walls, and ceilings—gaining the kind of skills that, along with fixing minor roof problems, switching out appliances, and repairing sinks and toilets, he’d need to have in order to do a good deal of the maintenance on his own rental properties.
In the years leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the gaming industry—with its increased opportunities not only in construction work but also in other jobs such as card dealing, security, management, and food service—had a great impact on the lives of Joe and his friends. Some of them went to dealer’s school, while others worked as security guards or clerks at cash-out windows. Many of them worked in one casino and socialized next door in another. In many ways, the industry became a lifestyle for some locals, and its influence was significant. In Biloxi, the school system improved as a result of casino revenues, as did the police department: education and public safety—two things that might help to mediate the impact of the industry on social ills. Still, not enough had been done to anticipate the impact on the environment.
Prior to Katrina, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources documented direct and indirect impacts of dockside gaming on the coast in the form of dredging for barge placement, water-bottom and wetland fill, shoreline alteration, water-bottom shading, increased surface-water runoff in impervious areas, and degraded water quality easily visible in the pollutants washing into coastal waters. By 1998 dead fish and debris were a frequent sight along the beach.
In the year leading up to landfall, a few miles up Highway 49 from the beach, my brother was beginning work on the shotgun houses. The boost in tourism brought by the casinos had created a greater need for housing. North Gulfport had finally been annexed, and the strip of Highway 49 that ran right through it was undergoing a great deal of development. Where there had been darkness for so many years, street lights appeared, guiding travelers from the beach to Interstate 10, past the Wal-Mart, fast-food restaurants, motels, gas stations, and convenience stores, up to the new outlet mall. His property was right in the middle of it, most of it at the crossroads of old Highway 49 and MLK Boulevard. My grandmother was delighted at last to see him take over the family business.
So were people in the neighborhood. Ella Holmes Hinds, city councilwoman for the district, had long been fighting to keep the residential sections of the community intact, not overtaken by the businesses that wanted to acquire the land cheap and transform it into a commercial district. Everywhere there were For Sale signs, signaling that much of the property had already been rezoned for commercial use. For years the shotgun houses Son Dixon built had languished in a state of disrepair—unpainted, sagging—many still occupied by tenants who’d been there since he was alive, the rest vacant or occupied sporadically by drug users. The remaining tenants had paid the rent, now up to $250 a month, steadily for years—Miss Mary in the duplex at the corner of MLK and Arkansas, Chapman’s fruit stand and A. D.’s bail-bond business at old Highway 49 and MLK. Armed with tools and experience, Joe began repairing each one, putting in new floors and carpet, new countertops and appliances, brushing on a good coat of paint. Miss Mary nearly cried when Joe fixed up her house. Each day, whenever he was outside, someone would drive by, stop, and roll the window down to look. “People kept coming by to say ’thank you,’” he told me. And, “Man, I appreciate what you’re doing for the community.” For many longtime residents it must have seemed as if Son Dixon had returned in the form of his young nephew. By the start of the summer of 2005 nearly all of the houses were renovated and rented. In a few months, with a profit, Joe could get them insured.
One of Joe’s newest tenants was Clint—white, middle-aged, and recently arrived from Texas with his girlfriend, looking for work. They met one night at a bar after work when Clint was asking about construction jobs in the area, and the bartender suggested he speak to Joe. Because Joe was still occasionally putting together work crews for a contractor and because he had also begun renovation on the house he planned to live in, next to his grandmother’s house, he offered Clint a job and a place to stay. Clint would do the work on the house in exchange for rent in one of the last available shotgun houses. With nowhere else to go and no car to get there, Clint and his girlfriend would ride the storm out in the tiny, wooden house. So would Miss Mary in her duplex.
Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. Out in the Gulf, Ship Island was completely submerged—the storm surge up to twenty-seven feet. Mississippi officials recorded 238 deaths; tens of thousands of people were displaced. Even though she was a renter, Miss Mary had lived in her duplex for nearly thirty years. She survived the storm in it, but before long she’d have to leave as the severely damaged structure began to fall down around her. Hearing her story, I thought of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues." The kind of repairs her house would need Joe couldn’t afford to do; he’d spent all his savings on repairing them prior to the storm. Before the second anniversary of landfall, the city would demolish the duplex, and my brother would be struggling to pay the taxes on vacant land.
In the weeks following the storm, Joe busied himself, like a lot of coast residents, aiding the efforts to get food and water to victims. He unloaded trucks, stacked boxes of supplies, handed out diapers and water bottles, clothing and canned goods, to people lined up in the heat. He cleaned out our grandmother’s refrigerator filled with mold and spoiled food. He patched what he could of Miss Mary’s roof. He waited for rain to take a shower. He sat up in the hot, dark house with his grandmother, listening as she fell asleep; listening to the sirens of police cars passing by; listening for the sounds of anyone not inside for curfew; into the night, just listening.
He got a job directing traffic, standing on the highway waving a flag. He got a job removing debris, clearing the roadways, sorting through the remnants of life before Katrina. He stood in line for a check. He got a job cleaning the beach. He got a job as a watcher, scanning the white and glaring sand for debris that would clog the machines that cleaned the beach. He told me they were looking for chicken bones, scattered there from the warehouses, and for the carcasses of animals. On a quarter tank of gas, he drove to Mobile for supplies. He bought candles and flashlights, food and water, medicine for his grandmother, and beer. He drank with his friends. They drank and looked at the destruction and rubbed their heads and drank some more. He drank on the porch in the evenings by himself. He sat watching the trucks go by on Highway 49. He found a hill where his cell phone worked and called to say, “Everything is gone.”
Hegel wrote, “When we turn to survey the past, the first thing we see is nothing but ruins.” As I contemplate the development of the coast, looking at old photographs of once new buildings—the pride of a growing city—I see beneath them, as if a palimpsest, the destruction wrought by Katrina. The story of the coast has been a story of urban development driven by economic factors and a much-less-than-needed awareness or consideration of the effects of such development on the environment. It can be seen in all the concrete poured on the coast—impervious to rainwater, a strip of parking lots and landfill. It can be seen in the changing narrative, since 1992, of the landscape of historic buildings into a casino landscape of neon and flashing lights and parking decks.
The past can only be understood in the context of the present, overlapped as they are, one informing the other. The present imagery of the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast is, of course, what forces me to see the palimpsest of ruin in the “before” photographs, and yet turning to survey the past, I did not expect to find what I did. I was going back to read the narrative I thought was there—one in which gambling and the gaming industry, responsible for so much recent land and economic development on the coast, was a new arrival, not something already ingrained in the culture of the place. I expected a narrative in which the seafood industry had simply been replaced by the gaming industry, not one in which they operated side-by-side in many ways until competition from other places, and perhaps indirect environmental effects of the gaming industry, helped foment the seafood industry’s decline. I expected to find a story that would tell me that everything had been fine until 1992, when legalized offshore gambling returned, not that the losses to wetlands because of development had already begun as long ago as 1950—and had continued. Seeing my own need to believe one narrative, I think again of the words of Flannery O’Connor, Where you thought you were going to never was there.
As the plane lifts over North Gulfport, over Turkey Creek, turning to sweep out over the sound before heading north and east to Atlanta, I try to see all the places of my childhood that I am once again leaving, putting them, like the past, behind me—though the scrim of loss hangs before my mind’s eye. Bessie Smith’s lyrics come back to me again: I went and stood up on some high old lonesome hill, then looked down on the place I used to live.