We’re being overrun by “non-places,” and it’s got to stop. And just what, you may ask, is a non-place? It’s a federal building with its dismal architecture, a big box store that’s an exact replica of a thousand others, the cookie-cutter fast-food joints clustered around an Interstate exit. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all,” is a good way to describe them.
In The Atlantic (8/24/2020), Darran Anderson explains that “In non-places, history, identity, and human relation are not on offer. Non-places used to be relegated to the fringes of cities in retail parks or airports, or contained inside shopping malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular.”
Or as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, over a century ago, “There’s no there there.”
Everywhere you turn these days, placelessness is setting in, and it’s getting serious. The next time you go somewhere for lunch, notice how many fellow diners are stuck in a cell phone trance. There’s not a snake charmer playing a flute in the bazaars of Marrakesh who possesses such a power to mesmerize. Those iPhoners are in some world far away, a world where human voice and touch don’t exist. They are not in touch with the very place they live, and it’s high time to turn that around. But how can we reverse that long slide into the bland and boring? How can we protect a regional personality from the ultra-modern onslaught of retail chains and national advertising campaigns?
A good first step is to establish and shore up a sense of place in our own minds. In Anderson’s article, he suggests where we can start. “The opposite of placelessness is place,” he says, “and that includes all that place implies—the resonances of history, folklore, and environment; the qualities that make a location deep, layered, and idiosyncratic. Humans are storytelling creatures. If a place has been inhabited for long enough, the stories will already be present, even if hidden. We need to uncover and resurface them, to excavate the meanings behind street names, to unearth figures lost to obscurity …”
We need to ask what makes our area unique. What do we have here in the Lower Pascagoula River region that you don’t find in other places? What are the “deep, layered, and idiosyncratic” qualities that make this area one-of-a-kind? So far, I haven’t been able to come up with the perfect word or phrase that can distinguish Jackson County from anywhere else. It’s Southern, coastal, and industrial. It’s an international port, a transportation hub, and a marine research center. It’s a shipbuilding city of international significance, and it plays a major role in supplying our nation’s energy needs. All these tags fit, but none presents a total picture. So rather than try to come up with a single descriptive term, it’s probably more accurate to use a comparison.
Pascagoula and Jackson County are like a mosaic, a mish-mash of colorful irregular pieces held in place by a few applications of some common plasters. No doubt this can be said of all cities, but we’ve got a lot of parts here in the Lower Pascagoula River region that are not found in other Deep South locales. And when you put them all together, patterns will emerge that simply can’t be found elsewhere in Mississippi. We are American and Southern to the core, yet we’re neither typically American nor typically Southern, and we defy easy definition. Certainly, we are more than a sum of our parts, but maybe we can gain a greater appreciation for, and love of, this place if we take a closer look at those parts.
That’s what I hope to do in future articles. We’ll try to find places and people in and around Pascagoula that you would not find – or would only rarely find – anywhere else. (Let’s face it folks – we’ve got some real characters in this place, and we always have). I hope to concentrate on what’s happening now, what constitutes the present-day experiences and rhythms of this place we call home. But occasionally I’ll reach back in time because some of the things that have happened here over the past three centuries are so offbeat and unexpected that they’re just way too good not to tell.