Tears of gratitude greet the plans for Mississippi Gulf Coast

An essay by SGA’s David Goldberg

Going into the Mississippi Renewal Forum, I believed that a measure of skepticism was warranted. The time was compressed, the circumstances extreme, the citizens preoccupied with reordering and rebuilding their lives. The goal of creating redevelopment plans for a stretch of coast including 11 communities in just one week was terribly ambitious.

As it turned out, any doubts I had were more than overcome, even as the reality surpassed my expectations. What I saw was nothing less than miraculous, a mobilization of some of the finest professionals – truly, some of the finest people — in the nation and the Gulf Coast region, coming together to dream, share tears and inspire one another toward outlining a future that was better than either the hellish present or the lackluster recent past.

It happened because Gov. Haley Barbour recognized darn quick that what his people wanted most was to get their towns back, with something like their traditional character. And he knew just as surely that anything but an aggressive plan was a ticket to eternal obliteration for those beloved communities. Developers don’t build Wavelands anymore, nor do they do Moss Points, Biloxis or Gulfports. If the governor had sat on his haunches while the bull-dozers revved and the speculators speculated, the coast would have been nothing but butt-ugly casinos with parking bunkers, high-rise condos for rich outsiders and strip malls and could-be-anywhere schlock for everyone else. So he and his people looked around the country to find the folks who had made a career out of visiting, studying, measuring, analyzing, drawing and just plain loving the traditional towns of this great country, and particularly of the South. They found the new urbanists, Andres Duany in particular, and asked him to come to talk to them.

When Duany agreed to talk to the governor and his Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, he thought they wanted his firm to work up a plan for a single community. But it turned out they wanted to do the whole coast! So Duany called up 120 or so of his most talented, eager and compassionate colleagues in the Congress for the New Urbanism (many from competing firms, mind you) and asked them if they wouldn’t mind giving up a week of their lives and most of their salaries and buy plane tickets on the basis of an email from him. These folks saw what was at stake – people in need of hope, a significant chunk of our heritage at risk, and yes, the opportunity to remind America that it does know how to build something other than exit-ramp kitsch and cookie-cutter crapola – and they put down what they were doing and came to Biloxi to live in one big room with 200 other people for six straight, loooong days.

When they got there they paired up with some great local architects and planners and some of the most dedicated and energetic local officials I’ve seen anywhere. Not only did these folks share their local knowledge and professional expertise with little prospect of compensation, they also were taking time away from rebuilding their own homes and lives, because they considered the planning effort to be just that urgent. The visiting professionals went out to the communities to see for themselves and hear from citizens about what they cherished about their lost towns, what they wanted back, and what they didn’t. And let me tell you, these visitors listened; the planners didn’t go in there telling people what they were going to do for them.

They went back to their one big room, broke into focused teams and drew their little fannies off. And then they showed anyone who wanted to visit what they were thinking, took their comments to heart, and went back and drew some more of their fannies off. After one more round of comments, an all-nighter and the expenditure of what was left of their posteriors, they presented their plans last Monday to people from the communities. More than a few of the attending Mississippians wept with gratitude. A lady from Waveland told me, choking back tears, that “These people have given us something to hope for for the first time in seven weeks. I can finally see something other than rubble in my future.”

If you doubt any of this, you should talk to Brent Warr, the indefatigable mayor of Gulfport, who worked with the team focused on his community for 24 hours a day throughout the charrette. Ring up Allison Anderson and her husband John, two architects from Bay St. Louis who took a week off from sorting through rubble and helping their neighbors pick up their devastated town to devote every hour to the charrette. Call Gwen Impson in Waveland, or Martha Murphy in Pass Christian, or any of the other regular citizens who showed up to offer their thoughts, memories and darn good ideas.

The seeds of success were sown in part by the initial guidance that the Governor’s Commission gave to the charrette planners: To regard “environmental justice and individual property rights as fundamental considerations”; to make sure the options included zoning and building codes that would preserve historic character, make communities safer from future hurricanes, and allow those who lived there to return, regardless of income; to expand transportation options; to protect the wetlands and other ecological features; and many other features of what most people would consider smart growth, or just good, people-oriented planning.

Now, there is nothing to say that any of these towns, the affected counties or the states will take advantage of the phenomenal amount of brain power and goodwill that went into this process (the teams are still working on finalizing their reports, and many of the participants are continuing to offer pro bono consultation to their Mississippi “clients”). The governor and the rebuilding commission made it clear that the charrette was to provide a menu of options, and that no community would be forced to pursue them. But as Rusty Quave, the mayor of D’Iberville said, echoing comments from many other participants, “We’d be foolish not to.”