By: Robert Brzuszek, Professor at Mississippi State University
“This nation needs to heal itself, we need to heal ourselves. And the process of that healing is going back to nature—from the water, to the land, to the plants.” –Anderson Flen
My colleague Chuo Li and I first heard these words when our urban design studio class from Mississippi State University visited Africatown last March. The class was invited by Anderson, Joe Womack, Mississippi NPS Field Office Director Liz Smith-Incer, and others, to come visit the town and to hear its story. We met in the Whippet’s Den of the Training School, with its walls surrounded by the artifacts and memories of those who lived there, went to school there, and played there. We heard their stories of what was; and the dreams and hopes of what the community could be once again. Our hosts went all out to show us the sights and historical areas of the community—from the Bridge, to the Place of Baptisms, Lewis Landing, and Hog Bayou. They had asked our class for ideas that would enhance the community for residents and visitors, and to include the significant places within Africatown.
Kent Ryden once wrote in Mapping the Invisible Landscape that a place is a “feeling measured in one’s muscles and bones.” Barely 24 hours after touring the Training School, the Place of Baptisms, Lewis Landing, Hog Bayou, the Bridge and the Mobile River, and the Cemetery — we felt this place within our bones. We felt it at the edge of Three Mile Creek, at the wild marshes of Hog Bayou, at the jarring contrasts of residential houses against major industries, and in the voices of those we heard. Though we didn’t live there, we just had a brief visit, but we felt that this was an important place, a significant place, one with a compelling story to share, and not just for us, but for all people to hear. Students were pretty quiet on the van rides coming back to Starkville, maybe tired from our visits, or maybe just realizing the daunting task ahead for the community.
But the students quickly dove into the project and organized themselves into teams. Each team took a different area of the community and looked for the connections to the important places there. They imagined themselves as visitors to the town and how they could visit the significant points. Students searched for available open space where needs for the community could be addressed.
One team took on the space underneath the Africatown-Cochran Bridge. They saw this as a place that links the community’s Past, Present and Future. They recognized the site’s current use for fishing and occasional festivals, but added in needed elements such as parking, a pier that goes out into the water with a kayak launch, festival space, a playground, and importantly–bathrooms. Their concept includes beach zones, gardens, and an area where small shops and businesses could sell things. Art sculptures that symbolize a significant part of the past, the Clotilde, would be abstracted into a large lawn feature. Murals painted on the large bridge supports would tell a larger story. A green buffer zone at the shoreline addresses the issues of erosion, water quality and flooding.
Another group addressed the connections between Hog Bayou, the Mobile County Training School, the Community Center, and south to Kidd Park and the Cemetery. While much of the connecting links are currently open with lawn, students propose creating a safe pedestrian “greenway”, which is a walkway with trees and gardens, to connect these places. At Hog Bayou they envisioned a way to connect back into the nature there, with walking trails and kayak launches available to get people into the greater landscape. The community gardens along Jakes Lane would be expanded, and offer places to store tools and equipment, shaded seating areas, bathrooms, gathering spaces, and a produce market.
The Mobile County Training School already has ample open space for recreation, but the students suggested more organization to the school campus by adding baseball fields and enhanced landscapes. While the Community Center grounds is being used for its successful picnics and reunions, students recommended adding in soccer and football fields with movable benches and seating, a pavilion and stage, a children’s play area, and restrooms. Kidd Park is already a popular place for playing baseball and summer pool use, but ideas included adding in a children’s splash pad (water jets that come up from the pavement), walking track, and playground.
The third group addressed the areas to the south of the community, which includes the Lewis Landings, Three Mile Creek, Telegraph Road, and the Place of Baptisms. To promote pedestrian and bike access throughout Africatown, Lewis Landings 1 and 2, along with the Place of Baptism, would be connected by a network of trails and boardwalks. The first such site, the currently inaccessible Place of Baptism, would be connected to the nearest road, Chin Street, via boardwalk. As a result, Africatown’s residents and church-goers could walk from their respective homes and churches nearby- across Baybridge Road (using a newer, safer set of crosswalks) and onto the boardwalk before reaching the landmark. In combination with the Place of Baptism, Africatown’s Cemetery would also be accessible to the community using a series of trails that bypass the surrounding industry. Moving further west, the future redevelopment of Happy Hills would connect to the waterfront of Three-Mile Creek using a similar boardwalk and trail system that cuts through the existing woodland. It is at this point on the waterfront where the boardwalk would extend southwest along the shoreline until reaching the prime fishing destinations of Lewis Landings. Proposed use elements for Lewis Landings include Canoe and kayak launch ramp, fishing docks and boardwalks, parking lot, restrooms, picnic shelters, and benches.
The Place of Baptisms has long been a place of significance to the Africatown community. The creeks and streams, which fed Three Mile Creek near this location, were used by the local Baptist churches
to perform baptisms. The group proposed from a starting point where Chin St turns north towards Bay Bridge Rd, a trail follows the abandoned railroad south towards Three Mile Creek. At the start of the path, there will be an information kiosk and gathering area for visitors and groups of school kids. The trail passes through a series of meadow woods and wetland environments as it meanders towards the creek. Baptism is renewing of faith and so along the path a series of sculptures, remind the visitor
of the journey through life. As the trail approached the creek, the visitor passes through a group of statues representing the community before the vista opens out onto the river. The physical end of the path culminates in a single log sculpture and is a place of reflection and renewal. The sculpture there will symbolically face east in the local tradition of burial and looking towards the communities’ African heritage.
In a short three week project, students fleshed out their conceptual ideas to improve the connections and places of the Africatown community. They envisioned making places for the community to gather, and to pay homage to the places that made the community. The great American poet Wendell Berry once wrote that “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” While the residents of this community keenly know who they are, they also recognize where the seminal events and places of their and their ancestors’ lives occurred, and now seek to secure those places for future generations. By going back to nature, as Anderson Flen suggested, will the water, land, plants, and people, once again heal.