My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
Hewes Avenue, named for the first mayor of the modern city of Gulfport, Mississippi, was and is a major thoroughfare that leads from the East Beach neighborhood, where some of my relatives lived, to Bayou View, where other relatives of mine lived, so we were always heading up that street during my summers with my grandparents in Gulfport. But in between those two neighborhoods was another neighborhood that fascinated me as a boy. North of the railroad along Hewes Avenue was a Black neighborhood with some old juke joints on both sides of the street, with sandy, dirt parking lots and big, ancient oak trees shading the yards and the buildings. Old Barq’s Root Beer and Coca-Cola signs out in front announced the places, and in nice weather, groups of young men sat in chairs under the trees out in front, some of them occasionally shirtless. Looking inside one of the establishments, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a pool table, or a man with a cue stick. My grandmother seemed to consider the place disreputable, but I was strangely attracted, although I never ventured up there, even once I was a teenager and could have.
I never really knew the name of that community in those days, but I have come to realize that it was called Shady Grove. Because there has never really been a good, definitive history of Gulfport, I have no idea how the community came to be, but I wonder if it was formed by African-Americans that had been employed by the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad as it was building its rails and the city of Gulfport. Sadly, the colorful, vibrant community I recall is largely a thing of the past, as I learned on a recent visit to the area. Old clubs like the Shady Corner Cafe, the Lullabye Inn and the King Edward Bar are gone without a trace. The musicians, players and hustlers that once populated the area have vanished, and no crowds hang out under the trees. But amazingly, one establishment still survives, Holder’s Nightlife, a rough and weatherbeaten juke that looks at if it could have never stood through Hurricane Katrina and yet somehow did. It’s not really a blues spot, more of a DJ club apparently, judging from their profile on social media. Yet it still has the classic image of what the whole neighborhood once looked like when I was young.
The Liberty Coffee House is a new place to get espresso-based drinks in Gulfport, MS 7/6/12
The Liberty Coffee House is a new place to get espresso-based drinks in Gulfport, MS 7/6/12
We got up early and decided to drive to McElroy’s on the Bayou in Ocean Springs for breakfast and it proved to be a good choice. The new restaurant, built to replace one in Biloxi that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed, was built overlooking beautiful Fort Bayou and the large homes that lined it. As we ate a delicious breakfast, we were able to watch boats that were taking an early morning run on the waters, and birds that were in the trees near the windows. After ending our meal with an order of beignets, we decided to drive into the downtown area of Ocean Springs to see what had been done since the storm, but we soon found that the city was teeming with people because of an event called Art Walk. The streets were lined with tents where artists had set up to sell paintings, pottery and sculptures, and people were walking everywhere. On Government Street, we passed interesting-looking places like Government Street Grocery (actually a restaurant) and Chandeleur Outfitters. I would have liked to have stopped and browsed around, but my mother had to meet her friends from school at the White Cap Seafood Restaurant in Gulfport at 11 AM, so we headed back west into Biloxi on Highway 90.
The White Cap was owned by one of her old classmates, Carl Lizana, and was a beautiful new building at Mississippi City, since, once again, Katrina had blown the old one away. We spent a couple of hours there, eating and talking, and then we left, heading out the new Cowan-Lorraine highway out to Saucier to start the drive back to Memphis.
In Jackson, we went to a restaurant near the stadium called Sal and Mookie’s that proved to be some of the best pizza either of us had ever eaten. I was especially impressed by the herb garden that they had growing outdoors beside the building. From there we stopped by Lemuria Books in Banner Hall, where I bought a book about New Orleans, and then, after a cappuccino from the Broad Street Baking Company downstairs, we started back home to Memphis. We soon learned that the history-making football game between Mississippi State and Jackson State had not gone well for the JSU Tigers, as they got blown out by the Bulldogs.
I had agreed to drive my mother down to Gulfport, Mississippi for her high-school reunion, so we stopped by a Starbucks in Memphis for a pick-up breakfast, and then we headed down I-55, breaking for lunch in Jackson, Mississippi at Majestic Burger. In Gulfport, I had reserved a room for us in the Holiday Inn, which turned out not to be the old hotel I remembered on Highway 49, but a new one around the corner which had just opened in November and was beautiful. Our room was luxurious and comfortable. The party for my mother’s class was at a house on the Tchouticabouffa River north of Biloxi, so I drove her out there, and met a number of her friends from school. The event was held underneath the new house, which had been built since Katrina, on a patio that backed up to the bayou and boat slips. Afterwards, I had hoped to get beignets, but the Mary Mahoney’s LaCafe that used to stay open for 24 hours and which offered them had not been rebuilt since Katrina, so instead we drove across the new Highway 90 bridge, which was lit up in blue neon, across to Ocean Springs and then back to Gulfport along the beach. In most of these areas, there is almost nothing left of the houses and businesses that once stood across from the beaches. A few buildings survived, and new condominiums and motels have gone up, but the rebuilding process is slow, seemingly much slower than New Orleans, perhaps hindered by the bad economy and less familiarity. Biloxi just doesn’t draw the tourists that New Orleans does, even with the casinos.
After checking out of the hotel, I drove to Dick Russell’s Bar-B-Que in Tillman’s Corner for breakfast, then headed west out I-10 to Escatawpa.
In Moss Point, I stopped by Misty’s Urban Apparel, and then by Byrd’s Music, where Mr. Byrd told me that he had had to add a deli to his music store to stay open, and that if it weren’t for the food he was selling, he probably would have had to close. I then drove over to a new record store on Chicot in Pascagoula called Rebel Muzik, and spent some time with the owners there, putting up some of my posters and talking with them about their projects. I suggested that somebody needs to make a movie about Pascagoula and Moss Point in the early 90’s during the Carver Village era, and they told me they had been talking about doing that. But Carver Village was gone, I learned, as I drove down Mobile Avenue. All of the projects have been torn down since Hurricane Katrina and replaced with housing for the elderly.
Ocean Springs seemed prettier that it used to be, and the old Biloxi restaurant McElroy’s Harbor House had relocated to a nice waterfront setting at the approach to the Biloxi bridge. Biloxi is beginning to look like Atlantic City these days, with a new Margaritaville casino under construction almost next door to the Hard Rock Casino, but as I headed westward past Edgewater Mall, the weather turned grey and threatening.
By the time I got to Lil Ray’s Po-Boys on Courthouse Road in Gulfport, the rains came with a fury, and I got drenched to the bone. But a Lil Ray’s shrimp po-boy and Barq’s root beer brought comfort and memories, and the food was every bit as good as it had been in my childhood. Gulfport’s hip-hop store Da Shop on 34th wasn’t open, and neither was Fox Hollow Coffee (it was out of business), so I drove downtown to PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on 13th, where I grabbed a latte before starting the long drive back to Memphis.