Monday, October 29, 2018

October 2018

Six years ago (September 18, 2012), Carla and I purchased this old building in Clarksdale Mississippi. Below is a little more to the story....

The Holy Moly, Clarksdale, Mississippi -- "Before"

My first visit to Clarksdale was in 2006. I had been yearning to visit after reading stories of Juke Joints and musical characters for a few years, and had written and recorded songs about wanting to be there. I was only there for a few hours on a Sunday, but met and shared a meal with the late George and Myrtle Messenger who ran Messengers, a Juke Joint that has been in their family for generations. Their kindness, prompted a return, in part, together with a documentary they shared, made by Barefoot Workshops.
I returned to Clarksdale in early 2007, as an artist in residence with Barefoot Workshops, vowing again, to return. My interest then was in writing songs and learning more about the Delta.

I also have a long history with revitalising buildings where I live in and around Daylesford Victoria. Finding, fixing, and returning them to useful endeavour. On a trip to Clarksdale in 2012, my wife Carla and I purchased an old masonic temple in the middle of the Downtown that was quite neglected, and in need of a lot of work. 

We purchased it with a view to providing a worthwhile project that would allow us to live, work, and contribute to the Downtown Blues precinct. The first job was to renovate the the physical structure, which we did in bite sized pieces. It took a few years to get the work done. 

The Holy Moly, Clarksdale, Mississippi -- April 2017

There are 5 spaces on the ground floor, providing retail and residential spaces for creative people. There are two restaurant tenancies, and homes for a local well known musician, and a teacher involved in Teach for America. Our business, and the building, is called "The Holy Moly." We also have a multi-use theatre as part of the second floor of the building. The second floor also contains our home.

Since 2006, Clarksdale has changed, albeit slowly. Change takes time, and it seems that no one is in a hurry in Clarksdale. If you bring a "change the world" attitude with you it will slow eventually, to match the pace of your surroundings. Each change, however slow, does add up and contribute, and over 12 years, that accumulation is quite noticeable.

John Henshall, a regular Australian visitor to Clarksdale, visited our home in Daylesford, Victoria, Australia, in 2010, visiting with a couple of mutual Clarksdale friends, and we have kept in touch since. I did not know what the word "revitalisation" meant, and even less about what economic planners did, but soon figured out that John was involved in planning for and encouraging what I have been doing for years with my owner building projects. I asked him for a copy of the Economic Plan he had done for the city of Clarksdale after purchasing our building there, and it was like reading a familiar story. This economic plan was a bit like an understanding friend that knew the potential, the pitfalls, and the adventures to be had. The answers for success are all inside the individual players, but the shared vision many creative "transplants' to the city have, can be found in John's work, like a common reflection of us all in a mirror.

I have my extended family in Australia and my wife Carla has her extended family around Memphis. We chose Clarksdale because we thought we could make a contribution, and a difference. We both have an interest in varied art forms and wish to foster cultural and creative pursuits, within ourselves and others. The Delta is rich in history, stories and culture. It is also much in need of people visiting and staying to help it sustain life, as there has been a lot of decay through population loss, poverty, and corruption. It is a common story around the globe where artists and creative types move in to neglected and forlorn areas, where the rent is cheap, and they, in turn, bring life and colour back to those areas.

In 2014, my wife and I were two of 4 Australians living and working in Clarksdale. One, a multi-talented Artist is still a resident, and the other, an Australian Musician, who has recently passed. We had opened an Ice cream and Soda fountain store on the corner of our building in a section that was historically a drug store. This was called "The Holy Moly Drug Store." We noticed through that experience, that a number of Australians were visiting Clarksdale, on musical pilgrimages, and enjoying their adventures. Couples and singles, and small family groups, passing through. The locals would often want to know what I was doing there and what brought me to the Delta, whilst the Australians were always intrigued as to what I was doing there.

We sold the Holy Moly Drug Store business in 2015 to an Australian couple who wanted to move to the US and as part of their visa requirements, were required to purchase a business. They are included in our current tenancies on the ground floor. These people have now also developed other businesses in town, employing local people.

Our intention in opening the Holy Moly Drug Store was to gain a first hand insight into the central down town. Before that, we were only building from within. The running of the store helped us to connect and meet with many individuals from all walks of life. However, our larger vision was to create employment and encourage others to do what we had proven possible to do, which was, to help bring life to the almost deserted downtown block. Our building was empty when we bought it, and had been for quite some time. There are now a number of people living in The Holy Moly building, with three businesses operating from it. One business in the building employs seven people and has recently expanded into a second section. Revitalisation involves finding uses, and building life into rebuilt property, not just flipping for profit. So the slow change that is happening in Clarksdale is, as I see it, sustainable and with with good foundations for the future.

There are not "lots" of Aussies overtaking the town. There are lots of people from many backgrounds and nationalities who are passionate about the Blues, Culture, Music, Art, Writing, who's combined efforts are making change. There are also constant supporters/visitors like John Henshall, who bring awareness and support through their efforts.

Australian visitors to Clarksdale seem to always have a great time. They are here for the music and the southern culture, and rarely are they disappointed. A warm welcome awaits. There are, however, no body of locals that speak for all in this welcome. The downtown historic blues precinct is quite distinct from Clarksdale in general. Not many Australian visitors get beyond the downtown and into the everyday. Most locals would find it hard, in my opinion, to figure out why Aussies have any interest at all, particularly if they are not blues/music centric.

I have personally had many conversations with non-tourism invested locals, who see the town as having lost its mojo years ago and not worth a visit. This negativity for their town is understandable, given the history of decline in the area, but is not productive thinking. If they don't like where they live, perhaps they themselves need to make changes, or find somewhere better.

Australian visitors get a taste, but they need to stay longer, and return, again in my opinion, to get the full bittersweet layers that make the town such an experience. Once is not enough for any deep and lasting relationship with a place. The Australian flag that flies above one of the Downtown buildings is a symbol of friendship that every year ends in tatters due to strong winds. It needs to be replaced regularly if the flag is to continue to fly and the friendship maintained.

For the future I would like to see my wife Carla and I supporting Australian cultural exchange, beyond a love of the Blues, where we find connections in our Art, Writers, Musicians, and Indigenous cultures and learn, share and grow from these connections, one person to another, one small town to another. This will keep both flags flying in our homes of choice, and build deeper understanding, to help fix the wounds and soften the losses of the past. Australians, well known as allies to the USA in the past, can be considered friends of Clarksdale through shared interests and common understandings.

Thank you to all those who helped us in the early days with support and encouragement. It wasn't going to happen without all y'all, and to those locals and transplants that continue to support us, either by attending the odd event, by patronising our tenancies, and by accepting us into the growing bunch of revitalisers, new settlers, and regular visitors that now call Clarksdale "home."

The Holy Moly, Clarksdale, Mississippi -- "After"

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