Downtown, Community & Digging Up the Earth

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I’ve been working in Downtown Hattiesburg, MS for a bit over four years now.

My history with this work has been relatively small, compared to some others. I am fierce about the ground I stand on. Let me make that clear. I know no other home that I feel more alive and excited, and equally nervous about than in a restaurant kitchen. Especially my kitchen.

But, I want to talk about something else. It’s a perspective that I assume isn’t very popular, but is something I feel very deep in my bones.

I recently read an article by our city’s most celebrated restauranteur. I will always give credit where it is due, in saying the man created a food scene here when it had none. He gave this city a place to experience what the Gulf Coast has to offer.  He deserves to be celebrated for the great things he has done, and continues to do.

This is about place. It’s about community.

Your most recent article talked about the lack of community in downtown cafes and I want to take a minute to tell you what I’ve been pouring my heart into ever since I moved back here.

We run and operate a fairly successful sandwich and coffee shop in the “ass-end” (as I like to say) of downtown Hattiesburg. We work really hard to give people something not just good, but great.

We have people we see every morning. They buy their coffee, we make it with our hands, as well as our unique breakfast options. We lay it down at your table with those same hands.

We’ve worked through the worst conditions, in a kitchen that wasn’t designed to be a kitchen and nearly came close to shutting down a few times before our new ownership.

I worked on broken bones and flooded floors (because buildings down here are OLD and things happen.)

Downtown may have aesthetic, but it is HARD. Trains make it hard. Parking makes it hard. The commute makes it hard. On top of it all, is the ever building pressure to be better and better. That, I put upon myself and my co-workers.

You believe in moving forward. So do I. But we have different versions of this and neither of them are wrong. I’m not one to dwell in the past and maybe it’s just part of my generation to always look to the future for the next thing.

It hurts to have to defend my food against the “Real Local, Real Food” motto, because many of us cook real food daily. Seven days a week. But we choose to focus our mission on expanding what hospitality and food culture can be and we’re often quiet about it. We get left out of all sorts of fun stuff because maybe we don’t have the money or I’m simply not pretty enough. (Joking, guys. I am so pretty.)

My goal for the Depot was to be able to sit outside and imagine that you could be in any city in the country. I wanted our food to remind you of a place you ate at in New Orleans or Atlanta or San Francisco. Our goal is to take care of you and to also help you explore your own world. We’ve been given the task to create and facilitate an experience for you.

Maybe it’s hipster. Maybe sometimes it’s weird and our air conditioner can’t keep up. But it doesn’t make us any less of an establishment striving to create community.

We have grown into something I never thought it’d be. This restaurant is one of the only things keeping me in this town. It is where I pour the deepest and often times, most tired parts of my soul. It is where you can see me at my best and my worst and I have nowhere to hide any of it.

You never say a word about the places downtown that are new and thriving. Only what you don’t see, and that hurts some of us. You have the capacity to bring the world you speak into, downtown but you don’t. Maybe that’s just business.

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I will say, any time someone asks me where to eat in the city, I always tell them your restaurants first and mine second.

Why?

Because it is this city and has been for decades. You are what you’re always speaking of and writing about — but we also crave your attention and some of us need your wisdom. We wonder if we’re doing a good job. If you’re proud of the place we are working to create when you’ve been here doing it longer than any of us ever will.

But since I’ve been here, I’ve heard nothing. Even when I cooked for you, I heard nothing. None of us do. I suppose it isn’t your job, but I am intertwined and tangled with what I do and the people we serve. I am in the kitchen every week, dealing with the back pain and the heavy lifting. It feels good to be alive there. To see that line stretched out the door, remembering where it came from.

I am a caretaker at best. A cook passing through until a better one comes along.

I dig up the earth wherever I plant my feet and that’s never going to change. I don’t dwell on where things have been, but I am always thinking about where we are going, which is what Mississippi needs more than anything.

Thank you, for giving all of us a place to sit and drink and eat, and to receive some of the best service in the city.

I write this, because we all need one another. The last thing downtown needs is doubt and feeling as though it isn’t good enough. We know what we are and we are working to make it better.

So, I invite you to come down and sit down with me and a few of my friends.

Let’s talk about what we want to see in this city.

I’ll cook, if you wanna do the dishes.

 

3 thoughts on “Downtown, Community & Digging Up the Earth

  1. If someday I happen to have stopped by that downtown fourteen thousand kilometres due west from where I be, I will surely walk in to have my spirits refreshed. You have poured much more than words in your appeal.

  2. Saw this shared several times and I love it. Maybe if he takes you up on the offer and sits down with you (as I suspect he might), he can tell you the story of pie and how there’s only so much pie to go around.

    When I left the farmers market to go work for him (I worked for 2 years as his PR/Marketing Director) I caught wind that some people thought I was “selling out” of downtown. (I wasn’t, I still live and play downtown.) I asked him about it and his feelings and thoughts towards downtown and received the pie analogy… Basically, there’s only so much pie and his is in midtown.

    Question- Would you really want him to bring a restaurant downtown? I can’t really imagine one of his concepts downtown. Maybe, like you said, it would be nice if he could just give a nod to the area instead of saying all downtowns are dead. (But then that could affect his pie, so he probably won’t want to do that.)

    Our downtown is not dead. Our downtown is special, but with the linearity of this city it’s a destination people maybe don’t think about often enough. The responsibility of more bringing people downtown, though, lies squarely on the backs of downtown residents, business owners, and associations. And slowly but steadily it’s happening. We really don’t need an RSJ savior.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I don’t think downtown needs an RSJ savior either, or a restaurant. From my perspective, we are our own piece of the pie, as you said. My only reservation is the broader sense of the word community. I’m not asking him for help, I’m just asking that we all work together in making this a better food city, rather than saying “My model works best for this city.” and downtown is a lost cause for “Local & Real Food” and I’m the only person that has that has those goals. We have to work hard to bring people down here, while he has the media and state’s attention at his hand. We don’t have that luxury, so I’m saying, while he has that, to use it to support the local food movement. I don’t know. It just rubbed me the wrong way, but I seriously doubt he evens cares about my small plot of ground downtown. haha. Eh well, thank you for reading, and your reply. best! jc

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