ONARCHITECTURE- Point pilgrimage: Gulf city comes seeking knowledge

Our local politicians and city officials routinely face big challenges when they take office– how to promote responsible growth, propose budgets, maintain the City's infrastructure, listen to complaints from Mr. and Mrs. Public, and provide services we all depend on. 

However, it's hard to imagine the challenge that Moss Point, Mississippi mayor Xavier Bishop faced when he took office in July 2005. A month after he moved into City Hall, there was no City Hall. There was no Moss Point.

 When the eastern edge of Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, Moss Point, a mostly African American city of 17,000 only a few miles from the Gulf Coast, was one of the first communities hit. High winds leveled buildings and infrastructure, and the storm surge covered the entire town with 16 feet of water.

Eighteen months later, Bishop and his city government still operate out of trailers, over 1,500 residents have yet to move out of theirs, and the city continues to struggle with hurricane debris removal. With federal funds on the way, and help coming from a Vermont-based non-profit called Institute for Sustainable Communities, Bishop and his government are faced with the task of essentially rebuilding their city from scratch, a daunting task considering that the community was poor to begin with.

"The biggest challenge is having to face all the issues simultaneously," says Bishop. "Because of the way our federal funding is being distributed, we're going to have to focus on housing, infrastructure, downtown revitalization, creating sustainable architecture, and a host of other issues all at once. And we have one opportunity to do it right."

Last week, Bishop and 30 mostly African American Moss Point officials, business leaders and community organizers looked to Charlottesville for inspiration, support, and advice. On a suggestion from former mayor and architecture professor Maurice Cox, the Institute organized a four-day training program to give Moss Point officials some insight into how our city works. 

"They're setting the bar very high for themselves," says Cox of Moss Point's effort not only to rebuild, but to rebuild better. "They want to be the little community that succeeded."

"Another challenge we have," says Bishop, indicating how high the stakes are for Moss Point, "is that we're competing with 11 other cities on the Coast. None of us can afford to fail. No one wants to be the place that doesn't make it, the one that drags the other communities down. To succeed, we all have to succeed."

In addition to receiving leadership and management training from the City of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia's Weldon-Cooper Center for Public Leadership, and Cox's Community Planning+Design Workshop, the Moss Point group has been inspecting successful neighborhood revitalization and economic development initiatives, and meeting with city and nonprofit leaders. 

"The challenges we face demand a high degree of cooperation and problem solving," says Bishop. "We're always looking for ways to become better managers, so it made sense to examine how a successful city goes about meeting the needs of its people."

In particular, Moss Point officials are searching for strategies to revitalize blighted neighborhoods and their downtown area, and on Friday, March 9, that meant a meeting with the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which launched a neighborhood revitalization program in the 10th and Page neighborhood five years ago. 

Of course, as Alliance executive director Stu Armstrong points out, Moss Point doesn't have a UVA in its midst, which he refers to as a "billion-dollar Godzilla" fueling the city's growth. But he emphasizes that creating opportunities for home ownership in poor neighborhoods, both for low and middle-income residents, is an essential first step. 

Just five years ago, the 10th and Page neighborhood had one of the highest crime rates in the city, as dilapidated, abandoned, or vacant rental properties served as havens and hideouts for drug dealers. When the PHA moved in, buying up and demolishing unusable properties, the idea was to avoid the normal process of gentrification and create a neighborhood that was both economically revitalized and socially mixed. 

By building colorful, energy efficient houses and selling them at market price and with special down payment and financing assistance, it appears the Alliance's socioeconomic experiment has been a success. As Armstrong points out, 13 new homes have gone up in the neighborhood, two-thirds sold to low income owners and one-third at market value, and approximately 65 percent of the new homeowners are minorities. 

However, Armstrong admitted that continuing to offer a leg up to low-income home-buyers in Charlottesville would not be easy, as rising real estate prices have put the "gap funds" the Alliance needs to level the playing field at $18 million. So far, says Armstrong, his group has raised only about $1 million toward that goal.

"We wanted to avoid segregating poverty," Armstrong told the Moss Point delegation. 

"But poverty doesn't exist in a vacuum," Bishop says. "What became of the criminals and poor residents in the neighborhood?"

Armstrong responded by referencing Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, and in particular the section on the New York City Police Department's adoption of the "broken window theory" in the late 1980s, in which simple cosmetic improvements to neighborhoods, such as removing graffiti on subway trains and cleaning up garbage, supposedly led to dramatic decreases in crime. The idea, as Armstrong pointed out, was that neighborhoods tend to improve on their own when there are visible signs of order.

"Do you have any dilapidated, boarded up houses in your community?" Armstrong asked the group. Nearly everyone responded with an ironic chuckle. One person whispered to another in the back of the room, "Do we have any houses that are not boarded up?" 

Moss Point delegate Tommy Hightower, a city alderman, noted how many multi-millionaires and near billionaires there seemed to be in Central Virginia. "Are they helping out with your neighborhood revitalization?" he asked.

Now it was time for those from Charlottesville to chuckle. "We're working on it," Armstrong said. 

Moss Point, Mississippi mayor Xavier Bishop hopes to rebuild a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina... with a little help from his friends in Charlottesville.