Book Review: Downtown Revitalisation and Delta Blues in Clarksdale Mississippi

John Henshall
Downtown Revitalisation and Delta Blues in Clarksdale Mississippi: Lessons for Small Cities and Towns (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

Reviewed by Melissa Kennedy, La Trobe University

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version appears in Thesis Eleven Journal, available on the T11 Sage website))

Rural decline is a topical issue in the media of late, with popular books and news commentary attending to widespread economic, political and class despair. This is evident in works such as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, tackling white working class decline in the US rustbelt and journalist Gabrielle Chan’s Rusted Off, voicing the growing disquiet amongst the rural populace in south-east Australia. In ‘Getting Real About Rural America’ in the New York Times (March 19, 2019), economist Paul Krugmann claims that many rural communities are facing a seemingly unstoppable trajectory of decline, attributed to the restructuring of agricultural and mining industries and associated service sectors that have acted as vital arteries for rural economies. Krugmann decrees that rural America’s role in the nation is ‘being undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop’, thus bringing its place in the national imaginary into question.At the same time, this seemingly irreversible story of decline is being challenged by rural communities. One such example is the Delta town of Clarksdale, where many of the issues that Krugmann raises around economic decline and the ensuing redundancy of many rural centres are resonant in John Henshall’s new publication Downtown Revitalisation and Delta Blues in Clarksdale Mississippi: Lessons for Small Cities and Towns. Rather than sounding the death knell of decline however, this book looks to how cultural tourism based on the town’s Delta Blues legacy offers new possibilities for revitalisation.

Positioned in the field of economic development and planning, this book traces the story of Clarksdale’s economic and built decline following the restructuring of major industries such as cotton. Presenting an optimistic, yet realistic, story of downtown revitalisation efforts, Henshall shows how Clarksdale has used cultural tourism as a medium for renewal. This is largely enacted through drawing upon its notable association as the ‘birthplace’ of the Mississippi Blues and association with identities like Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Muddy Waters. Henshall, an Australian urban economist and planner, employs economic and demographic data, historical sources and interviews from extensive visits to Clarksdale, to piece together how music and cultural tourism act as a counterpoint to decline.

The book provides a detailed analysis of the ways that a town is mobilizing around a blues theme for revitalisation. It weaves together economic studies completed by the author over a decade, alongside the voices of local residents. Importantly, this place-based account moves beyond a blueprint approach to rural revitalization as propagated through the work of creative regeneration spokespeople. Instead, Henshall uses the downtown to unpack how uneven economic forces have manifested on place. Attention is turned to how a new economic future is leveraged through the distinct cultural assets that are progressively being re-animated by ‘creative individuals’ and champions within the community. As Henshall shows, rural places like Clarksdale are particularly instructive for understanding how revitalization is not a neat or formulaic process.  In Clarksdale we learn how revitalisation is guided by the interplay of cultural endowments, creativity and leadership that are grounded in place and driven by happenstance as well as planning.

Over 12 reasonably concise chapters, Henshall documents the town’s path to revitalisation. The opening chapters provide a big picture view of rural decline in the United States and how this is reflected in Clarksdale. Every rural town has its own distinct story, however there are certain forces that link Clarksdale with broader national trends of modernisation and economic restructuring. Such developments in Clarksdale have lead to the hollowing out of the downtown and rise of car-dependent outer edge or ‘big box’ retail, suburbanisation and outmigration. Clarksdale’s particular story of decline is illuminated through detailed socio-economic analyses. These detailed analyses identify how outmigration and above average poverty levels impact economic development and the built landscape of decay as observed in the downtown, with around 40% of buildings found to be vacant and in disrepair (p. 19). Promising signals of change however are evident through a range of new businesses being established around Clarksdale’s blues heritage.

For many rural communities, the turn to a particular ‘theme’ is a popular strategy in exercising competitive advantage to attract tourists based on ‘authentic’ and/or constructed notions of place history and identity. Henshall provides a detailed historic and contemporary synthesis of Clarksdale’s cultural connection with Mississippi Blues. Insights are given into how culture has laid a foundation for economic activation by Clarksdale entrepreneurs (existing residents and newcomers), as well as a recent flourishing of community arts initiatives that seek to benefit inhabitants, particularly the town’s youth. Henshall draws upon a range of sources to indicate how Mississippi Blues music is enmeshed in Clarksdale’s cultural landscape and is reflective of the hardships inflicted upon African American residents. Tensions in exploiting such hardship as a form of entertainment for (mainly white) tourists, such as through blues festivals, also bring attention to the underpinning ethical dilemmas involved in leveraging cultural assets for economic ends. This is met with more hopeful considerations for how such encounters might strengthen social relations (p. 34).

Understanding revitalisation efforts requires assessing the local socio-economic profile and prospects. Chapters 4-6 document Clarksdale’s demographic and economic characteristics and its positioning against surrounding towns. Importantly, attention is paid to contrasting the cultural wealth discussed in chapter 3, with the material poverty experienced in the town (35% of residents in Clarksdale live below the poverty level compared to the national average of 12.7%  (p. 77)). Henshall traces the effects of dwindling local expenditure on the development of the town, which is divided into three distinct zones. The marked contrasts between each district are presented, with much of Clarksdale’s renaissance occurring on the northern side of the railway line involving the establishment of new restaurants, blues clubs and retail premises. In contrast, the southern side, historically the African American business and entertainment district dubbed ‘the New World’ area, accounts for over 2/3 of vacant floor space (versus 41% in the northern side) (p. 78). The positive effects of tourism in revitalising the downtown, namely the plethora of blues festivals and events, are also detailed, ranging from a growth in service sector jobs to the restoration of neglected buildings. More work however appears necessary in upskilling the local workforce to foster employment opportunities.

The topic of who is enacting change attracts much attention in studies of revitalisation. Theories of a heroic ‘creative class’ as popularised by Richard Florida have become an area of fascination in cities and towns alike. These theories propagate how revitalisation is largely attributed to and directed towards the attraction of external skilled creative workers (broadly defined) to save declining economies. Henshall recognises the limitations of Florida’s metrics, particularly its neglect of the role that ‘social and community investments’ play in ‘contributing the prosperity’ of a place (p. 113). Rather than Florida’s narrow focus on people, the creative process espoused by founder of the ‘creative cities’ concept, Charles Landry, is found to have greater resonance in demonstrating a creative community at work through collectives such as Clarksdale Downtown Revitalisation Inc. Showing creative identities are beyond a creative class, Henshall focuses on the diverse array of people in the town who are contributing to revitalisation through establishing businesses and culture-based community organisations.

The final chapters consider the practicalities of planning for downtown revitalisation. This analysis is based on local and regional strategies, and through the voices of residents that capture the lived experience of such initiatives – with some conflicting opinions as to how benefits are maximised and distributed. While Clarksdale’s case is recognised as unique, Henshall extrapolates key lessons for small cities and towns for those seeking to establish a theme-based approach. This would be of interest to other rural communities seeking to establish a similar path.

Overall, this book offers important insights into the relationship between downtown revitalisation and cultural tourism. Its particular appeal is the role that culture can play in reterritorializing and revitalising the downtown through new enterprises and the array of festivals and Blues-themed events. This is a generally optimistic account, although at various points tensions are briefly raised around some broader local disengagement with the downtown, and coordinating the collective management of blues-themed development. Some further elaboration of these points would be instructive in exploring the contentious nature of downtown change in rural communities, especially when its identity is tethered to a particular theme. The contentious topic of gentrification is raised and deemed not to be an issue in Clarksdale due to the high proportion of vacant buildings. However, explicitly considering what might be done to ensure the town remains affordable to creative newcomers would be worthwhile for Clarksdale and other communities grappling with gentrification.

In contrast to formulaic accounts of creative regeneration that seek to shape places around the desires of the creative class, this book provides an important contribution to understanding small town revitalisation efforts. This is done in a nuanced and multi-faceted way, embracing: the identities involved in driving change and the barriers they face; the analytical tools required to assess economic development and issues of social justice through improving educational and employment outcomes for African American residents. In doing so, instead of accepting decline as inevitable, this book’s offerslessons and strategies for communities that are actively ‘getting real’ in reversing forces of decline.

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