Monday, September 19, 2016

Embraced by the Mississippi Delta... Inspiration from our benchmark trip

Ethan Lewis, Jillian Rooker, and Kerry Wittwer met up with our client and the locals of The Delta for a recent benchmark trip before the project kick-off of a boutique hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi.

By Ethan Lewis

"Getting there is the hard part. But once you are, The Delta is in your blood." 

Luke Chamblee with Chamblee Hospitality Group flip-flopped his way through the paint-chipped double doors of The Crystal Grill in Greenwood, Mississippi.  Like a star high-school quarterback walking through locker-lined hallways, he winked, waved, and nodded at everyone he passed.  It seemed as if everyone knew one another, and not in the "know-of" way, like really knew one another, like they had something in common.  Even Luke, a city slicker from nearby Jackson, making his maiden voyage to the Delta, was unconditionally welcomed... and Kerry, Jillian, and I were right by his side. 

Over a half-dozen steamy hot-tamales and "still the best around" fried chicken tenders, Luke explained the details of his new venture, a boutique hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi.
"But why?" I thought to myself. "I guess that's what we're here to find out."
For those of you who don't know (I didn't) the Mississippi Delta is not, in fact, the Mississippi Delta. The true delta of the Mississippi River is located some 200 miles to the south, in Louisiana.  The Mississippi Delta, however, is an alluvial plain cradled by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east. Covering a great deal of the west side of the state, "the Delta" seems flat enough to see all the way down to the Vicksburg bluffs from its northern tip near Memphis. Setting out from Greenwood, we began our criss-crossed traipse through what has become known as "the most southern place on Earth."

I wiped the lens of my cell phone camera with my already sweaty waffle shirt and began snapping shots of vast soy bean farms. I thought to myself, "Oh, this one is going to turn out great," but was interrupted by Luke's sarcasm, "You better take those while you can, it's the only soy bean farm in the Delta." There's something about it, though -- the way endless rows of dark green crops meet the light blue summer sky, or how the breeze moves across the leaves, creating synchronized dances of waves.  Right then and there, my affair with the Delta began.

Sure, I love Atlanta, been here my whole life, probably going to die here.  But when I say I have an obligation to the Delta, an obligation to preserve what had been culturally neglected, I'm being honest as the rust and the heat, the mud and the mosquitoes.  For this reason, Luke's project has inspired us to dream a little deeper and attempt to involve the whole Delta community.  We drove to Greenville the next morning, under the spell of loose guitar strings plucked by Robert Johnson, to pick up Kerry at the Mid Delta Regional... err... Airport? Put it this way, Kerry dropped her ID in the bathroom and the one cop working the building approached her and drawled, "Think you dropped this in the bathroom, ma'am."

Carving our way through soy, corn, and rice farms, we arrived at a long and straight dirt driveway lined with sunflower fields leading to the Baby Doll House in Benoit.  Stepping out in the heat, we encountered a true character, epitomizing the spirit of The Delta. Eustace was his name.  He toured us all around the film-set-famed property of its namesake - a historic plantation house that was spared during the Civil War because the owner, Judge J.C. Burrus, had a personal friendship with the commander of the Union forces at the time.  Eustace walked us through his shotgun shacks (on Airbnb), introduced us to his skunk-huntin' dogs, explained that the blue porch ceiling confuses and deters "dirt-digger" wasps from nesting, and showed us his mastodon jaw signed by the "Gunslinger" himself, Brett Favre.  (Apparently, it was the only autographable medium he had on his person when he randomly encountered Favre in the Delta backwoods on a hunting trip.) Sticky with sweat, we felt a cool breeze pushed by a wall of rumbly dark clouds and all joked about the impeccable timing of Kerry's single-prop plane.  "We need it!" Eustace hollered, as we hurried to the truck and thanked him for the education and hospitality.

Rain.  Like I've never seen rain before -- a summer storm whitewash of water balloons.  Good thing the roads are as straight as bowling alleys with gutter-bumpers of soy fields.  When we safely arrived at the Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, we were warmly welcomed by a head full of long and sandy hair held back by black-rimmed eyeglasses and with a big smile, he said, "I'm Matty, it's great to meet you, welcome." Something was off, though; there was no drawl, no accent, and in fact he looked and sounded like he could have been from the East Village.  Sure enough, Matty had moved from Stuyvesant Town, New York, to the Delta after a stint at Teach for America, and had been captivated by the charisma of the region.  He started an ice creamery and recently joined forces with Chef Cole Ellis, a prominent and well-respected figure in the Delta.  Cole is the proprietor, owner, and executive chef of the Delta Meat Market and soon-to-be executive chef of the hotel restaurant.  Cole is a man of big dreams, big personality, and big skills.  He brought us out burgers under slabs of thick-cut bacon, watermelon wedges sprinkled with feta cheese and dribbled with balsamic glaze, and for dessert...? Hot, fresh powdered-sugar donuts with pounded, syrupy blueberries.  For lunch, y'all.

With a food-induced coma dangerously nigh, Kelli Carr, the bright-eyed and energetic tourism director for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, took the reins and led the way to Studio 230, where we spoke with local artists.  Later we cooled off in the shade of the lush gardens at McCarty Pottery, where we met the owner. By the sweltering 3 o'clock hour, we immersed ourselves in the history of the blues in Dockery Farms, where B.B. King said, "You might say it all started right here."  Soon after, we toured Delta State University, home of the Fighting Okra, and got a lesson in the history of music at The Grammy Museum.

On our way out to legendary "Po' Monkeys," one of the last remaining tried-and-true juke joints, we received word that Willie "Po' Monkey" Seaberry had passed away that evening.  I had only heard of him days before, but everyone from Memphis to Vicksburg, surrounding Mississippians and Arkansawyers, and anyone who had been down the Mississippi blues trail considered him the spirit of the Delta.  You could feel in the thick, hot air that this was a tragic loss for the entire community and the end of an era.  With Kelli in tears, we waded through black clouds of mosquitoes and approached Po' Monkey's dilapidated shack to pay our respects.  Justified by Cole, even with such a tragedy, there would still be celebration, "Because that's what 'Monkey' would have wanted."

Somehow, after only 48 hours, I felt like I was a part of a bigger family -- a family full of crazy uncles and cousins, but family nonetheless.  And amidst the poverty, the lingering racial divides, and the confining reliance on agriculture, the Mississippi Delta embraces you with its history, charm, humor, and eccentricity.  As designers and architects, we have the unique challenge of telling stories without words.  Fortunately, the Mississippi Delta has a story to tell, and a damn good one at that. 

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