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The renaissance of Jackson’s original subdivision

  • Because of its location and cultural significance, Belhaven seems to me to be a linchpin that holds many of the different parts of the capital city together.

In the late 18th century, an eccentric French trader established a log cabin trading post on the western bank of the Pearl River. Louis LeFleur has been all but forgotten, but his trading post—LeFleur’s Bluff—was well-known statewide. In 1821, the Mississippi Legislature selected LeFleur’s Bluff as the site of a new state capital named for General Andrew Jackson. The rest, as they say, was history. 

After the civil war, Jones S. Hamilton would build a mansion not far from the original LeFleur’s Bluff. He would call it “Belhaven,” loosely translated “beautiful home” or “beautiful bay” from Scots Gaelic. The mansion became the namesake of Belhaven University and later of the Belhaven neighborhood.

The Belhaven we know today—not to be confused with Belhaven Heights South of Fortification St.—began around the turn of the 20th century. It is widely considered Jackson’s first subdivision or group of subdivisions. It has also been home to Mississippi legends like Eudora Welty as well as city icons whose names may be recognized among a select few elder Jacksonians. Belhaven is also my “beautiful home.”

I was born and raised in the Belhaven neighborhood and have lived there most of my life. I have seen it struggle and I have seen it flourish. And despite recurrent and often flat, one-dimensional media narratives about Jackson, I believe Belhaven is at its strongest in recent memory and that it is poised to bring significant revival to the city.

Reflections: Belhaven Past

Jackson—Belhaven especially—has a very distinct “vibe” that people who grew up here often appreciate and talk about. Maybe it’s the architectural diversity. Or the people. Or the natural beauty. Alternatively, perhaps it’s something that we can’t quite explain.

The Belhaven I knew growing up was sleepy. I don’t mean that there was nothing happening or that no one lived here. In fact, there was plenty to do and see. The annual Belhaven Garage Sale was a neighborhood-wide spectacle. The Belhaven Market in the Jitney 14 parking lot was a seasonal Saturday treat. Summer walks and bike rides on the university campus couldn’t be beaten with a stick. I suppose that by “sleepy,” I really mean “dreamlike.” There was a quality to the neighborhood that could convince you that you were in a storybook or, indeed, a Welty novel. I digress.

As I got older, some of the things that made the neighborhood so enchanting seemed to start to go away. Some of this was likely a function of waning childlike curiosity. However, some real decay was underway before I was even born. Jackson’s population peaked around 1980 and has declined ever since. 

But there was also a sense in which even those who stayed in Jackson seemed to leave Belhaven behind. Whether real or imagined—or somewhere in between—some stagnation seemed to set in. The Belhaven Market and Belhaven Garage Sale were no more. The Belhaven location of Brent’s Drugs was shuttered. The historic Jitney 14 that I knew as McDade’s was under new ownership. 

To be sure, there were glimmers of hope even then. In 2014, a restaurant called Lou’s Full-Serv opened where Brent’s Drugs had been. People were still willing to throw their chips in with the historic neighborhood. More on this later.

Because of its location and cultural significance, Belhaven seems to me to be a linchpin that holds many of the different parts of the city together. I left my house for college in 2018, and in 2020 and 2021, the linchpin looked like it was about to pop out. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the crimewave and citywide unrest that ensued, visits home began to look a bit different. Safety was a real concern, at least at night. A close friend and neighbor of ours was carjacked at gunpoint. 

What was happening to my beautiful home?

Rebirth: Belhaven Future

Not surprisingly, the news about Jackson during this time became increasingly gloomy. I explained to friends that this wasn’t the Belhaven I knew. It wasn’t usually like this. But I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. I felt like a foreigner in my own front yard. It felt incongruous with what I knew it to be.

Brian Habig, who grew up in Belhaven in the 1980s, has a wonderful name for this feeling—the heartache evoked by decay in Belhaven and Jackson at large. He aptly calls it “the aura of the unhealed home,” describing a feeling that many Jacksonians know well but may never have vocalized. When the places we love are hurting, we hurt with them.

Things, however, were beginning to happen. Groups like the Greater Belhaven Foundation, the Belhaven Improvement Association, and more had been working tirelessly behind the scenes to keep residents engaged and hopeful. An exciting development called the Belhaven Town Center had been in the works for years. The BTC officially launched in 2019 with two restaurants. One of these restaurants, Elvie’s, was named one of America’s best restaurants by the New York Times in 2022. 

Fertile Ground Beer was announced in the spring of 2020 and would open in the BTC two years later, part of an adaptive reuse project in what used to be the laundry facility for Baptist Hospital. Fertile Ground is still the only craft brewery to have opened in Jackson after Lucky Town Brewing Company closed its doors in 2019. The economic impact of Fertile Ground alone is worth its own article—perhaps its own book! More projects have since come to the BTC: a convenience store, an ice cream shop, a concert space, and lofts for office space, to name a few.

In early 2023, my then-fiancé and I were looking for a place to make our home once married. Despite the special love I had for the neighborhood where I grew up, I didn’t want to live there as an adult. Belhaven, I reasoned, had changed. And besides, I probably needed to experience something new. On a spring morning driving through the neighborhood, we noticed something that grabbed my disillusionment by the collar and shook it. There were families—young families—everywhere. Couples walking together. Moms and dads taking their children to Laurel Street Park. It was like I could breathe again. 

(Photo from the Greater Belhaven Foundation Facebook)

We live in Belhaven now, and it’s not the Belhaven where I grew up, to be sure. It’s better.

The multiuse Museum Trail now connects us to downtown on one side and one of the largest playgrounds of its kind in the country on the other. Award-winning food, live music, and cold, delicious beer are a leisurely walk away up our street. New Stage Theatre is a Jackson staple that brings the arts to the neighborhood in a special way. Our neighbors know us and greet us on afternoon walks.

There’s something about Belhaven that invites us to come home over and over again. It awakens us to the power of place, invoking the simple joys of a mint julep enjoyed in a rocking chair on a cool screen porch, with cicadas singing outside. A beautiful home, indeed.

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