Monthly Archives: November 2010

Jackson

First, I would like to apologize for the two-and-a-half weeks that have passed since my last post.  My day job has kept me quite busy, and time has gotten away from me.

However, the timing seems appropriate for this posting.  Not only does Jackson mark the final chapter of my trip through Louisiana and Mississippi last month, but it is my family name.  And Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and reflect on heritage and history.  I can think of no better way to celebrate this uniquely American holiday than with a welcome sign.

Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, was named for General Andrew Jackson who later became President of the United States.  Home to over 600,000 people, the Jackson-Yazoo City combined statistical area is the largest in Mississippi.  Jackson is the only state capital to sit atop a volcano; Jackson Volcano is believed to have been extinct for at least 65 million years.

Capturing Jackson’s welcome sign was quite a challenge.  On my only day in Jackson, I awoke to stormy weather across the Mississippi Valley, rain falling in thick vertical sheets that made safe driving almost impossible.  My time was limited, and despite the difficult conditions, I was determined to find the welcome sign.  My first stop in a city is usually the airport, hoping that there is a sign that greets visitors as they exit the airport in a vehicle.  The sign at the exit of Jackson-Evers International Airport was disappointing, to say the least.

In my expert opinion, this is not a welcome sign.  It’s a directional sign that includes a welcome as an afterthought.  But I stopped during a break in the rain (check out those dark skies!) to snap a photo in case this was the only sign I was able to find.

If I come up empty at an airport, my next strategy is to take a route into town that does not involve an Interstate or major highway.  From experience I know that city welcome signs are rarely displayed along the busiest routes.  I had about 30 minutes left to find the Jackson sign, so I headed into town.  My windshield wipers were on maximum speed as I tried to focus simultaneously on driving through an unfamiliar city and looking for the welcome sign.  When I did see it, my heart sank.

As the photo shows, the sign is situated on a bridge spanning the Pearl River.  River signs are the MOST DIFFICULT to photograph as there is generally not a safe place to pull over.   In order to capture this sign, I had to park a quarter of a mile away in a suspect gravel pull-off.  I walked along the narrow sidewalk spanning the bridge with an umbrella in one hand, my other hand tightly gripping my camera, hidden under my jacket for protection.  Cars and trucks sped by me along U.S. 80, splashing up mist and water and causing the bridge to sway and shake.

While I was photographing the sign, I kept an eye on my car as best I could.  At one point, I noticed two Mississippi Department of Transportation trucks pull into the same gravel area where my rented Jeep Patriot was parked, its hazard lights flashing.  A sense of panic washed over me; they probably thought the vehicle needed assistance!  The trucks were situated one on each side of the car, and the strip of lights on top of each truck was flashing a blurry yellow pattern through the rain.  I started to run back toward my car, balancing my camera and umbrella while waving my arm to indicate the car was mine.  As I got closer, I realized the employees weren’t the least bit interested in my car.  In fact, they were slowly exiting their vehicles to inspect something along the bridge and didn’t even look up at me when I finally made it back to the car, wet from both the rain and my panicked sweat.

As I sat in my car trying to regroup, I reflected on the sign.  The vibrant blue color matches that of the Welcome to Mississippi sign.  The small magnolia is the state flower and adds some visual interest to the sign.  Overall it’s a simple sign that was not simple to photograph.

With the few extra minutes I had, I continued along the route to downtown Jackson and stopped in front of the Mississippi state capitol building.  The structure is similar to many other domed capitol buildings in the U.S.  But what made this site unique were the beautiful trees in the park gracefully surrounding the seat of state government.  Even the gloomy weather could not dampen the southern hospitality that I felt when photographing the capitol.

Mississippi

I first traveled to Mississippi in early 2008 as part of my state welcome sign project.  The circumstances were similar to my visit last month – I was attending a conference in New Orleans (clearly a popular site for conferences) and added some personal time onto the trip in order to indulge in my hobby.  I chose to drive across U.S. Route 90 (instead of Interstate 10) through Mississippi and Alabama en route to my final destination of Pensacola, Florida.  The drive was less hectic than a race along an interstate, and it was a region of the country that I had not visited before.  Sadly, destruction from 2005 Hurricane Katrina was still visible along the road, making the drive an emotional one.

Along the way I captured the Welcome to Mississippi sign.

The minute I saw this sign I loved it.

The sign is simple, yet full of feeling.  The cursive script of the word Mississippi is in itself welcoming, encircling visitors, welcoming them “home”.  The sign features the state flower – a magnolia – and is one of only five state welcome signs to include the state flower.  The sign was large, yet graceful, and I loved everything about it.

On my second visit to the state last month – nearly three years later – my goal was to capture the welcome sign for Jackson, the capital of Mississippi.  I was looking forward to crossing the state border and being welcomed home again by what had become my favorite welcome sign.

Imagine my surprise when I passed this sign on Interstate 55.

Birthplace of America’s Music?

This was not the welcome I expected!

At first I thought perhaps this was simply an alternate version of the Mississippi welcome sign greeting visitors;  many states have different signs at various border crossings.  But when I saw the same sign welcoming visitors when departing Jackson-Evers International Airport on International Airport Road, my heart sank.  Clearly there was something more to this.

After returning home from my trip, I did some research to get to the bottom of the mystery of why my favorite welcome sign had been replaced.

Like  many states, Mississippi spends millions of dollars every year to promote tourism and economic development.  Based on marketing research, the Mississippi Development Authority had come to the conclusion that promoting Mississippi’s musical heritage could translate into tourist dollars.  And so they changed the welcome signs as part of their promotional efforts.

Since I’m not a Mississippi expert – I am simply an admirer of the state’s former welcome sign – I am not in a great position to criticize this change.  But locals are.  I especially like the perspective of Julie Cooper, managing editor of The Natchez Democrat (link to article here: http://www.natchezdemocrat.com/news/2010/mar/17/new-slogan-misses-mississippis-mark/).  She brings up the point that this niche marketing strategy actually excludes 80% of the state.  I guess only time will tell if this will be successful.

Welcome signs change; I accept that.  (I actually embrace it, because it means my project will never end!)  But a first impression can never be changed.  My first impression of Mississippi was on an overcast January day, and a bright blue sign emotionally welcomed me to the state, drawing me in, and I wanted to learn more.

What impression will this new sign leave on visitors?  Likely, more questions than answers.  I am not familiar with the music of Mississippi (and I’m not particularly interested); frankly, the sign left me confused.  It seems to me that those who are well-versed in the harmonic history of the state will already have it on their must-visit list.

I carry my disappointment with me, but my project must go on.  Next up: adventure in Jackson!