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After decades of neglect, Jackson's Black business district is coming back to life

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Farish Street in Jackson, Miss., is similar to lots of Black-owned business sectors. It went from thriving in the '40s, '50s and '60s to physically crumbling after segregation ended. But business leaders are trying to bring life back to this historic street. Stephen Bisaha and Shalina Chatlani of the Gulf States Newsroom have the story.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: It's lunch hour, and scores of customers walk into the Big Apple Inn...

STEPHEN BISAHA, BYLINE: Including us.

CHATLANI: Oh, that smell.

BISAHA: Yeah, that smells really good.

CHATLANI: It smells like bacon. I love it.

It's not bacon, but pig ears sizzling on the stove. Owner Geno Lee takes out a big floppy pig ear and cuts it in half. Normally, they'd boil these for days to make them edible.

GENO LEE: Now we pressure cook them, and when you pressure cook them, it only takes half an hour. And this is what it looks like when it's finished.

CHATLANI: Ooh. They look like pig ears.

LEE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Imagine that.

CHATLANI: These nine blocks were the rare place Black residents in Jackson could freely go to numerous Black-owned furniture shops, music venues and doctor's offices. The Big Apple Inn was the place where anyone could get a hearty, affordable meal. Not just that, one of Jackson's famous NAACP leaders and martyr, Medgar Evers, rented an office upstairs. And activists would organize downstairs in the restaurant, making it a key site in the civil rights movement. But while Lee says the end of segregation those organizers helped usher in was a good thing, it actually led to many of Big Apple Inn's neighbors shutting down.

LEE: When we were allowed to go to the white establishments to eat and trade, we stopped going to our own.

CHATLANI: Many white and Black residents decided to leave the city for the suburbs, and they took their wealth with them. That left few people and tax dollars to support Farish Street. The Big Apple Inn chose to stay on Farish Street to preserve its history, and it's why many people still come here. At one point, Lee tried becoming more modern. He replaced the building's wood-paneled walls with stainless steel.

LEE: Business - man, plummeted. Business went straight down to flat zero because people wanted the nostalgia of the old place.

CHATLANI: They quickly put those paint-chipped walls back up. Stephen, Lee says the Big Apple Inn today might not be thriving, but it is certainly surviving.

BISAHA: Yeah, though you don't have to go far to find one that is thriving. Seven years ago, John Tierre opened up Johnny T's Bistro and Blues one block up. Tierre wanted to prove that it was possible for a new business to succeed on Farish Street.

JOHN TIERRE: This building here, prior to me getting here, probably had the worst stigma in the city.

BISAHA: That wasn't always the case. In the '40s, this building was known as the Crystal Palace, a place where famous Black talent like Sammy Davis Jr. came to play. Since then, the building had changed hands and fell into neglect while earning a bad reputation. Tierre spent years fixing up the club. Now the building's reputation and business have turned around.

TIERRE: And even during COVID and when people went out of business, every year, our numbers are up.

BISAHA: Johnny T's is now one of the jewels of Farish Street. Walking up the stairs, patrons can hear lively music, see a stage for dancing and a well-stocked bar.

TIERRE: Sometime that's a shock, too, for someone that drives down Farish Street. They're like, man, look at this area. And then they come inside. They say, oh. And they find out that you have this wide range of spirits. I mean, we got bottles that cost 6,000, 5,000, 4,000.

BISAHA: Other cities are investing to revitalize their own historic Black business districts, places like Birmingham's Fourth Avenue and Atlanta's Westside neighborhoods.

CHATLANI: Yeah, but replicating Tierre's success is not that easy.

BISAHA: Yeah, that's true. And not a lot of people have the money to do that or are up for taking that big a risk.

CHATLANI: But just down the street, there is a family that did exactly that.

YASMIN GABRIEL: I can tell you guys that I didn't think so on paper that it was going to make any sense.

CHATLANI: Yasmin Gabriel and her family bought a building up the block in 2020 to bring something entirely new to Farish Street - a health food store and a vegan cafe.

GABRIEL: The narrative normally is that people that look like us don't do this. You're going to get things that are created from nuts and grains, lima beans. You're going to get collard greens. You're going to get turnip greens. And so we're just trying to make sure that people can realize that it's not just that rich white guy who can do yoga.

CHATLANI: While one half of Farish Street is still mostly empty lots and hollowed-out buildings, the other half is growing. Gabriel went from renting to owning the building, from just the health food store to adding on the cafe. And now they're working on opening up a grocery store, something long missing from the greater Farish Street area.

GABRIEL: Three years later, two kids later, a whole nother restaurant, and we're expanding very, very quickly.

BISAHA: For so long, many in this community have seen Farish Street as a failed Black-owned business district. But Black business owners are working to make sure that's not the end of Farish Street's story.

CHATLANI: For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani.

BISAHA: And I'm Stephen Bisaha in Jackson, Miss.

RASCOE: And Kobee Vance of Mississippi Public Broadcasting also contributed to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephan Bisaha
Shalina Chatlani
Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.