Shunning tribalism and embracing community will help cities like Jackson emerge from the crises that have come to define them

The Search for Public Good

Shunning tribalism and embracing community will help cities like Jackson emerge from the crises that have come to define them

A community barber shop completed during the third phase of Duvall Decker’s Midtown Master Plan project. (Mark Howell)

The story of Jackson’s water infrastructure crisis has garnered much national attention recently. However, the problems the city faces are not novel nor distinctly Southern. This is not a story of municipal mismanagement. This is a story of philosophical disinvestment and neglect of a place and its people over many decades. This is a chapter in a national story of misguided individualism, suburban capitalism run amok, and the loss of a greater idea of community.

Jackson, Mississippi, is a bellwether for more than neglected infrastructure. It is true we have a failing water system, and like many cities, aging infrastructure in general. A dwindling tax base has led to inadequate city resources for fire, police, and other essential services, including education. Since 1980, the city lost more than 45,000 residents and many businesses to surrounding communities.

Here, it is important to note that there is more to Jackson than its challenges and Southern clichés. The people of Jackson are a diverse group, kind and cooperative. The city is home to amazing music, arts, and literature. This is a community with museums, churches, neighborhoods, nonprofit groups, great chefs and restaurants, universities, and state-of-the-art hospitals. Authors like Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker once called Jackson home, and Mississippi blues musicians like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters performed here and changed all music that followed. Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement have and continue to work for hope and human dignity in this place.

There is work underway in all corners of the city to improve, to do more with less. Jackson is rebuilding a more efficient administration. The school district is optimizing its footprint for efficiency and better educational opportunities for its young scholars. The school district’s educational achievements are on the rise. From this place in the political margin, Jackson thrives with a creative culture that rivals anyplace in America.

a little girl sits outside a storefront
A young Jackson resident sits outside a community health center created as part of the Midtown Master Plan in Jackson. (Mark Howell)

The failed water system in Jackson is a symptom of decades of emphasis on capitalistic individuality over concerns for public good and community health. Some say the very idea of “community” has been compromised. In lieu of actual communities and civic debate, individuals often align themselves in non-critical tribes based loosely on inconsistent appearances, identities, and loyalties. (We all know people who live in a particular neighborhood they identify with but don’t know their neighbors.) This overfocus on tribal alignments and all that flows from it in the rhetoric of “radical right” or “radical left” and small versus large government oversimplifies and makes conversations politically divisive to maintain the center of power. This divisive rhetoric thwarts our ability for critical and therapeutic conversations about the complex issues that make up our diverse culture.

Jackson is a “blue” city in a “red” state. Its demographic makeup is 82.47 percent Black, 16.19 percent white, and 1.34 percent other. Jackson is a poor city, with 24.46 percent of its residents living below the poverty rate. This is a direct indicator of a historic lack of investment and economic development that would create jobs with opportunities for social and economic mobility. This is an inner city like many in our country that is starved for resources with a diverse population that does not look like those in the center of power. Surrounding Jackson there are, by comparison, wealthy suburbs with majority white populations whose access to resources and growth has been in direct proportion to the inner cities’ decline. In our country, cities like Jackson are too often left in the margin to survive.

At a general level, the philosophical and policy changes for less government and the reduction in federal support for infrastructure and social services that started in the 1980s left many cities like Jackson searching for resources. On water infrastructure, the 1987 Clean Water Act revisions left Jackson with federal regulations to follow but without resources to meet the standards. The government intended the gap to be paid by states and local municipalities through increased water bills, but Jackson’s declining tax revenue and population led to inadequate funds for improvements or maintenance. Nevertheless, the city prepared a 1997 master plan for repairs and updated it in 2013. The city has made improvements based on the resources available, but the critical work described in the master plan, including the upgrade of the more than 100 miles of corroded cast iron piping and other essential work, remains incomplete. Over the years, most requests for state funding have met with limited success.

an affordable housing complex at night
Social courtyard-anchored affordable housing created as part of the Midtown Master Plan. (Mark Howell)

In recent years, the governor and others have either dismissed the infrastructural needs as common all over the state or blamed them on city administration negligence. Both narratives served as cover to divert funding to other communities within the state. State allocations for infrastructure improvements have not been made where the need is greatest. The practice of funding suburbs and politically aligned communities while neglecting the inner cities is finally being questioned. The EPA recently announced it is investigating the state of Mississippi to discern if federal infrastructure spending is equitable or if it violates the civil rights of Jackson’s majority Black population.

Our recent water crisis lasted more than 48 days. For a portion of that time, we flushed toilets with buckets and for the entire time we drank and brushed our teeth with boiled or bottled water. Our restaurants and hotels had to bear the added expenses to stay in business. Our school children got sent back to remote learning after finally returning to in-person learning (post-Covid). Over the years, we have suffered these problems many times. We keep our toilet flushing buckets and our large, bottled water pump at the ready.

What is different about the latest water crisis is that it made national news, and while it is inexcusable, we are grateful it may result in some transformative funding and federal, state, and city collaboration. But we are equally encouraged that Jackson may become a bellwether with sisters like Flint, Detroit, and others for a mature conversation about how to rebuild our inner cities, how to open the center and empower those in the margin. It is a call for balance between individualism and community responsibility, a call for each of us to think differently about the very nature and future of our environment and society. How can individual success be achievable while elevating the living opportunities and health of others? Can the divisions and tribalism promoted in national news and social media be undermined and interrogated at local levels to return productive civic debate to the actual issues and problems in our neglected cities? Can architects facilitate, even lead this conversation for a more just, equitable, healthy, and maturely diverse community?

Architecture is public work. The practice of architecture is more than service. Architects are trained servant leaders, which for us has come to mean, teachers. A teacher reveals the public good when others cannot see it. A teacher explains the value of durability when the prevailing interest is in superficiality. Architecture projects are local, have a site, and are in a specific place and community. As architects we sometimes don’t realize the public consequences that every building or landscape carries. With each new or renovated building, each newly developed site, park, street, school, library, home, or business, a community is changed. The changes bring with them consequences in the lives of those who encounter them from homeowner to citizens in public space. With every project, we ask ourselves what is the public value of each intervention? How can the constructed environment be critical, educational, and perhaps therapeutic for a place and its people? Building projects are teachers. They express who we are, what we believe, even present our hopes.

Design leadership at its best is the imaginative work to guide the team—owner, architect, consultants, governing agencies, and public—through a design conversation that leads to more than a functional, aesthetic, or economic solution. Can every project, every meeting, and every presentation be an opportunity to shape a more mature conversation about our social and environmental community health?

As an architect I have very little power to fix the water infrastructure in the city of Jackson, but I can be an agent for a more mature conversation about community and to search for public good that allows us to be the best we can be, together.

Roy Decker, FAIA, a founder with Anne Marie Duvall Decker of Duvall Decker Architects in Jackson, Mississippi, expands the role of an architect in search of public good. Roy’s dedication to design excellence, education, and craft infuses his work with meaning. Roy is a design and critical thought leader, whether he is participating in an inner-city neighborhood meeting, serving on student reviews across the country, sharing his perspective in lectures and publications, or inspiring an individual in conversation. In all of these encounters, he exhibits an unwavering commitment to considering the consequences of architectural design work in the lives of others.