I was in my hometown of Gautier, Miss. a couple of weeks ago with my parents and we ended up in a relatively new city park. There was a new splash pad and playground and families were there having fun, which led me to comment that the park was a nice addition.
My mother immediately switched to Chamber of Commerce mode and started talking about how the city had made many improvements lately. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Circling back to the topic of the new park, she said a family of raccoons had posed quite a problem there.
“One of them stole a lady’s shoe last week!” she breathlessly informed me. Then my parents began to discuss whether the shoe was actually stolen or just bitten. Either way, there was trouble in “Nature’s Playground,” as my hometown has dubbed itself.
Growing up in Gautier, I knew there was no way I would ever come back there to live as an adult. Besides the raccoon infestation, the city has steadily declined from its heyday in the ‘80s when Singing River Mall offered TWO movie theaters, a new Taco Bell and a Baskin Robbins. That was all you needed on date night. Sadly, the mall, Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins are all gone now.
I’m sure my parents held out some small hope at least one or two of their five kids would become raccoonologists and settle back in Gautier, but intellectually I’m sure they knew we had all served our time as residents of the 39553.
Having dropped my son off for his first year of college in Memphis last week, and also watching his younger sister start her senior year of high school my mind has turned to the future a lot lately.
Not so much my future, but theirs.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether they’ll move away from me and never come back. I’d suspect that’s not an unusual fear for many parents, although I know some who fear their kids will never leave.
Ulysses and Ursula have at least chilled out on early teenage proclamations they would move to New York, Boston or California to attend college. I’m not sure if it was the realization they would be very far from home, or me informing them they’d need to get adopted by millionaires before graduation for that to happen, but thankfully they’ve both drastically scaled back plans to move thousands of miles away.
While I know they need to see the world, my selfish side still wants them right here in town with us where we can eat meals together, watch football games and there will be easy access to future grandchildren. But my practical side recognizes that life blows us where it will. I want them to have every success they desire.
That brings me to the thought I keep having — is Mobile the place where they’ll be able to achieve their goals in life? It has been for me so far, but it took an Evel Knievel-like leap of faith to get there, and nothing is guaranteed in the newspaper business.
Talking with my daughter Ursula the other day about such matters, she claimed “there’s nothing to do in Mobile.” I could easily have argued that once she’s old enough to drink, there’s always something to do in Mobile — really too much — but I recognized her complaint as a standard one for teens almost everywhere in the U.S. That you can best appreciate where you’re from by moving somewhere else is wisdom that can only be gathered through experience or from a Morgan Freeman movie voiceover.
I moved back to Mobile from Washington, DC, a place with plenty to do and plenty of people standing in line in front of you to do it. I’d lived in New Orleans before that as well, but if drinking is an avocation in Mobile, it’s an occupation there.
Mobile offered proximity to family and friends, as well as the much-missed Gulf waters. But career opportunities? Let’s just say that when the Press-Register didn’t think I had the right stuff to board their rocketship, Mobile suddenly seemed like a very small town. But in the journalism biz that would probably be the same for most cities, and there was obviously opportunity in Mobile to do something no one else was doing.
That was more than 20 years ago, and I like to think we’ve made progress in most fields, but it’s still hard not to wonder what kind of allure our wonderful city will have for the classes of 2025 and 2026 when they start looking for jobs.
What is it that interests young people in moving to a city, or returning, in this case? Quality jobs are obviously a huge part of the answer to that, but not everything. Exciting activities are also a big part of the pie.
Let me get into my rocker on the front porch and tell you about Mobile in 1985, when I first moved here, Sonny. Downtown was “dead as Julius Caesar,” as Sean Connery said in “The Untouchables.” Nearly 40 years later — has it seriously been that long? — our downtown would be unrecognizable to Spring Hill College freshman Rob. It’s definitely improving all the time, but still has a ways to go.
Walking through downtown Memphis last week with my son and his Swedish discus-throwing roommate, Mans, I could see what was exciting them about that city’s center. Yes, Beale Street had appeal, but it was also that things looked active, clean and cohesive. There weren’t derelict buildings on every other block and the cool brick minor league baseball field that matched the cool brick sidewalks had them talking. The FedEx Center was another huge turn-on for the boys, as they imagined themselves going to see their own UM Tigers or even the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies play.
What’s new is always more exciting than what you’re used to, but we have opportunities to make things more attractive for the next generation over these next four years. I have no doubt initiatives like the bike paths connecting our various parks across the city will be desirable to younger adults. Likewise, the huge new bayside park at Brookley will open access to the water that we haven’t had in decades.
The last time I was in Austin, I saw young people paddling all over the series of lakes and rivers around town and thought how much more opportunity we have in Mobile to do that. The bay should be a playground and hopefully it will be.
What will four more years of Airbus growth, Austal growth, tech growth and the freedom of remote employment mean in terms of filling our city with its next generation of leaders? Hopefully a lot.
Mobile is already a great place to live, which is why so many who move away decide to come back. We need to keep working to improve the quality and diversity of available jobs, keep housing affordable, control the raccoon population and make sure there’s plenty to do — even if you don’t drink.
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