July is thick in Mobile. Mountainous clouds congregate and darken, then drench and rumble. Thickly saturated air broils and boils in relentless humidity. Downtown sidewalks teem with Artwalk patrons drawn like lizards to the warmth.
It was especially dense where Jillian Crochet’s fabric oak stretched to fill a gallery room at the Mobile Arts Council. Umber woven limbs sprawled to the corners, hooked to the ceiling. Its spectral foliage was present in laced patterns and an opening in its trunk beckoned visitors in to view the world from an arboreal perspective.
Beneath those boughs, ghosts and gossip waltzed and jostled. Conjured by the present, they belied reticence for the future.
A row of actual live oaks felled a week before just two blocks away were the chief topic. Across from the city’s civic heart in Bienville Square, the trees’ eradication made way for a new hotel and stirred local emotions about the decision, the building plans and all associations.
All the while, another phantom of Mobile’s past and a giant of its cultural pastiche danced throughout events. The now-departed patron jester opined long before recent sawdust flew.
In 1946, Mobile native Eugene Walter returned home after spending World War II stationed in Alaska. His nostalgia for the quaint town of his childhood was shattered by the changes he found.
Walter penned a cautionary fable that became his first published book. “Jennie The Watercress Girl” was more an attempt at pamphleteering than later literary ventures that earned him exaltation and Mobile’s most honored eternal rest in Church Street Graveyard.
It followed Jennie Heynonny, whose family was ruined in the 1929 stock market crash. To scrape by, the waif gathered watercress in Wragg Swamp and sold it downtown with a lilting ditty she devised.
Watercress, watercress, who’ll buy my watercress?
Watercress sweet and shy,
Watercress wet and dry,
Oh, who’ll of my watercress, watercress buy?
In true Walter fashion, Jennie befriended magical creatures and earned adoration throughout the busy streets. Walter’s prose typically draped Mobile in enchantment.
Jennie’s eventual talents as a dancer took her away. Her mother said, “People here don’t give a loon’s whistle for the arts. Art just ain’t profitable here, artfulness neither.” Off to New York she went.
Following wider fame, Jennie returned to the place she always held in her heart, answered a drumbeat tapping out love. That town no longer existed, trampled beneath “progress.”
Such ruin was foreshadowed by a squirrel she’d met years earlier. With a suitcase and dapper felt hat in place, he was headed away from Bienville Square, escaping the changes he saw, and explained:
“Few more oak trees cut down, few more landmarks reduced to rubble, few more red-nosed do-nothings elected to responsible office, few more reasons to leave the way I see it.
“The way I see it,” the Squirrel went on, putting down his suitcase, “change should be a graceful hybrid of old and new, not an illegitimate accident of present circumstance.”
What Jennie later encountered was what Squirrel predicted. The oak trees on Government Street were all gone. Nearly “every corner boasted a glass and chromium filling station” and bad architecture. Bienville Square was a parking lot.
Jennie’s heart broke. She drank heavily, then wandered the meadow and accompanying ditch where Wragg Swamp had been. She withered away.
Walter’s tale was especially poignant in light of the plans for the property where the trees were cut. It’s slated to be a hotel, on the spot of the classic Cawthon Hotel that stood there in Walter’s and Jennie’s time, a building brought down in the 1970s.
This new lodging is to be a Hilton Garden Inn, yet murmurs from the discontented locals chastised its proposed architecture. They derided it as not classic enough for the spot, not like the Hilton Garden Inns in Washington, D.C.; Indianapolis, Indiana; Ithaca, New York; and Omaha, Nebraska.
At the crown of the new hotel was to be a bar overlooking Bienville Square. Its name was rumored to be the Monkey Bar, a title borrowed from Eugene Walter’s affinity for and association with playful simians and said to be themed on his legend.
Now word from developer Mike Cowart has the bar moved from the roof to the sidewalk. He said they will “revisit the bar format once [they] get site work completed and the hotel starts going up, probably in early September.”
There was no indication whether monkeys, Eugene or Jennie will be present. Don’t look for a squirrel with a felt hat and suitcase, either. He’s on his way somewhere else.