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Street Talk

America Is Doing Better By Looking Better

By Mickey Howley

Last Friday night I was listening to Mississippi Public Radio while rolling northbound on Mississippi State Hwy. 7. Just as I crossed the Yalobusha county line, the radio program “On Point” came on.  Author William Least Heat-Moon was the first guest.

Heat-Moon is one of my favorite authors, not because of his writing style, but because of his subject. Heat-Moon writes non-fiction travel narratives that focus on America’s small towns and roadways (sometimes waterways). He says he has been to every single county in the United States (some 3,000 plus) and within 25 miles of every point in the country (there are some really big counties out west).

His first and most well known book “Blue Highways” derives its name from the small blue lines representing non-major roads in the Rand McNally road atlas. The first question interviewer Tom Ashbrook asked Heat-Moon, in light of the 30 years he had been traveling and writing about small town America, was what changes had Heat-Moon seen.  

Heat-Moon answered that small towns across the land look better today than 30 years ago. He said many small towns were restoring the historic architecture of their downtowns and he credited the Main Street program for doing it.

I was a little taken aback; he was positively plugging Main Street so well I thought he might be on the payroll. Heat-Moon’s point was this, that Main Street America is doing better by looking better. If a place looks shabby, chances are it is shabby. Heat-Moon’s observation is that bringing back the historic character of small towns also brings back the life in them.

I have some Mississippi only numbers to back up Heat-Moon’s nationwide perspective. For building facade restorations; there have been 197 restored in Mississippi.  That’s a whole lot of work to bring back a historic look. But it is that historic architecture that gives a building a distinctive style.

For upper floor housing, 845 units converted in Mississippi.  That’s several hundred buildings (two to four upper floor units per building average) fully using all square footage to produce revenue.  Here’s what is great about those numbers; with upper floor housing it means empty space, space that had once been used as offices or storage or as living quarters but was abandoned, is now producing income that supports the upkeep of the building. If the building makes enough money to support itself, chances are the owner will maintain it and it won’t be in a shabby condition or worse.

These types of restorations and conversions take time, money and real effort, but they are some of the positive changes Heat-Moon has noticed in the last 30 years.

Last week’s survey on Water Valley’s bike riding skills had the favorite response being that people think they could still pedal around but they don’t. At least nobody responded they thought they could smoke Lance Armstrong. My guess is nobody will be pedaling this week. See for this week’s survey on how well you handle this cold weather.

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