In the Hub City, we’re all neighbors (sort of)

By ELIJAH JONES,

New York City is the "Capital of the World,"  the dictionary definition of a city, with its pedestrian-packed streets and avenues lined with skyscrapers and businesses.

I always thought of it as one of those giant anthills I'd stir up when I was a kid, only in this case, if I stir the anthill, millions of humans would come scurrying out. 

But for all its bigness, here's a curiosity that's often observed about Manhattan. 

The city is sometimes referred to as a huge collection of villages.

Certainly, anytime you think of New York City, the last thing you think of is a village. But I do notice, when I'm there, how it takes what feels like thousands of neighborhoods, or "villages," to create the mega-city that is Manhattan. 

One of my best friends in the world lives there, in New York's hip and colorful Greenwich Village. 

Of course, Greenwich is not really a "village," not in the classic sense.  Just one of the countless concrete neighborhoods you might call home in Manhattan. 

In my friend's compact, walkable neighborhood, you'll find as many people as you might in a small town in Mississippi, within an area of only a few blocks. 

From the grocery store, to your dry cleaners, to restaurants, to a friend's home, they're  all right there, within easy walking distance of where you live. 

It's all very convenient. 

But you know what? Come to think of it, long before the age of everybody having an automobile, Hattiesburg had some of the same characteristics of a Manhattan - on a much smaller scale, of course. Think about it.

Hattiesburg had no Greenwich Village, but in my younger days, African-Americans did have names for the different parts of town in which we lived. 

There's East Jerusalem and Newman's Quarters (names still used today) near the Leaf River, where the East Hardy Street bridge crosses over into Petal. 

We called the neighborhood just off the Highway 11 bypass, near the former W.H. Jones School, the Park. The areas near Rowan Elementary School and Vernon Dahmer Park were opposite downtown, southeast of where I lived. 

From my side of the tracks, we referred to that part of Hattiesburg as ""cross town."  Then, there was my own little village.

I grew up in east Hattiesburg, on Fairley Street. Bouie Street was our western border and anything northeast of Bouie, down to the Leaf River, was affectionately called "The Goula." I don't know the origin of the name, but to this day, we still call it that.

Our neighborhood was about as close as you could get to the river without going fishing. Back in the 1960s, if the Leaf and Bouie Rivers so much as "sneezed" following a few days of heavy rain, we were in for some flooding. (Thankfully, the flooding issue has been remedied since then.) 

Still, in spite of the floods, we loved our neighborhood. It really was a place where everyone knew your name. We were family.

That meant if you got caught misbehaving or doing something you know you didn't have any business doing, a report got home to your parents about what you'd been up to. 

Back then, every parent in the neighborhood was like your auxiliary  parent. So you'd better be careful to stay out of trouble.

My parents had a car, but even without it, plenty of the things we needed to get done on a daily basis could be done on foot, right there in our little village. 

If you grew up in Hattiesburg during the 1960s, I'm betting you can relate.  

Most neighborhoods were loaded with businesses within easy walking distance of your home. 

From comic books to candy bars, there were plenty of places you could get what you needed on foot, or by riding there on your bicycle.  

Just a block up from my house, at Fairley and 7th streets, was Williams Grocery. Tucked away in a predominately African-American neighborhood, the store was owned by a white family who, in their own way, became part of the neighborhood family. 

White-owned corner grocery stores in predominately black neighborhoods were very common in the Hattiesburg of the '60s. 

At Williams Grocery, you could get fresh produce, meats, "washing powder" (what the older folk used to call laundry detergent), and most of the grocery items you'd find today at Walmart.   

There probably wasn't a day (except when they were closed Sunday) where I didn't walk to "Mr. Williams sto," (as we we used to pronounce it). 

If a nickel was burning a hole in my pocket, I might spend it on some of the store's two-for-a-penny cookies. They were sold individually from these giant plastic containers kept on the store's front counter.

Mrs. Williams would reach in, retrieve your cookies, then place them in a little brown paper bag. The thin coconut ones, with the lines in them, were my favorites. (Remember them?)

Back then, there was no McDonald's in Hattiesburg. In fact, I'm old enough to remember when the golden arches first made their appearance on Hardy Street, right at the Southern Miss campus. 

That section of Hardy Street was a world away for me, far from our little house on the east side of town. So, hamburgers?

Well, it just so happens, just a block down 7th Street from Williams Grocery, you'd find Mr. Shelton's Cafe. 

The old building is still there, and back in the day, Shelton's was a hole-in-the-wall local hangout, where the older folks in the neighborhood would venture on a Saturday night.

They'd go there to have themselves a cold beer, play pinball, shoot some pool or play a few BB King songs on the jukebox. 

In fact, there were a few one-room cafes like that in the Goula. So what would a kid like me be doing there?

Mr. Shelton certainly wasn't going to sell me a quart of Falstaff; not what I wanted anyway. It's his hamburgers I want to tell you about. Made as simply as could be, with a Smith's Sunbeam hamburger bun, ground beef patty and oh, those onions! (The onions are what made Mr. Shelton's burgers special.)

Everything, including the bun, was laid on his flat iron grill to heat, and I can still taste that smoky burger, the fried onions, and  just enough grease to make them extra tasty. They kinda put you in the mind of one of those Krystal hamburgers, only better.

Our neighborhood was also filled with several little shops, owned and run by neighbors who might have a candy store actually attached to their homes. 

You could go there to pick up some penny candy or buy a 5-cent bag of our long-gone local brand, Rice's Potato Chips. (Oh, how I miss them.) 

One place had a tin, semi-rusty Nehi soft drink sign out front. Nehi's peach soda was the best! And during one of those hot Hattiesburg summer days, you could pick up a zip.

It was a simple icy treat, frozen Kool-Aid, sold in a Dixie cup for a nickel. (Grape was my favorite.)

Across the street from us on Fairley Street lived Mr. White. On Saturdays, we boys would wait our turn, sitting in his living room, to get one of his 50-cent haircuts. 

His 21-inch black & white TV would be on WDAM-TV, Channel 7, keeping us entertained with Saturday morning cartoons.   

Next door to Mr. White lived my cousin, who everyone in the neighborhood knew simply as "Dear." (She was a dear, too.) 

She had a beauty parlor attached to her home, where all the neighborhood ladies (including my mother) had their hair done. 

Saturday was also her busy day, so all the ladies could be properly stunning for church on Sunday morning.  

Speaking of church, I grew up attending the historic Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on Mobile Street, a short walk from our house. My grade school, Eureka Elementary, was only another block from Mt. Carmel on 6th Street.

In those days, Mobile Street functioned as an extension of downtown for Hattiesburg's African American community, and bustled with activity. 

Dry cleaners, barber shops, beauty salons, a dentist and doctor's office, a drugstore, cabstands, nightclubs, a newsstand, TV repair shop, whew! You could find everything you needed on Mobile Street. There was even a movie house for African-American patrons, the Star Theater.

Just a block away, the 6th Street Community Center was an important neighborhood anchor. Opened in 1942, the building was originally a USO Club during the years of a segregated United States Army and served as a home-away-from-home for black soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby. 

Later, after becoming a community center, it hosted many special events and important community meetings, especially during the Civil Rights years. Today, it serves as Hattiesburg's African-Amercan Military History Museum.

Sadly, in the earlier days of my youth, blacks were forbidden use of the Hattiesburg Public Library on Main Street. 

For us children who liked to read a good book or explore the world in print, the 6th Street Community Center also housed a blacks-only branch of the main library. 

It's where I went to study encyclopedia and check out books. I'll never forget Mrs. McCree; she lived around the street from us in the Goula and was my best friend's mother. 

Mrs. McCree was the librarian at the blacks-only branch, and after integration, moved to the Main Street Library.

From church to school, from haircuts to hamburgers, everything I needed was right there where I needed them in my own little village. 

No, Hattiesburg is not the Capital of the World, like New York City. But with our own little collection of villages, then and now, we remain the "Capital of South Mississippi."

Which of Hattiesurg's villages did you grow up in?

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Send him an email at: edjhubtown@aol.com