Every town needs a center – a physical space for people to gather with a distinctive feel that helps form the community’s self-identification.
And every town needs to come together periodically to reaffirm its distinctiveness, and honor its heritage, as well.
Tupelo had good doses of both last week.
Fairpark was intended to be the city’s “front porch,” where people from all walks of life congregate to mingle, relax and be entertained. That vision of 15 years ago is gradually becoming reality, and the July 4th celebration, moved to Fairpark last week for the first time in the event’s 27-year history, was another big step in that direction.
Thousands descended on the area around City Hall and out on to a closed-off Main Street for the music and fireworks, but it didn’t seem overcrowded. The weather was marvelously mild for July, and people were in a festive mood.
The setting proved just right, and even though there were still challenges getting traffic out after it was over, it seemed a better venue for this sort of event than Ballard Park.
An intentional effort over the last few years to stage more events in Fairpark has not only helped bring people downtown after hours but has also begun to establish that very adaptable green space, with its attractive architectural backdrop, as an icon of Tupelo’s aspiration for community unity across cultural, racial and generational divides.
Gathering together helps people experience and appreciate their common identity. Fairpark is doing that, more and more. The “Down on Main” concert series starting this Thursday will provide additional opportunities the rest of the summer.
Earlier in the week, the Lawhon Elementary School auditorium overflowed with a diverse gathering of Tupelo residents who had come together to observe the changing of the guard in city government. New Mayor Jason Shelton had chosen for his and the City Council’s swearing-in ceremony the stage where both he and Elvis had performed.
After the official festivities ended, which included a brief and uplifting Shelton tribute to Tupelo’s history and capacity to meet its challenges, everyone moved to the Elvis birthplace to celebrate the day. Included in the crowd were people from virtually every neighborhood, socio-economic status and political persuasion in Tupelo. They were there to reinforce to each other, and to themselves, their commitment to the community they all share.
Like Fairpark for the Fourth, east Tupelo as the venue for the swearing-in of the first mayor from that part of town was appropriate, and not just because it gave us the city’s most famous native son. The arc of Tupelo’s history has been about increasing inclusiveness, and many in east Tupelo have never felt fully included in the city’s success story. Symbolically, at least, Monday’s events said east Tupelo is as important to the city as any other area.
And there was symbolism, as well as substance, in the new City Council’s first official action Tuesday night when it unanimously selected Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis as council president. She’s both the first African-American and the first woman to serve in that role. There was appropriate recognition of the historic nature of that selection.
It was, in many respects, a good week for Tupelo. Not that the civic spirit won’t be frayed from time to time over the next four years. Nor does simply coming together – whether to celebrate the past and future or simply to have fun and be entertained – by itself mean that the communal bonds can’t be broken.
But without such occasions, it’s harder to sustain and build upon those bonds. It’s good to get together, the more the better.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.