A Good Wall Is Hard to Find

Margaret Foster's picture

It's like something out of a Flannery O'Connor story. The setting is the small town of Natchez, Miss., which was built on an unstable, water-soluble bluff. An entire street, Clifton Avenue, collapsed about 20 years ago. Swallowed up. A few years back-in 1995, to be exact, Sen. Trent Lott urged Congress to shore up the bluff to save not just people-two women died in a 1980 street collapse-but "to protect these historically significant properties and to prevent potential loss of lives," as he put it.

Lott got what he wanted: $30 million from the federal government to build a retaining wall of sorts that runs the length of Natchez's historic district. It's eight inches thick, and, according to some residents, the bluff is holding up the wall, not the other way around.

The wall, however, gives the town a sense of security. With its eight-inch-thick Superman, town leaders felt so secure, in fact, that they decided to tear down a 1946 pecan factory and sell the water-soluble land to condo developers who want to build a $19 million five-building complex with underground parking lot.

On both sides of the pecan factory, the land has collapsed. One Natchezzer (surely not a real word) calls the area "the big bite," because it "looks like a monster just came out of the Mississippi and just took a bite."

Hmm. You have a situation so dire that you need the Army Corps of Engineers to fix it, and 12 years later, you decide that the land is good enough to support a condo building with an underground parking lot? There must be some Southern Gothic symbolism in this story, but I don't see it. I just know I'm not going to buy a condo in Natchez.

 

Margaret Foster is the editor of Preservation Online.

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