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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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Discovering Mississippi’s Gulf Coast

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The Biloxi harbour. [Nancy Wigston photo]

“That’s where my house used to be,” says volunteer tour guide and full-time banker Dennis Burke as we solemnly gaze at an empty lot a few blocks from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Although most famous for the destruction wreaked on New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina made landfall here in Biloxi; local townsfolk tell stories of survival that are as vivid today as they were eight-plus years ago.

On a warm and cloudless autumn day, fishing off the town pier is extraordinarily bountiful, and all seems sunny and bright, but Biloxi has seen its share of stormy weather.

Katrina was preceded by the furies of Camille in 1969. But the Mississippians we meet want us to know that, above all, they are resilient folk. After Katrina, we’re told, “The bridges were up and running within a year.” After the BP oil spill, local fishing rebounded after a year’s moratorium.

Mississippians tend to tell their disastrous tales with a comic edge. A favourite – we hear it more than once – is the one about the hurricane-damaged casino, where “table-hopping” waiters threw marshmallows to distract an invasion of alligators. The loyal employees dove among the reptiles to retrieve thousands of dollars in missing coins. (Lesson learned: no more coins are used in Biloxi’s casinos.)

“They endured,” famously wrote Mississippi Nobel laureate William Faulkner about African-Americans in his home state. At Biloxi’s Heritage Center on Highway 49, across from the 1848 lighthouse, a landmark that has braved many a storm, art work and informative displays boast of the cultural mix that has long distinguished the “poor man’s Riviera.”

During the slavery era, coastal land was too sandy for plantations, so Biloxi attracted a number of free blacks from the Caribbean. During the War of 1812, and later, during the Civil War, African-American troops – who petitioned president Abraham Lincoln for and were given the vote before the constitution was amended – were stationed on Ship Island – as many as 14,000 at a time – with its solid British-built fort and pristine sandy beaches.

Biloxi’s casino-dominated skyline (where big buildings and the barrier islands absorbed the worst of Katrina’s 24-foot waves) is framed by several charming towns to the west and east. In Bay St. Louis (“coolest town in the South”) we stroll the old streets, visit galleries, and tour the 1928 train depot, sparkling with Mardi Gras costumes.

Bay St. Louis’s 100 Men D.B.A Hall (Debating and Benevolent Association) is a rare example of a real “Chitlin’ Circuit” music hall. Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair – the blues and R&B greats performed here. Founded in 1922, as a non-profit mutual aid association so that the black population could get medical care and a decent burial, the hall is featured on the Mississippi Music Trail. Current keepers of the musical flame are Jesse and Kerrie Loya, a husband-and-wife team from California. Kerrie explains: “We’ll be sitting in the garden at 10 at night and fans from Europe will knock on the door, asking if they can come inside,” she laughs. Concerts and shows still take place within its old wooden walls.  

We didn’t expect to find a synagogue in Biloxi, but we did. Beth Israel is housed in a new building, well back from the shore, just in case, as its predecessor was destroyed by Katrina. Lori Beth Susman shows us around. Susman is in the “gaming business,” she tells us, and moved here from Las Vegas. The interior is a blend of old and new; the Torahs were rescued before the storm, and the lovely new Ark was designed by artist Shane Sigool. In the homey Sunday school rooms, cluttered with books, a child’s drawing reads, “Thank you, Rabbi Lois.”

Forty-five families form today’s community, a group that originated in the 1940s and ’50s, with help from a Jewish military chaplain, Abe Silver, stationed at nearby Kessler Air Force Base. “We’re Conservative,” says  Susman, “but we run the gamut from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.”

Despite its nine casinos and endless flow of tourists, Biloxi’s permanent population numbers only about 10,000. So when the old synagogue was destroyed, Beth Israel received help from the entire faith-based community. “They arrived on trucks; they ignored government warnings,” explains tour guide Burke. “Helping, not charity,” adds Susman, as we end our tour in the synagogue’s lovely new patio-courtyard, perfect for celebrations.

Although Burke tells us that the French from Louisiana, like his ancestors, were the first immigrants in Biloxi, several ethnic groups have followed. We visit some friendly Slovonians (from the Dalmatian Coast in the former Yugoslavia) at their elegant hall, and hear tales of serving in World War II and success in the fishing industry. Half a century later, Vietnamese arrived and prospered in commercial fishing. At Le Bakery, a popular lunch spot, owner Sue Nguyen-Torjusen tells us that her Vietnamese-French baguettes so impressed one of her customers that she immediately secured a major order from one of Biloxi’s biggest casinos.

Artists too, have been inspired by this coast. Biloxi’s Old Town is a warren of old cottages, shops, galleries and cafes. At Prima Donna Vintage Boutique we find Kate Middleton-style hats designed by the young and engaging owner. Next door is another surprise: a small gallery devoted to the work of modernist Southern artist Dusti Bong, where the original work hanging on the walls is rivalled by the artist’s personal history. 

Back in the 1920s, bold headlines told Dusti’s shocking tale: “Banker’s Daughter Weds Doorman.” The People’s Bank, on a nearby Old Town corner, was run by Dusti’s father, and her tall, handsome husband had indeed been a doorman she had met at a New York hotel. But in truth, he was also an artist. The romance was just the kind of love match, he died young, that remains timeless. And Dusti’s pictures are catnip for fans of early modern art.

Venture further east and you’ll discover funky, artistic Ocean Springs. This community on the eastern shore of Biloxi Bay boasts a museum devoted to renowned Southern painter Walter Anderson. Notorious for his mysterious disappearances in his flat-bottomed boat, Anderson painted the coast’s many barrier islands in dreamy colours and romantic tones. His brother Peter Anderson was a potter whose children run his pottery today. Ocean Springs, founded by the French in 1699, calls itself the “City of Discovery,” a moniker that many of historic towns along the Mississippi coast could just as rightfully claim.

For more information: www.visitmississippi.org;  www.mswestcoast.org; www.oceanspringschamber.com

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