Art in Paradise: Highway 61 Revisited

When I was a kid, I spent many an hour peering through car windows at the bleak, perfectly flat landscape of the Mississippi Delta, where I lived for several years. Cotton fields stretched to the horizon, broken here and there by a cluster of houses or a kudzu-choked line of trees. Now and then a cropduster winged over power lines to spray. Little else dared move in the thick blare of heat. Listen closely, and you could hear the hum of desperation. It’s not hard to believe this is the place that gave birth to the blues.

Highway 61 runs through the Delta up to Memphis, and it’s a road I’ve travelled many times since those childhood years. The hum hasn’t left. The empty flatness overwhelms. The endlessly straight highway leads through little towns whose modest look has changed little since my childhood. Shotgun shacks still proliferate, and main thoroughfares boast storefronts with weathered signs.

The populations of many Delta towns are African-American by large majorities, and many of the towns are exceptionally poverty-ridden. It’s no mystery why: in the wake of the Civil War, the Delta was not quick to embrace the rights of freed slaves. Sharecropping succeeded slavery; poverty succeeded servitude; whites in positions of power seldom offered opportunities to blacks. That lasted a long time: after my father became pastor of Greenville, Mississippi’s First Baptist Church in the late 1970s, he discovered that the church’s bylaws called for black churchgoers who wished to attend to be directed elsewhere. Resistance to a change was stout.

There is, especially as Massachusetts’ gambling debate heats up, much to be learned from Mississippi. When, a few years ago, I last travelled Highway 61, some things had changed. The cropdusters still slid through the humid sky, and the sun-blasted miles stretched on through desolate fields. The towns still looked worn, and shacks still bowed toward the road. But some stretches of Highway 61 aren’t rutted. Some are widened, well lit. The flat landscape makes it easy to see bright, enormous billboards announcing that the next turnoff leads to one of the many casinos.

Since the early ’90s, gambling in Mississippi has been allowed on water, a continuation of the riverboat gambling tradition. Few of these casinos, however, are mobile. In a lot of instances, it’s hard to tell how or where they rest on water. Tunica County, Mississippi, not far south of Memphis, is a major gambling hub. Tunica has long been noted for its poverty, so it’s something of an extreme test case for many of the economic arguments about the effects of gambling on communities.

The Journal of Management Policy and Practice recently published a study of the effects of gambling in Tunica County. It goes to great lengths to reach positive conclusions, using as its starting points the “hypotheses” that “gaming” has had favorable impacts on employment rates and quality of life. It is co-authored by academics from Delta State University and a representative of Isle of Capri Casino, Inc.

Even as a decidedly positive document, the study reports a mixed bag, quoting shortcomings revealed by earlier studies: “…the county of approximately 8,000 people has more jobs than it does residents. Employees who originate from outside the county hold most of those jobs, particularly the better paying ones. It appears that casinos have dramatically reduced the unemployment rate for the area, however this assumption is not accurate, due to the influx of non-residents transferring to the area and accepting positions within the gaming industry. … Little of modern America has penetrated Tunica County outside of the influences brought from the introduction of gaming. As Schwarz and Schwarz (1996) explain, residents of the county appear excluded from the basic pleasures most Americans appreciate and they do not experience what many would consider the American dream.”

Another aspect of the gambling debate is seldom discussed: what of the cultural impact of casinos? You would hope, for instance, that the Delta’s rich musical tradition would prove a major asset to casinos, just as Memphis’ Beale Street is now devoted almost entirely to the blues. Yet it’s hard to find much mention of local bands on the sites of Tunica’s casinos. They boast instead the same kind of bland entertainment as most any other non-Vegas casino. This fall, you can catch the Four Tops, The Temptations, Charlie Daniels and Lee Greenwood. If you want true Delta blues, you’ll have to find your way to a legitimate juke joint out in the old Delta.

There are undeniable benefits the Delta has reaped from casinos, things like improved infrastructure, even scholarships for local students. There are undeniable negatives: one study reported that “pathological” gambling rates for high school and college-age residents are double those for adults, and that the poor gamble away a disproportionate amount of their income.

Drive up Highway 61, and you see the manifestations of such cross-currents. Beautiful roads whisk busloads of tourists past shotgun shacks to gleaming new casinos, where they gamble over unseen ponds and can’t hear the beat of the blues.

Author: James Heflin

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