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White Paper: Art & Community vs Environmental Sustainability

Travelers Hotel

I interviewed Chuck Rutledge, one of Coahoma Collective’s founders, an enthusiastic, friendly, and talkative person who helped me pronounce coahoma (ka-ho-ma) and then explained that it was a Choctaw word meaning “red panther.” Chuck seemed happy to discuss Coahoma Collective’s challenges, existing endeavors, and future plans. From my research, and our discussion, I believe Coahoma Collective is actively pursuing utopian ideals through art-centered historic preservation and community building. In spite of some pitfalls, this is driving positive social change and short-term sustainability in the town of Clarksdale, MS.

They first organized in 2016 as a group of real estate developers, nonprofit professionals, artists, and architects who shared a deep commitment to catalyzing arts-driven, community-inclusive revitalization in downtown Clarksdale. Coahoma Collective was granted 501(c)3 nonprofit status in 2018 and in its first year, purchased two historic downtown buildings (1), now known as the Collective Seed & Supply Co. and Travelers Hotel. 

Once home to millionaire cotton farmers, Clarksdale is, like the rest of the Mississippi Delta, about 80% African American, and deeply segregated. Its population of about 16,000 to 18,000 people, has been declining for decades (2). The founders of Coahoma Collective (native to Clarksdale) decided to do something about this decline. In the interview, Chuck Rutledge said they are dedicated to revitalizing downtown, which they believe is the heart of any community and without a bustling downtown the municipality will slowly die out. Coahoma Collective’s revitalization practices focus on historic restoration and community building in the heart of Clarksdale.  

The Collective Seed & Supply Co., formerly Miss Del’s, is an independent, employee-owned general store and garden center. It opened April 2018, and has been a source for outdoor plants, garden seed and gardening accessories, and also a go-to for specialty foods, craft beer, local art, home goods, stationery, and more (3). The Travelers Hotel, formerly the Websters building circa 1920, began as a stop-over for railroad workers and had 13 rooms upstairs with one restroom at the end of the hall; the bottom floor used to be a printing company and retail store. This downtown building remained vacant for 30 years. As of February 2019 it reopened as the Travelers Hotel and is run by a cooperative of folks seeking to live creatively. The interior was renovated to honor its historic past while offering modern day amenities like WiFi, ADA accessibility, heating/cooling, and bathrooms in every one of the 20 guest rooms (4). Travelers is more than a hotel — it is a space designed to support local artists and cultural traditions through year-round exhibitions, performances, and events, says Ann Williams, executive director of the Coahoma Collective (5). A portion of revenues from both the Collective Seed & Supply Co. and Travelers Hotel fund programs and events that drive community engagement, conservation, and collaboration among locals, visitors, and their growing team (1).

The cooperative model for both businesses is a do-it-yourself way to help the community collectively get out of poverty. Unlike relying on a large corporation to support the economy and then being at the mercy of that corporation’s desires, they are building a system for and by the people that is sustainable for future generations. For the hotel owners, the opportunity to produce more entrepreneurs and allow them to acquire ownership of the hotel is another vital piece to sustainability of the project, and the income generated from both buildings stays in Clarksdale, it doesn’t go to headquarters somewhere else. 

Travelers’ lobby, which is open to the public, serves as a de facto community hub, with places for small and large groups to gather, free wifi, a bar that is open in the evenings and a small stage to feature local or visiting performing artists. Community members can reserve space for meetings, while the artist cooperative will use the space to host events for Clarksdale and the surrounding region. The Collective Seed & Supply Co. also offers its courtyard as an outdoor gathering space, where hotel guests, artists and community members alike can pass warm evenings together (5). 

Collective Seed & Supply Co.

Both the Collective Seed & Supply Co. and Travelers Hotel are sites of historic preservation. There are many proven benefits of historic preservation that include retaining a community’s unique sense of place and stimulating the local economy. Chuck Rutledge has a career in renovating old buildings, an occupation that has environmental sustainability baked into it. Preservation reduces the need for construction of new buildings and the consumption of land, energy, materials, and financial resources they require (6). Tear-downs release toxins and other pollutants directly into the air, water and soil, and produce massive amounts of debris that must go into landfills. Rehabilitating and reusing abandoned or underutilized properties reduces the need to expand into undeveloped land. Many buildings constructed prior to 1970 are often more energy efficient and have lower utility costs, in many cases, thick solid walls provide greater insulation and require less energy for heating and cooling; planning details often found in historic buildings frequently capitalized on natural light and ventilation to regulate the interior climate through site orientation and layout. Through historic preservation, original building materials retain their usefulness, and historic rehabilitation itself uses less energy, raw materials and natural resources (7).

A project in the works for Coahoma Collective is a housing trust fund for the community. Housing trust funds are distinct funds established by city, county, or state governments that receive ongoing dedicated sources of public funding to support the preservation and production for affordable housing and increase opportunities for families and individuals to access decent affordable homes. Housing trust funds are extremely flexible and can be used to support innovative ways to address many types of housing needs. Many trust funds report highly successful track records addressing a wide range of critical housing needs (8). 

Another project in the works is a public art park that hopes to bring diverse parts of the community together by involving the residents directly in the planning, design, funding and construction of their own park. Due to the nature deficit disorder in Clarksdale, Chuck Rutledge believes the park will uplift people and reconnect the residents with nature and each other. It seems Coahoma Collective is changing the way Clarksdale lives, loves, learns, and conducts business in the present, but they fail to see the future. 

Sociologists define social change as changes in human interactions and relationships that transform cultural and social institutions. These changes occur over time and often have profound and long-term consequences for society (9). According to the United Nations Brundtland Commission, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (10). 

The median household income in Clarksdale, MS in 2019 is $29,643 (11). As of May 5, 2019, the starting price for a room in the Travelers Hotel is $125. Clearly this establishment is marketed toward affluent tourists visiting the home of the blues. As evidenced in Marfa, TX, the locals can no longer afford homes as a result of tourists falling in love with the quaint, artistic Texas town. Affluent tourists buy up the cheaper land inadvertently driving out residents. Tourism can often cause environmental damage with risks like erosion, pollution, environmental damage, spreading of invasive organisms, depletion of natural resources, the loss of natural habitats, and forest fires. Even if tourists behave responsibly, the sheer number of them can cause damage. Historic buildings, monuments, and temples often struggle to cope with increased traffic and suffer inevitable wear-and-tear. Tourists can often lack respect for local traditions and culture, refuse to follow local standards, or behave rudely or inappropriately towards locals. Although jobs are created by tourism, most are relatively low-level such as bar work, hotel service, restaurant serving, and so forth. Without careful consideration and planning, money can end up being directed toward tourist areas when it could be used more efficiently elsewhere. Sometimes tourism becomes so focal, that other forms of income-generation are neglected and economic dependence on tourism forms. This can leave the town vulnerable to economic ruin in the long run and contribute to political upheaval or natural disasters (12). 

As the city is revitalized, Travelers Hotel might drive out low income residents by driving up rent. If Clarksdale and other cities in the Delta aren’t careful, their historic preservation regulations can function as exclusionary zoning, preventing new buildings or homes from being built. While Clarksdale is small, a turn around in the economy from such noble endeavors could prevent future development. Rules for historic preservation can sabotage housing construction and affordability because of cost, red tape, permitting delays or capacity limits imposed on homebuilding (13).

Coahoma Collective has initiated a couple environmentally conscious practices, like no daily turndown services at Travelers and choosing to renovate vs building new, yet in the interview with Chuck Rutledge when I asked what they were doing about environmental sustainability, the answer was they were not. Considering Mississippi is republican, I worry it might be less likely that the state will take efficient measures to curb environmental problems associated with growing interest in the Delta. For instance, farmers cannot farm in Mississippi without chemicals, cotton plants are sprayed so they lose their leaves and make cotton picking easier. Economic growth without concern for the environment is unsustainable; increase in GDP leads to increase in material and energy use, and therefore to environmental unsustainability (14). If Coahoma Collective sees the fruit of their labors in economic growth, they could be catalyzing an uptick in tourism, consumption, and more waste. If we look at other sites throughout human history, Easter Island, the Fertile Crescent, etc, “forests precede civilization, deserts follow” (15). If Coahoma Collective truly succeeds in their visions of the future, how does it play out after a generation or more? How much urban sprawl will follow? How much gentrification? How long before Clarksdale is no longer sustainable? Focusing on social and economic sustainability without discussing environmental sustainability, is handicapping sustainable efforts.

Another concerning factor is Coahoma Collective’s top-down infrastructure. This is meant to support entrepreneurs and creatives who want to do something, but don’t know how or don’t have the means, as a result of this infrastructure Coahoma Collective can provide resources for the community to learn and grow without the burden of going it alone. However, as a top-down system they run the risk, like any top-down business, of dictating what they think the public wants without knowing what the nuanced and individual needs of the community actually are by virtue of not having the community involved every step of the way. To compare to Project Row Houses (PRH) in Houston, TX — a project dedicated to the importance of art as both a symbol and practical tool for the community — PRH takes care to focus on how art can serve the needs of the people within the community, and not swoop in and create a whole new culture that essentially displaces the people already there. The risk for top-down ventures is that locals won’t communicate their needs and desires even if they have the platform to do so, especially if they’re distrustful of authority figures, or used to being ignored and shut out, so changes that could benefit everyone won’t even come to light because people don’t have the tools to advocate for them. While the Collective Seed & Supply Co. and the Travelers Hotel themselves are cooperatively owned, they are both part of the non-profit Coahoma Collective, which is not owned by the community.

On the whole, I applaud Coahoma Collective’s plans. I’m even enticed to be an artist-in-residence with them for a couple months. What they’re doing is fantastic, their thought and care, their attention to the community and the arts, and their support of the birthplace of the blues is intentional and inspiring. Nonetheless, I caution them to think about the environment and how they can support the land everyone is living on. If there isn’t a vital landscape that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, how can they transform the cultural and social institutions for the better, as they say? Even small changes can have profound and long-term impacts for the community. I realize it is not Coahoma Collective’s mission to be environmental activists, yet I challenge them to consider how they can continue their efforts and protect the environment — some examples: using permaculture principles, supporting or creating public education/awareness, or simpler yet ditching single use plastics, using green cleaning products, eco-gardening, and letting their clientele, partners, and team members know about their efforts and asking them to join in — only then can Coahoma Collective truly make a sustainable commitment to the community. 

Ground Zero Blues Club Clarksdale, MS


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