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Along the Mississippi River: The Sweet Lowdown

Eve Fowler

Photo: Eve Fowler

ACROSS MULBERRY, IN A LAWN CHAIR, sits an African-American woman in her mid-forties. Her name is Jacqueline Smith, and she has spent her days and nights there on the street for the last 13 years. She refused to leave her long-term rental in the Lorraine when it was sold to the museum, was eventually evicted by court order, and has been protesting the irony ever since. (King, she says, would never have stood for it.) She fans herself with a glossy pamphlet that bullets her talking points—she is well organized and, apparently, well funded—and glowers across the street. If there is to be a monument to civil rights, she says, let it be a real place where real people live. Like subsidized housing, or a newly vitalized neighborhood. She waves at the museum. "That's just melodrama," she says. "It's just emotionalism. That's not authentic." True enough. When you come upon the eerily preserved exterior of the Lorraine, you can't be sure that it isn't a diorama constructed to resemble the famous picture of King's body slumped on the balcony with Jesse Jackson pointing into the path of the bullet.

Smith explains how the ramshackle neighborhoods around the Lorraine are about to be gentrified. "Let me assure you, it's not black folks moving in," she says. I take a quick drive around the block and find that Smith is right: broken-down mills are being sandblasted, transformed into airy lofts. As far as history goes in Memphis and destinations south, you're never sure whether what you're seeing is the beginning of something or the end.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission decrees that its casinos must be on the Mississippi River proper or the Gulf of Mexico or moored to their banks. Or, curiously, on a body of water navigable to any of the above. It doesn't say navigable by what. Though it's technically possible, you'd be hard-pressed to paddle a canoe from the river through the reedy murk to the surreal casino moonscape of Tunica County, Mississippi. Forty miles south of Memphis, Tunica County was once the poorest in America, with swamp and soggy cotton and a total of 20 hotel rooms. The passage of gaming laws in the early nineties attracted more than $3.5 billion in development. The church elders in Robinsonville and neighboring towns fought the proposed legislation, but the congregations couldn't wait for the casinos to open.

Now there are 10 casinos in the county—with names like Harrah's and Bally's and Gold Strike—and 6,000 hotel rooms. Gleaming bronze towers rise behind the fields; vast halls are done up in garish Western motifs; the swamps are covered over by asphalt parking lots. They call it a gambler's paradise. Inside, in the oxygenated air, you might for a moment mistake the Sam's Town Tower or the Grand Casino Tunica for Vegas: the carnival clang of the slots, the crack of dice and the tinkle of chips, that bunkered, timeless isolation of the rooms.

Inland Mississippians flock here, along with road warriors in RV exile pit-stopping their way to the gulf. But it's not just Tunica they're flooding. On the highways into Vicksburg, 170 miles south, billboards that once marketed the town as a Civil War theme park now herald casinos dressed as old paddle wheelers. The Mississippi Gaming Commission talks up the courthouses and jails and schools built and improved with casino money. But, as one Vicksburg native told me, "For the first time in a hundred years, Vicksburg is less about the Civil War than it is about 'going to the boat.' " A woman from Clarksdale, a town of wide porches and a long history of storytelling, complained, "I know a lot of ladies who used to play bridge at home; now they just go up to the casinos and play blackjack."

But word is that the casinos are sinking. How couldn't they be?In this swamp, anything but a pontoon would. You reach for the obvious metaphor until you realize that the casino folks must have known that tossing $3.5 billion worth of construction into the swamp is still going to pay. And stepping back outside into the glare of the marsh, and the big silence, you know it will—on the outskirts of town the pawnshops are waiting. The shelves are stocked with last-chance possessions: watches and rings and car stereos.

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