Looking for a Vieux.

I know that five years ago, a hurricane came through and knocked this city over. But five years later, in what was supposed to be the heart of downtown, I can only think of three questions: Where are the shops? Where are the restaurants? Where did this go wrong?

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 3, 2010

A week ago, I was sitting in the office of Vincent Creel when he said something that I found strange. Creel is the spokesperson for the city of Biloxi. He was born here, raised here, went to high school here, and eventually returned to work here. We’re sitting in the same second-floor office that he sat in when Katrina came through.

I was asking him about the city’s plans for the future, and he mentioned something that he thought was a misstep from the past. In the 1990s, Biloxi leadership created Main Street Biloxi, a plan to revitalize the city’s east end. An area of Howard Street — not Main Street, as the title might suggest — was at the center of their plans, he said. The city took a few blocks of Howard and renamed it Vieux Marche, with the goal of turning it into a pedestrian-friendly downtown area.

That sounded okay to me. I’ve seen pedestrian-only streets succeed both domestically and abroad. State Street in Madison, Wisc.; the 16th Street Mall in Denver; and La Rambla in Barcelona come to mind. Beale Street in Memphis and Bourbon Street in New Orleans are shut down during certain hours to accommodate pedestrians, and those streets are practically recession-proof.

It worked in Barcelona. It worked in Memphis. It worked in New Orleans. How did it fail so spectacularly here?

But Creel said Vieux Marche hadn’t developed as planned. Instead of attracting new customers, traffic just seemed to flow right past it.

Then he made that strange comment. “When have you ever heard of an area shutting down traffic and then getting more popular?” he asked me. I wasn’t sure which of the aforementioned success stories to mention; I ended up mentioning none at all.

Today, I finally got a chance to check out Vieux Marche. It’s a five-minute walk from the Beau Rivage and Hard Rock casinos, and it’s easy to see what the planners had in mind: a quaint strip of small town, Main Street America. It’s got the trees and the flowers and even the old-timey Howard Street sign, but it’s missing something:

Businesses.

The street is a one-way in the 700 and 800 blocks. In that stretch, there isn’t a single business selling merchandise or food.[1] There are two banks and offices for an attorney, a CPA and a church. In just the 800 block, there are twelve storefronts, by my count. Five are empty and for rent. One has a hole in its roof that’s large enough that it shows up on Google Maps. Several shops have trash bags in the windows, and in an alley, there are big traffic cones hidden in the bushes.

I know that five years ago, a hurricane came through and knocked this city over. But five years later, in what was supposed to be the heart of downtown, I can only think of three questions:

Where are the shops?

Where are the restaurants?

Where did this go wrong? ❑