Searching for a community's story an intellectual snipe hunt?
Feb. 25, 2001
You may believe that "snipe hunting" is a child's game. A empty sack, a dark night, some conspirators and a gullible kid. There are other versions. One involves a marsh bird I knew as a snipe that was a passable target for one interested in sharpening one's quail shooting skills.
Then there are intellectual snipe hunts. Like the credulous child who returns with an empty sack, one enters and returns from these mind games in befuddlement. It's true, I'm the susceptible chaser of ideas.
For example, one day last week our editorial team had one of those classic Meridian/Lauderdale County conversations about our community. The ruminations were sparked along by an out-of-town friend who is very familiar with this place we call home. A kind and prodding provocateur, our guest knowingly led us into a briar patch of diverse opinion.
You might call our dialogue an exchange of "whys" and "whynots," or an exploration of "ifs" and "whens." The content was neither new nor especially revealing. And, as usual, no conclusions were reached.
Part of the discussion turned on "how others see us." What is the Meridian/Lauderdale County image beyond our immediate community?
For example, when someone says "Natchez" what image comes to mind? Antebellum heritage. Or "Tupelo?" Furniture and Elvis. "Hattiesburg?" USM and retirement community development.
And when folks beyond this place hear "Meridian," what words pop into their minds? Plenty of answers. Best consensus was "we don't know." Asking the question another way, if you were going to put a marketing tag on the Meridian area what word or words would you employ?
The view of downtown from Interstate 20/59 is cool. The Threefoot Building dominates the skyline but other excellent landmarks abound. I personally like the potential of the Bonita Lakes area. And there are many other options. Too many.
The term coined by Mayor Dial at the turn of the last century was "Queen of the East." At some point this morphed into "the Queen City." Some people hear echoes of invented pretension. Use of the term, "Queen City," in the newsroom results in lashes with wet noodles.
One approach to the image question, is to simply ask visitors for their impressions. For example, for many folks Meridian's image is shaped by the view from Interstate 20/59. How many people a day drive by? What impression do they receive?
Many of us have been in list-producing, brainstorming sessions on this topic. Single words or phrases to distinguish the Meridian/Lauderdale County area? Transportation: highways, railways, airways. Trade, retail and wholesale. Warehousing and distribution. Health care. Public Defense: Navy, National Guard, Reserve. Manufacturing? Entrepreneurship? And the list goes on.
Usually the word "diverse" gets on the flip chart. Accurate? Perhaps but not distinguishing. What makes Meridian different? What is our niche? One of my binary buddies asks this "either-or" question. Is Meridian a way station or a destination? And he answers himself, "both and more."
And he's absolutely correct. Transportation is fundamental to our community. Trains, past and future. Cars, buses and trucks moving people and goods. And airplanes, civilian and military. Is Meridian a destination or a way station?
One of my friends contends that Meridian is like a jigsaw puzzle. He sees the pieces coming together but is not ready to put a word or two in the blank. But he sees downtown as THE key symbol of Meridian's story. He even looked worried when I agreed.
As this was being written we had some searching newsroom conversation about our community's master narrative or story. From my perch, transportation of people and goods and ideas is basic to that story. For many people, Meridian is a crossroads community. For others it is home. And the tension between Meridian as way station and Meridian as home is part of that story.
Our community, like each of us, is a work in progress. Meridian is a story not yet written. And it is not a journalist's story. It is a community's story. It's your turn to fill in the blank:
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.