Nelson in her home studio for Sara Jones Interiors

by Julia Weiden

If you speak with anyone who has lived in Fondren for a considerable amount of time, they’ll tell you of a neighborhood that has transformed greatly for the better over the years. This is largely in thanks to the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, an organization whose mission is to promote the “preservation and revitalization of the greater Fondren community,” and has been doing exactly that for some twenty years. Sara Nelson, local Fondrenite and interior designer, is one of the founding members of the FRF who has made that revival possible.

A native of Lexington, Miss., Nelson first moved to Fondren purely out of convenience. Prior to settling on the location, she practiced an exercise to help determine the best spot for her family. Taking a map of Jackson, Nelson made little red dots over every bank, grocery store and park that she frequented. What resulted was a Fondren-centric cluster. Looking back at that moment of realization, she confidently states, “Fondren was the only place I wanted to live.”

While Fondren may not have been the most appealing neighborhood at the time of Nelson’s move, its beautification would soon follow. Fondren’s makeover began in a place so obvious, it might even be cliched: a beauty parlor. Nelson and other locals were participating in friendly neighborhood gossip while having their tresses tended to when a chatty real-estate agent mentioned that she would no longer be showing houses west of I-55. Appalled by this bit of information, Nelson first addressed the real estate agent head-on (“After all, she had several Fondren neighbors using the agent’s services!”) and then immediately got to thinking about ways to improve the condition of the area.

Fast forward to a sunny day in small town North Carolina, where Nelson and her family were spending some time strolling about, admiring the quaint store fronts and happy families. In a moment of revelation, she recognized that this is what she envisioned for the Fondren neighborhood. After a bit of research, Nelson contacted the organization responsible for beautifying that small town, a group called Main Street Management. After initially refusing to help her out, given that they had never worked with an inner-city area before, Nelson protested. Main Street gave in to her request for help, but under the condition that Nelson raise $25,000 for them to begin work. Enlisting the help of her dear friend (and fellow Fondren Renaissance Foundation founder) Mary Jo McAnally, Nelson was able to meet the fundraising needs in just one afternoon.

Impressed by the quick turnaround, Main Street Management came in and set up a plan for long term revitalization of the neighborhood, including a plan for low income housing, landscape architecture and bus transportation (now know as JATRAN). From there, the Foundation was off and running with an established board and director, which according to Nelson made all of the difference in its success. Nowadays, Fondren Renaissance Foundation hosts events like Symphony at Sunset; Four Seasons of the Cedars Art Shows; Fondren Unwrapped; Arts, Eats and Beats; and Zippity Doo Dah Weekend, along with coordinating projects such as the Phoenix Initiative, which provides façade grants to Fondren homeowners.

When she thinks about this area she calls home, Nelson simply puts it: “When you think about what a neighborhood should be like, it’s Fondren.”