by Julian Rankin
Think about building a porch. It ends up being about more than wood and nails. Sure, the thing has to be made of something. It has to be constructed. But it’s the builders, not the materials, who make a porch what it is. They talk while they work. They joke. They laugh. And when it’s done, when every plank is laid, they put chairs on the porch. And they string lights above the porch. And they get some friends to play music there in the corner. And they keep the door off the porch unlocked and open to others and maybe they serve coffee.
Builders take many forms. They are artists — builders of paint atop canvas or ink into skin, chefs — builders of BLT’s and noodle bowls, business owners, baristas, barkeeps. They are event organizers who build community. And in Fondren, they are all connected.
As an example, let’s look at a builder like Scott Allen of A+ Signs and Creative. When he took ownership of the business, Allen consciously began working closely with local merchants. Look up now, and A+ has made signs for neighborhood businesses including Pop Culture Pops, Fondren Fro Yo (for whom Allen and his team also designed the logo and hand painted the interior and exterior of the store), Fondren Public and La Brioche, to name a few; all of these establishments are in turn operated by risk-taking builders.
“They all have their own stories,” says Allen of the various structures and spaces in Fondren. Every sign, storefront, renovation and calloused hand is a window into the enmeshed network of makers.
Allen’s co-worker Greg Gandy is also the president of arts non-profit and community organizing apparatus Mississippi Modern, connected to creative communities all over the state. Gandy was one of the number of people who introduced me to Allen five years ago. That was around the same time I met Fondrenite William Goodman, who hosted me in his Fondren Corner studio one day to paint when he told me about tattoo artist Jason Thomas, proprietor of Electric Dagger Tattoo in Fondren Underground, from whom I’ve gotten some climbing inked kudzu.
When I look out the window of my Fondren house, I see the homes of more builders: the community-minded Matt Jeffries in one direction and in the other, songwriter, producer, and renegade do-gooder Cody Cox. I met Cox before we became neighbors through his collaborator Garrad Lee — also of Fondren — who helps Cox run one of the city’s most forward-thinking record labels. Lee’s wife, Catherine, by the way, is a builder in her own right, not just professionally, but at home when she and her husband are thickening homemade soups for Broadmeadow Neighborhood Association fundraisers. You no doubt know these and other celebrated Fondren builders and many more unheralded ones.
One day about ten years ago, after Scott Allen bought his house in west Fondren, he was riding his bike down State Street and saw some folks building a deck. He walked his bike over and starting talking with two of the fellows. One was business owner and Fondren mascot Ron Chane, and the other was a man Allen hadn’t met before named Byron Knight. It was Knight’s deck they were working on. Knight told Allen he was about to open up a coffee shop, the culmination of an entrepreneurial vision. That fledgling notion would become the Fondren anchor that is Sneaky Beans; and the porch, a steadfast outpost of the avant garde.
The three stood and talked for a while and watched the skeleton of the wood frame going up as the day waned. There was agreement between them, and visitors to and residents of modern Fondren would certainly agree, that a porch is a very worthwhile thing to build. You can perch there now and look out — as if from a naturalist’s observation deck — and see other builders at work, their contributions unfurling like perennial blooms.