Written by Paul Wolf | Photos by Frank Farmer

It’s been twenty years since Fondren businesses first came together to celebrate each other and the neighborhood they call home.

The eclectic arts district and its collection of boutiques, art galleries, retailers and restaurants were different back then, but the festive sentiment has remained.

Arts, Eats & Beats has always been one of the highlights for the whole neighborhood,” says Joel Brown, whose family has owned Brown’s Fine Art & Framing for the last fifty years. “It’s engrained. Even if we didn’t do it last year, [customers] came by asking, ‘When is Arts, Eats & Beats?’ They have it in their mind, in their conscience.”

The Fondren Renaissance-lead event took a hiatus in 2016, but this year’s lineup shows there was no rest in planning to make the 2017 iteration a stellar one.

“We’ve had the opportunity to reinvent Arts, Eats & Beats again, to make this night an exciting one,” says Jim Wilkirson, Fondren Renaissance executive director. “With the slate of activities we have ready for Thursday night, May 4 at 5 p.m., I feel confident we are bringing something fresh to the neighborhood.”

Leading off the creative side is Fondren en Plein Air painters’ day and wet canvas show at Brown’s. Add to that a half-a-dozen additional art shows around the downtown Fondren historic district — a pastel painters show at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and a student clothesline show on Duling Green among those.

Hungry? Fondren boasts 21 restaurants, bars, bakeries and coffee shops, making it what some have dubbed “Mississippi’s culinary capital.” Some eateries, like Babalu Tapas & Tacos and Saltine Oyster Bar, will pop up street-side for the night, adding to the festive atmosphere.

For those most interested in ‘beats,’ there are no less than a dozen spots to hear from student bands – like the 35-piece Hinds Community College Jazz Band and Fondren Guitars rock band — to emerging singer-songwriter acts.

And then, there are hoofbeats: those come courtesy of the world-renowned Budweiser Clydesdales who bring their eight-horse hitch to town for a pass down Duling Avenue.

The doors of neighborhood shops will be open wide for open houses and trunk shows, but ‘mad-mod’ stops are also adding to the mix. Fondren’s mid-century feel is showcased through the Mississippi Heritage Trust “Mad Mod Affair” architectural tour.

And, one lucky person will win a brand new car, a Honda Civic in the Patty Peck Honda Doo Dah Day Blue Car Giveaway, where proceeds benefit Friends of Children’s Hospital.

Brown remembers the earliest days, when Arts, Eats and Beats was called Arts & Eats and, before that, The Fondren Festival.

“Carolyn Gaby from St. Luke’s had come to me twenty-plus years ago saying we needed to organize the businesses and churches,” he recalls. “She saw a need for what we [as a community] needed to become.”

Together, Brown, Gaby and others formed the Woodland Hills Fondren Business group to work alongside a neighborhood-centric group, an effort Brown called “very cohesive.”

On April 19, 1997, The Fondren Festival featured a scavenger hunt, children’s games, a barbershop quartet and open houses at businesses like Navarro McClean Interiors, The Elephant Ear and Herb’s Frame Shop. Restaurant specials could be enjoyed at Delmonico’s, Jubilee’s and Que Sera Sera.

The fest was a springboard for other groups of merchants and residents to organize.

“It snowballed,” Brown remembers. “We were going to try it one time, but it was very successful, even with no social media and no internet to push it.”

Brown says, these days, his push is to see the neighborhood experience a continued appreciation for its charm and funky character. So, too is the goal of Mississippi Heritage Trust, whose mid-mod tour on the night will spotlight the same.

“Think about Fondren, the genesis of it — how it was always around,” Erica Speed, MHT’s special events coordinator says. “This building we are sitting in (Fondren Corner): it was empty for a long time, and it was like, ‘What are we going to do with it?’ There was no appreciation for what it was. But by advocating for change — saving and repurposing — that had a lot to do with the movement here to keep this neighborhood going. People started looking around at an area that had a vibe, and, right or wrong, picked up on the groove of it. It became this great appreciation for mid-century modern.”

Stops on their tour include the former Kolb’s Cleaners, a 1950’s Robert Overstreet design, slated for use as part of an upcoming hotel project and the 1946 Brent’s Drugs, located in Mississippi’s first suburban “strip center,” Woodland Hills Shopping Center.

While some things may be different twenty years later, fun-loving Fondren is hanging on to its community roots. And the neighborhood hopes this year’s Arts, Eats & Beats, like that very first Fondren Festival, is a chance to rally others around their hip vibe, too.

Also published in The Clarion-Ledger