Walking The Riverwalk: Untapped Potential in Morgan City

I could have driven the more prosaic way from New Orleans to Lafayette, but I decided instead to go the back way from the West Bank of New Orleans by way of Morgan City into New Iberia and then Lafayette. I reasoned that there would be better scenery, and I had always wanted to better explore Morgan City, an island city which is best known for being threatened by hurricanes. Morgan City proved to be interesting indeed. I stopped first at DJ’s Music, which proved to be a car stereo shop as well as a record store, and I bought a hip-hop mix CD there before heading on to downtown Morgan City, whose main street ran parallel to the Atchafalaya River and was called Front Street.
Front Street was lined with old and historic buildings, many of them painted bright pastel colors. Although the river view was blocked by a large seawall, the balconies of many of the buildings were high enough to have a view of the water, but on closer inspection, many of the buildings appeared to be empty. Aside from one fairly upscale restaurant called Cafe Jojo’s, there was no place to eat along the street, and few of the shops seemed to be open. One of the buildings had been a department store which looked as if it had been out of business for many years, yet all the clothes still hung on racks inside, as if it was just left after its last day of business. The two historic-looking buildings at the far southern end of Front Street proved to be part of a food-service company that specializes in providing food to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. North Railroad Street around the corner had a handful of rather seedy-looking lounges. A walk around the downtown area revealed a few historic buildings and an old church, a shady park, and the classic City Hall with its decorative palm trees. But Front Street has a look of tired desolation and missed opportunities, a street that with the right planning and vision could become a tourist and entertainment attraction, a street of restaurants, night clubs, boutique hotels, condominiums and art galleries. I found Morgan City both beautiful but also a little depressing.

Lower Front Street in Key West

From Duval Street, Front Street swings to the southwest along the waterfront to Mallory Square, a large open market which is surrounded by more shops and restaurants, including the 90 Miles Blues Bar and the famous Hog’s Breath Saloon. Further down is the Clinton Square Market and several other historic buildings and monuments.

Front Street in Key West

Key West’s Front Street is the street nearest the water in the city’s entertainment district. It runs from the A & B Marina along the waterfront to the Pier House and Ocean Key resorts, and it is lined with several shops and restaurants.

Club Tay-May, Mason TN, Summer 1991

014 Club Tay May015 Club Tay May

Back in the summer of 1991, when I was hanging out with a lot of fellow UT-Martin students who lived at Gainsville just outside of Mason, a local festival gave me the excuse to be down on the Lower End taking pictures. I had almost forgotten that I had them. I even got a picture of the legendary Club Tay-May, which burned to the ground not long after. 

UPDATED: Tay-May was the big club in Mason, and had existed in several different locations, the last one being the one pictured here. Since it could hold hundreds, it routinely featured artists like Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton, and was rumored to be the place where Rufus Thomas invented the Funky Chicken! I will always be sad that I never went inside it.

The Lower End, Front Street, Mason TN, Summer 1991

001 The Lower End002 The Lower End003 Chilling In Front of the Green Hut004 The Lower End005 Purple Rain Lounge006 The Black Hut007 The Black Hut008 Still The Real Deal009 Godfather Lounge, Brown Hut & Real Deal010 The Lower End

Mason, Tennessee, Front Street, The Lower End, Summer 1991. 

This was the summer that I was spending a lot of time in and around Mason and Gainesville, Tennessee. I had gotten some black and white film, and was having fun with my camera, and I was always fascinated by the “cafes” in Mason, as juke joints were called in those days. Of course, I had no idea back then that most of these buildings would be torn down and destroyed, so the pictures are maybe a little more important now than I had imagined.

Disillusionment on the Lower End

Every time I visit Front Street in Mason, Tennessee, it seems that another building has been torn down, burned down, or has just fallen down from age and neglect. The once proud row of jukes, known locally as “cafes”, has been reduced to three or so which clearly have seen better days. Called the “Lower End” or the “row”, the clubs made Mason a sort of rural African-American Las Vegas, a milieu of “players” that a local resident once described in a feature article for the Commercial Appeal.

But the glory days are long gone, as are Club Tay-May, the Purple Rain, the Black Hut, the Red Hut, most of them reduced to vacant lots. As a photographer, musicologist and blogger, part of me wants to photograph what remains…after all, it may soon be gone. But there are a number of older African-American men and women hanging out on the porches, and I suddenly feel that taking their picture would be disrespectful, almost an intrusion. 

I face this dilemma all too often as I drive through Delta areas, looking for old architecture, juke joints and holy sites of the blues. Often I will see a perfect photo opportunity, and yet I will know that my taking it would either anger local residents or at least raise suspicions about who I am and what I am doing, and I hate the tortured past of race relations that makes this the reality in towns like Mason. 

So I don’t take the photo, riding past instead, feeling disillusioned and hopelessly cut off from that world that I find so attractive. Up on Highway 70, a group of young men are shooting basketball, and outside the old Fields School, another small group of young people is standing around in the gathering dusk. A sign says that the old school is now Club Maserati. Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, the other reason that I have come tells me that they are closing for the night and cannot serve me, and down the road Gus’ World-Famous Fried Chicken is also closed for the night. Suddenly I realize that I came out to Mason for nothing at all.