Biloxi Mississippi: Urban Decay OR Urban Renewal?
By Marc Gillespie
Posted on 03/28/2018
Repeat photography gives us an opportunity to compare a photograph taken at some point in the past with a contemporary photograph of the same location. The comparison of the "then" and "now" provides clues as to what has occurred in the intervening time period, how the landscape is used, and who uses the landscape (Bass, 2004). Through this comparison, we can gain a better understanding of how space is used in a cultural context. The scope of the landscape is limited by what was captured in the original photograph (Bass, 2004). The photographer chose to include a specific area, ignoring or omitting the surrounding areas. Despite this inherent weakness, I will discuss landscape changes from 1942 to 2018 in downtown Biloxi, Mississippi.
Initially I chose 13 photographs from the Image Collection of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department that were taken in 1942. The photographer was Johnny Gramoy, an Airman stationed at Keesler Field (Bellande, 2014). Gramoy was in Biloxi for training from March to October 1942, when he came down with tuberculosis and was discharged (Bellande, 2014). The photographs include images taken of downtown Biloxi, along West Howard Avenue.
The images were narrowed down to six that could be geographically located. The locations were determined from signs in the images for businesses and in one image, a road sign. The address of the businesses were located using city directories from 1940-1941 and 1949. No intervening years were available, however, enough information was available to create an accurate location map.
The business names were plotted on a 1948 Sanborn Map. The 1948 map was necessary, as the address numbering scheme was changed such that the 400 block of West Howard Avenue is now the 800. The 1948 map included addresses, street names, and building footprints. One helpful detail on the map was the notation of storefront awnings, or canopies, which were used to match those in the images. Figure 1 shows where the photographs were taken and in which direction.
Figure 1. Section of 1948 Sanborn Map with photographer locations.
There were challenges in determining where Gramoy stood to take his photographs. One prominent sign reads "Gulf Military Stores", which does not show up in either the 1940-1941 or 1949 directory. The business at that location in 1940-1941 is listed as Economy Grocery, and as Gulfoto in 1949. Also, the directories do not list either the Biloxi Cafe or Biloxi Studio Photographs. Fortunately, the Lucky Strike Bar is shown in the 1949 directory. The Hotel Avelez is clearly visible in the background which occupied most of the 300 block of Howard Avenue, meaning the Gulf Military Stores was located in the 400 block.
Another obstacle was determining the location of the Sports Center in image 1a. Neither of the directories had a listing for this specific name. However, a similar listing, for the Biloxi Sports Cen[ter] was found in the 1949 directory. I had suspected this picture was taken near the imposing Peoples Bank at the corner of West Howard and Lameuse. There is a similar building near that location. On closer inspection, the buildings are not the same, leading to a further search of the directories and maps. Details such as the alignment of the buildings to each other, and to the street helped determine where the photograph was taken. The Sports Center building sits further back than its neighbor to the right. The direction that vehicles travel and park are another detail seen in the image. If this is the Biloxi Sports Center, it would be just down the street from Grant's Drugs. Looking at the image at high magnification a sign is visible that appears as "GR____T'S D____S", and filling in the hidden letters with those of Grant's Drugs, we have a match. This would put the photographer in the 500 block looking east. The photographer stood on the south side of the West Howard Avenue to take a photograph of young boys on ponies in front of the Biloxi Sports Center (see image 1a).
Photo pair 1. Southeast corner of Fayard Street and West Howard Avenue, Biloxi, Mississippi in 1942 (a) and 2018 (b). In 1942 the buildings are adjoining, densely occupied, and one or two-story structures. Parking on the south side is parallel parking and the north side is pull-in parking. The boys on ponies do not fit with the automobile oriented roads and could point to a parade or to the informal nature of road use in the 1940's. The photographer thought enough of the significance to capture it in a photograph. Since 1942 the buildings on the north side have been replaced by a bank with green space and a sidewalk surrounding the building. Parking is not permitted on the north side. The facade of the Grants Drugs building is stucco with a brown metal roof. The awing in the upper right no longer exists. A traffic light has been added to the intersection in center-right of image (b). Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
Then Gramoy crossed Reynoir street, taking a photograph of a horse drawn wagon in front of Grant's Drugs (see image 2a). He then takes a picture looking east down Howard capturing the turret on the roof of the Union Saloon (see image 3a).
Photo pair 2. West Howard Avenue, Biloxi, Mississippi in 1942 (a) and 2018 (b). In 1942 the Grant's Drugs building has a brick facade, awning, large windows, and street parking. The facade and windows have all been changed. The building on the far right has been replaced with a bank and open space. Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
Photo pair 3. Street view with Union Saloon Turret. The buildings and street have been significantly altered since 1942. All of the buildings on the left are vacant and most of the buildings on the right have been demolished. Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
He continues east, on the north side now, until the end of the 300 block where here takes a curious image. He captures a soldier and a street vendor (see image 4a). The soldier is looking at the driver of the car, who is looking in the opposite direction. Is the photographer watching and waiting to see if an accident occurs? Is the other soldier signaling the photographer, and possibly the street vendor, with an out-stretched arm to look out for the unaware driver? Perhaps the photographer is capturing Chico selling hot tamales in a seaside resort, famous for its seafood.
Photo pair 4. Northwest corner of West Howard and Magnolia Street, Biloxi, Mississippi in 1942 (a) and 2018 (b). Bittar's was a women's clothing shop that occupied one corner of the Hotel Avelez. The hotel had a cafe, coffee shop, barber, and took up the square block with the exception of Bittar's. The downtown was very busy with airman as seen in the 1942 image (a). Today the block is occupied by a hospital, storage containers, garbage dumpsters, and portable toilets. During my visit to the area, the only pedestrians there were homeless. Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
Photo pair 5. Soldiers on parade, West Howard Avenue, Biloxi, Mississippi in 1942 (a) and 2018 (b). The downtown district was vibrant and full of stores, bars, cafes, grocery stores, and apartments. In the 1942 image, (a), the signs read (from left-to-right): Hotel Avelez, Avelez Cafe, Tremmel's Market, Lucky Strike Bar, Gulf Military Stores, Biloxi Cafe, Biloxi Studio Photographs, and the edge of the Manhattan Bar sign. The second floor of the building on the far right was occupied by offices, and onlookers can be seen in the window. All of these businesses have been replaced by a hospital and parking lot. The marching band appears to be British soldiers wearing pith helmets. Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
On another excursion of Gramoy, he walks eastward on the north side of Howard, takes two photographs of a parade. In image 5a, he takes a picture of British soldiers marching, in the process, capturing the Gulf Military store and the Hotel Avelez as well. The photographer continues east to the middle of the 100 block where he takes a photograph of the parade-watchers (see image 6a). In the background is the Peoples Bank and Medora’s Cafe.
Photo pair 6. Parade watchers, West Howard Avenue, Biloxi, Mississippi in 1942 (a) and 2018 (b). The People's Bank building is the only structure surviving to 2018 and can be seen at the far left of each image. The businesses in the other building included Edwards's Shoes, Feith Clothes, John R Beggs Jewelry and Watchmaking, and Medora's Cafe. According to the 1949 city directory, Medora's Cafe becomes Mammy's Waffle House. The modern two-story building is occupied by the City of Biloxi. The cutline says this photograph was taken on Sunday, August 9, 1942. The attire of the parade watchers is more formal than I expected for a parade in the warm and humid August. I suspect the parade was late morning or early afternoon, after church had ended. All of the women and girls are wearing dresses and skirts, except one, who is wearing pants. All of the men and boys are wearing long pants, except one boy wearing shorts. Most of the crowd are women and children, with a few soldiers in the background. This is to be expected if most of the adult men are away fighting in the war. Image (a) courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
Johnny Gramoy captured in his photographs a five block segment of West Howard Avenue as it looked during World War II. At its peak during World War II Keesler Air Field had a population of 69,000 personnel (Farrell, 2001). This large, young population had an enormous impact on the local economy. Airmen spent both time and money in downtown Biloxi causing a boom to the economy. However, when the war ended, Keesler’s numbers were reduced. A gradual decline in the downtown district in the 1950's began a trend that has continued to the present (Perez, 2018). Once thriving stores, bars, and restaurants have been replaced by vacant lots, banks, law offices, and a hospital. The contemporary images show that urban renewal has not reached Howard Avenue in Biloxi.
I would like to thank Jane Shambra, with the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, for her patient assistance with reviewing the image collection. I would also like to thank Ray Bellande for his tireless efforts to gather local history resources and making them available to the public.
Thank you Johnny Gramoy for taking the original set of photographs and for your service to our country. Lastly, my appreciation goes out to Johnny's daughter, Peg Araiza, for donating her fathers photographs and information to Ray Bellande.
Baldwin, R. (1949). Biloxi Including D'Iberville Mississippi Con Survey City Directory. Mullin-Kille: Columbus, Ohio.
Bass, J. (2004). More Trees in the Tropics. Area, 36(1), 19-32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.lynx.lib.usm.edu/stable/20004354
Bellande, R. (2014). Gramoy / Bellande Image Collection: Images, Notes, and Description. Hand written documents and images.
Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System
Farrell, S. (2001). Not Just Farms Anymore: The Effects of World War II on Mississippi's Economy. Mississippi History Now. Retrieved from: http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/247/the-effects-of-world-war-II-on-mississippis-economy
Images courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department, Image Collection, Harrison County Library System.
Perez, S. (Feb 16, 2018). Returning Howard Avenue is first step to reviving Biloxi's downtown. Sun Herald. Retrieved from:
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Sanborn Map Company. University of Southern Mississippi Library, Long Beach, Mississippi, February 1948. New York: Sanborn Map & Publishing Co, 1948. Retrieved from: http://sanborn.umi.com.lynx.lib.usm.edu
Sterling, R. (1941). Biloxi Mississippi City Directory 1940 - 1941. Peerless Printing: New Orleans.
Figure 2. Johnny Gramoy in front of the Biloxi Lighthouse and Keesler Airfield sign taken in 1942. Courtesy of the Biloxi Local History and Genealogy Department.