by Julian Rankin
Over the past few decades in Fondren, countless “dreamers and doers” – as the messaging of the neighborhood’s monthly fete, Fondren’s First Thursday, declares – have been building and strengthening the community’s resonance and cohesion. One of the stewards of the Fondren brand, symbolic of this collaboration, is Fondren Renaissance Foundation, an organization that helps empower the smaller neighborhood associations, businesses, and citizens in the area.
But as Fondrenite and retired attorney Joe Wise, who lives at the north most “top of Fondren” called Broadmeadow remembers, the neighborhood was not always so tightly organized. He was part of a dedicated collective in the 1990s that saw a need for more community resources. In a series of informal dinner conversations, Wise and others bonded over their mutual concerns about the long-term future of their streets.
These fireside chats blossomed into a neighborhood association that would be the precursor to Fondren Renaissance Foundation. At the time, the neighborhood wasn’t yet universally known as Fondren; referred to often as simply the “North Central Community.” In an official document from March 7, 1996, the organization name was listed as “Citizens of North Central.”
The association’s first amendment, only weeks after incorporation, renamed Citizens of North Central as Fondren North Renaissance, borrowing the name of the distinguished Fondren family, who had long-standing routes in the historic district, and the directional “North” because of it’s positioning in relation to downtown Jackson. Joe Wise became its first president.
Also in that first year, community leaders (and future board members of Fondren North) identified the now-well-known parameters of the neighborhood, “lying south of Northside Drive, east of the Illinois Central Railroad, west of I-55, and north of Lakeland Drive.” These borders were set as a practical matter, a way of finding an area large enough to be indicative of the diversity of the city, while also manageable enough to embrace fully, or as Wise puts it, “to get your arms around.”
“We made it out of whole cloth, almost,” comments Wise, referring to the geographic nuts and bolts that now define the neighborhood. But from the beginning, the role of Fondren North was not to dictate to the residents and businesses, but rather, to assist; an umbrella to unify the existing associations and interests toward a common, shared goal of community betterment, not just for Fondren itself, but for the city as a whole.
Dr. Dan Jones, the former Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, echoed the goals of Fondren North during his tenure at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (located on the edge of Fondren) some years back. According to Wise, Jones proclaimed that, “We will not put a fence around the University Medical Center. Our strength is in our presence.”
That was exactly that Wise and the other charter members had in mind for their neighborhood. “We envisioned this area without a fence,” says Wise. “The best way to fight urban decay and crime is by your presence.”
Sitting in his home office, Joe Wise flips through an old file folder of Fondren North Renaissance paperwork. He reads aloud, from decades-old meeting minutes, the names of all the people who helped launch the organization and, in turn, modernize Fondren. Back then, he and others felt isolated and insecure amidst the exodus from the city to the suburbs. But, he says, “We expressed our desire that we didn’t want to abandon Jackson. It’s the capital of the state, and it’s too vital an area to let go.”
These days, when Wise walks down State Street, he is proud of Fondren. “I’m just thrilled with the way it has been able to develop without some top down management. It simply has evolved because of an idea and a vision. And it’s taken a lot of people for that to come about.”