By Michael Stewart / Executive Editor
The Meridian Star
Since returning to The Meridian Star to take over as executive editor, I have spent much of my down time driving around getting reacquainted with the area.
There are changes of course.
For one thing, Meridian has grown since I left the paper in 2000, with the suburbs stretching further out beyond the city limits. New strip malls and chain stores have cropped up and there are more businesses and shopping opportunities.
Downtown looks much the same. I was happy to see that some of the old familiar downtown establishments are still in operation. Others have closed and new ones have opened, which is only natural.
The city's character, thankfully, has remained unchanged and still evokes that old-South charm that reminds me of home.
During the school year, home for me in my youth was Pensacola, Fla., where my mother and stepfather still reside. During the summer vacation months, home was with my father and stepmother in Phenix City, Ala.
Pensacola, which some scholars say is the location of the nation's oldest European settlement, is as steeped in history as the "Queen City."
And downtown Meridian reminds me a lot of downtown Phenix City and, across the Chattahoochee River, of neighboring Columbus, Ga., with buildings that once bustled with commerce now converted into condominiums, restaurants and shops, while others have fallen into disrepair.
Drive throughout the nation and you will find similar cities, former steel, mill or rail towns, seeking new identities amidst the ghosts of industrial pasts.
My wife and I called Sioux Falls, S.D., home for nearly 10 years and we traveled a bit while we were there.
And while I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed my time up there, the cities are different.
Minneapolis, Minn., for example is the cleanest large city I have ever seen, with streets laid out in neat grids and flower boxes in downtown window sills during temperate months, evidence of the heavy influence of the city's Western European settlers, predominantly of German descent.
No offense intended to those from northern climes. My wife, Brenda, is from Minnesota and her ancestors hail from what was once German Bohemia. And while I found northern cities — and the people — wonderful, they didn't remind me of home.
Meridian, by contrast, brings to mind my mother's birthplace in Alexandria, Ala., a city that once boasted a booming textile industry that was once the lifeblood of area residents.
Most of the old factories are closed now, once-proud buildings shuttered to ward off vandals and the elements.
But the people remain, forging new paths in a modern age, while holding on to traditions and customs that are uniquely southern.
And truth be told, perhaps it is the people of Meridian who most remind me of home. Or it may be something as simple as the fact that here, unlike in South Dakota, I can walk in any restaurant that serves breakfast and order a side of grits to go with my eggs.
Whatever the reason, I like it.