Hancock County

There's a plan to take back the 'heart' of Backatown from killers and drug dealers

A visitor could drive right through Backatown and never know they were in a community known as "A Place Apart."

There is no sign signifying the neighborhood in the city's Third Ward. There aren't many attractions — a barbecue joint, a Boys & Girls Club, some churches, a seafood store. There are some comfortable, well-kept homes, some that could use a little TLC and some lots where the weeds have gained the upper hand.

But there isn't, in the eyes of the leader of the local NAACP chapter, much black heritage on display in a place that until not that long ago was almost exclusively African-American..

"Downtown is not inhabited by African-Americans," said Gregory Barabino. "There's not African-American culture here, because we don't have any businesses left."

And that brings him to MLK Park in the city's Third Ward, the heart of the black community. Starting Sunday, he plans to hold regular events every Sunday in July, with the help of 30 to 40 like-minded men. He'll bring the music and he's encouraging others to come out and cook, or just hang out. And he'll have other organizations there to show the younger people the opportunities and programs available to them.

"We need to show them there's more than basketball," he said.

So far, he says he has Youth Workforce, NASA, Pearl River Community College, 1190 AM/104.3 FM Gospel broadcasting, the WIN Job Center, Black Magic Fitness and the Young World mentor program planning to be there. For fun, there will be a bounce house, water slide and inflatable obstacle course. And the park has a lot of permanent playground equipment.

"The problem is MLK serves a dual purpose," he said. "It's a hangout spot because there is no hangout space in the African-American community. The projects used to be across the street, so it was very utilized.

"Recently, because the people who aren't drug dealers have disengaged and they just left the park out there for the people who peddle drugs. And, why not, when there are no consequences."

He said city officials have helped in the past, building restrooms for the park, for example, but he said it's up to the community to help police the park and keep it presentable.

He said he's tried to get people to help out at the park before without a lot of luck, but he senses there's a little more urgency, more interest since a young man was shot to death there in early June. No one has been arrested in that slaying. A short time later, Police Chief Gary Ponthieux and other officials had a Coffee with a Cop there. And a lot of people were talking about reclaiming the park from drug users and dealers.

"That was the tipping point," Barabino said. "Children need a safe place to hang out, and this can be that place."

It was the lack of culture, places to hang out and opportunity that led Barabino to New Orleans, where he lived for years. It was the tug of his family ties that brought him back to the area in 2009.

"I wasn't planning on living here, because there's nothing here for me," he said, "other than family and a good place to raise my daughter."

He said the others helping, like him, have spent time away from Bay St. Louis.

"They know that there's a world out there and this is unacceptable the way we're living," he said. "With no businesses, no infrastructure, no resources. It's tough. It's just tough.

"We'll take back the park. Bring the kids back to the park. Expose them to programs. That's the game plan. Have a good time but party with a purpose."