Oxford is Cool

“And I can’t decide if this place is make believe…”
- Widespread Panic

So Jack asks me, “What does Oxford mean?”

I pause for a minute, thinking it futile to try and define Oxford in your traditional Merriam-Webster sense. I explain that Oxford is a unique town that, like Rome to Vatican City , completely encompasses another making them inextricably linked. I explain that Oxford is a place steeped in history and tradition. A place- even in is darkest hour- was probably still described as quaint and charming. Distinctively Southern. A place worthy of Bob Dylan’s time at least twice- once in 1963, to write a song about it and once in 1990, to perform in at Tad Smith. And over the past say, twenty years, Oxford has become notably, cool.

Most of this went completely over the head of my three year old, but in time he will come to recognize my words as The Truth.

Over lunch recently, a friend said to me, “If I did not live in Oxford , I’d like to live in New York City .” That brought me back to a similar response I gave my boss in 2002. He asked where I saw myself in five, then ten years. I told him I’d like to be exactly where I am now – only in Oxford .Being young, ambitious and working for a multinational corporation, you might think that was the wrong answer to give. But my Texan boss had been to Oxford, and he did not quarrel with my response.

I have found my friend’s response not to be unusual. People from New York, Atlanta, D.C., New Orleans, Dallas, St. Louis and Houston tell me how they would love to live in Oxford. You may have noticed the housing boom that began about fifteen years ago. Oxford has become home to people who can work from anywhere so long as they have internet and access to a major airport. For years, Oxford has been a hotspot for retirees and those fortunate enough to be able to afford second homes.

Oxford ’s inclusion on Top Ten Lists like Best College Towns and Best Places to Retire brings national attention to the town and football Saturdays bring, ahem, groves of pilgrims who come back year after year, game after game to participate in a tailgating experience routinely ranked as the best in the nation. In fact, as far as “must do” sporting events go, Sports Illustrated ranks tailgating in The Grove just behind Pamplona Spain ’s Running of The Bulls and higher than attending the Summer Olympics.

So why Oxford ? Why in a Mississippi town of about 19,000 are people willing to pay more than $300 per square foot for a house or townhome? Because Oxford is a destination. I can’t think of another place in Mississippi people flock to with the same level of anticipation as they do to Oxford . Like New York City in a Martin Scorsese movie or “the woods” in a Washington Irving tale, Oxford , itself, is a character. It is Yoknapatawpha. Like the “Big Apple” or the “Big Easy,” when you are in Oxford , you know you are in Oxford . You could not be anywhere else.

First time visitors to Oxford coming from North or South Lamar often remark about the beauty of Oxford and that the town is “surprisingly cosmopolitan” to be “in the middle of nowhere.” After visiting Oxford , even die hard Gator fans have proclaimed (rather than confided) that Oxford is “the coolest place on earth,” and have vowed to return.

For the most point, focal point Square and surrounding area is remarkably well preserved – adding to the town’s allure and uniqueness. Aside from the shell of a building that used to be The Gin and the north side of the Thomson House, there are fewer buildings in the state of decay as in some other downtown areas.

Nationally recognized and locally owned restaurants and bars pepper the Square along with law offices, boutiques and members of the Square Books Empire. For its size, it is amazing that there always seems to be something to do in Oxford .

I just spent about 5 years in Gainesville , Florida , often hailed as a “ Party Town ”. For a town with almost 70,000 college students (even the junior college has 17,000 students), that place is surprisingly boring. When I returned to Oxford in late February of this year, I was greeted with shows from Joan Baez, the Burnsides, members of the Kudzu Kings, members of the North Mississippi All-stars, Galactic, Steve Earle & Allison Moorer, members of the Drive By Truckers and Kenny Brown to name a few. Now that’s good stuff! I guarantee you Gainesville never saw anything like that in the span of a couple months! No wonder four-time Grammy winner Marty Stewart once compared Oxford ’s music scene to Austin Texas’ in the 1970s.

So it’s good to be back! Over the course of the next few weeks… but probably months, I’d like to talk to a few of the people I think have done their part to help make Oxford what it is today. I have an idea of who I’d like to speak to. Some might surprise you. If you have any thoughts on people or places you’d like to hear about, let me know. I’ll try to track them down.

photo credit: Derek Moreton

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