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GUEST COLUMN: A new Oxonian’s take on our past and future

“It comes down to a simple choice,” Timmy Robbins tells Morgan Freeman’s character in Shawshank Redemption. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.’”

Since moving to Oxford 11 years ago, it’s been a source of fascination watching self-appointed thought leaders talk about our city’s past. And future. As if we newcomers don’t live here.

My wife and I chose Oxford because it’s beautiful. Because it’s close to home — she grew up in Biloxi, and has family nearby. Because the schools are good, and the food. That it’s a short drive to Nashville, New Orleans and Florida’s Emerald Coast is a big bonus.

As someone who grew up in the north, and is of Arabic descent, I was impressed by the open-mindedness and kindness of southerners. It’s the least racist place I’ve ever lived, though to hear from some in town, Mississippi is still burning with racists at every turn. And bigots who vote the wrong way.

The schools are integrated, and black and white people live side by side in ways I never experienced in my home state of New Jersey, where there was plenty of segregation and racial strife to go around.

I’m puzzled at the way some white Mississippians seem to revel in the bad old days of the 1960’s, as if the state, and town, aren’t radically different places. It seems like an obsession, their fixation with Mississippi’s past.

If the south is so racist, why are record numbers of black folks moving back? It’s been happening for the past 20 years, this epic migration. Why haven’t our academics and writers written about it? We know why.

Bad things happened here in the 1960’s. But they happened in northern cities like Newark, Detroit and Boston, with the National Guard in combat gear as those cities erupted. It’s important to understand that history. But it’s important to not be imprisoned by it.

For many of us newcomers, the past hasn’t just passed. We weren’t here when the past was the present. What my wife and I saw in Oxford was the future.

Which leads me to the curious way some of our cultural leaders talk about that future. Last week in this paper, restaurateur John Currence noted that Oxford had “grown dim with the tremendous amount of development and homogenization.”

Does he not like the new customers that come with that growth? And the energy? Would he prefer Oxford shrink?

Does he not like my choice to build a home in a new development? If not, where does he propose I live?

As for the “homogenization” he seems to dislike, doesn’t he see that many of us in Oxford like Chipotle and Big Bad Breakfast? Belk and the shops on The Square? That’s what makes Oxford attractive. The mix of new and old. Big and small. Choices.

Does Currence understand that the tab at Big Bad Breakfast is a budget-buster for many Oxford families, but Huddle House’s isn’t? Or Chick-Fil-A’s?

Does he see the irony in his decision to roll out his breakfast concept to more cities, which he described with excitement? Isn’t he guilty of the very “homogenization” he decries? Or are chains only good when he builds them?

My family likes Currence’s restaurants. But not his condescension. Or his dim view of growth.

Oxford’s a city on the move. If we can figure out how to create more good paying jobs, and not just more restaurants and festivals, who knows what Oxford might look like in 2037.

Artists and academics don’t have a monopoly on creativity, and more teaching should revolve around the creative business geniuses who helped turn America into a world class power. And the kind of entrepreneurial creativity that can turn Mississippi into a 21st century player.

One thing is certain: If we continue to export our most precious asset — our young people — to nearby states, that won’t happen. Keeping their God given talents here, and having them create the next new thing we don’t yet know about, is worth talking about.

To those who don’t like that we newcomers are here, we’re sorry. But this is our town, too. And we’re tired of all the handwringing about growth. Struggling towns across America wish they had such problems.

To those who want to keep Oxford anchored to it’s past, and at the same time eliminate all symbols of that past, we wish you well. But some of us prefer to look forward, and focus on our progress — and how we keep it going.

And all of the development is a sign of that progress.

The truth is, towns, like people, can either get busy living or get busy dying. We’re happy Oxford is getting busy living. The alternative isn’t much fun.

Lee habeeb is an Oxford resident.