Necessity always has a way of giving birth to innovation, and in the late 1960s Dan Camp of Starkville, Mississippi, needed to make an extra buck or two. An industrial arts instructor at Mississippi State University, Camp, in his late twenties, bought some property in an old rundown cotton-mill neighborhood filled with shanties and row-houses, which was wedged between the university and downtown. His idea was to erect a small group of well-constructed townhouses with a traditional Southern design, hoping to rent to students. After obtaining permission from the city to bend a few building regulations, Camp went to work—with no blueprints or architectural designs other than some sketched-out ideas on the back of a few napkins. People told him it was a bad neighborhood, a bad idea, and a bad investment.
Fortunately, he didn’t listen. The result, forty years later, is the Cotton District, one of the South’s most talked-about walkable neighborhoods and an architectural wonder in this small Southern town. To that first row of townhouses Camp has covered six city blocks with over 400 living and mixed-use units—houses, townhouses, apartments, cottages, lofts, and patio homes, mixed up with restaurants and shops and offices. The eclectic effect gives the look and feel of a historic community two hundred years old rather than a collection of rental properties built almost exclusively by the hand of one man.
Camp took his cue from designs he had collected in places like Alexandria (VA), Raleigh (NC), Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and Vicksburg, as well as traditional cities in Europe. Going by what he personally thought made for good and beautiful living, as well as being endlessly creative with tiny spaces, leftover buildings, and unorthodox lot arrangements, Camp has worked hard, had some fun, and made some money. A lot of it. With never a need for a marketing consultant, he operates at near 100% occupancy.
Tenants quickly included professionals and families, not merely students, and a number of the neighborhood’s original inhabitants have stuck around, giving the little town-within-a-town a delightful community mix. Residents-turned-carpenters, recruited and trained by Camp, live in row houses across the street from their construction projects. Business owners who love where they live, live where they work—above their shops. University students, the most pedestrian group of people in existence, walk to class. Actually everyone walks everywhere. There is parking—somewhere—but it is cleverly hidden, and the narrow streets are lined with grass or terraced sidewalks or bricks designed by Camp himself.
It all looks prohibitively expensive, but Camp has always kept the cost to his rentals surprisingly affordable, disproving the myth that sound construction and beauty only come at great cost. To help achieve this feat, Camp makes his own columns, windows, moldings, shutters, French doors, and anything else he and his homemade crew can fashion like elves in his backyard shop. He makes his own concrete mixed with marble dust to give his steps a shine. Tint is added to stucco to get just the right watercolor tone, and he refuses to put control joints in the stucco, letting it crack instead, giving walls a folksy hand-worked character through his own patching and retouching. Even gutters are fashioned to be works of art. The unique craftsmanship and care for the right detail are much of what makes for the charm and magic of Camp’s innovative development.
The Cotton District attracts visitors from around the country and from around the world interested in this new version of an old community concept. It is often considered the first and best model of the architectural philosophy called New Urbanism, which, among other things, promotes a return to traditional community-based, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use urban centers—even though Camp was building the Cotton District twenty years before New Urbanism had a name or was organized under stated principles. Ironically, Camp has no architectural training and has never consulted an architect on any of his projects. Unfettered by such, he has a good eye, good instincts, a good work ethic, good business savvy, and a good record with city planning officials—all of which combined makes for a trend-setting success like the Cotton District, despite Camp’s complete disinterest in setting trends.
Thousands of visitors come to the Cotton District each year for other reasons as well. In the late nineties, the Camp household hosted an informal gathering of local artists and musicians in their home, which, in Dan-Camp style, has turned into the Cotton District Arts Festival, drawing a springtime crowd of 20,000 to enjoy over a hundred artisans, musicians, and food venues, as well as art competitions and a “Writers Village.” The Cotton District Bulldog Bash, a several-band big-name concert held each fall and free to the public, draws an even larger crowd with over 30,000 attendees in 2013. Apparently the Cotton District, thanks to one man’s vision and his need to make a buck, is not only a great place to live but a terrific place to visit as well. If the past forty years is any indication of the future, folks will keep coming to this enchanting Southern beauty for both reasons for a good long time to come.