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Sugar Ditch Shanties Coming Down

October 28, 1986

TUNICA, Miss. (AP) _ Scavengers are picking apart the shanties along Sugar Ditch, but former residents say they had hoped for something more dramatic, like a bulldozer, to start demolition of the Mississippi Delta slum.

″It would give me great pleasure to see it torn down because I’m the one who slept in there with the rats and roaches,″ said Jearlean Simmons, a former resident who lived with nine children in a three-room shack.

She has moved her family into emergency housing on the other side of town but returned Monday expecting to see work crews start demolishing the shacks.

Sugar Ditch, which draws its name from a stinking drainage ditch slimy with human waste, attracted national attention in July 1985 when the Rev. Jesse Jackson paid a visit and called the slum ″America Ethopia.″

The federal government has since approved $4.6 million in loans and grants for subsidized housing in Tunica County, one of the nation’s poorest.

Vice Mayor Ellis Darby said the city got the title last week to 17 houses along Sugar Ditch and work crews will begin soon to finish off any shacks left by the scavengers.

A half-dozen men who attacked the shanties with hand tools on Monday said they were out to scrounge up any usable lumber.

The city plans to purchase a three-block section along Sugar Ditch and must find housing for the 50 or so families still living in the area.

Many of those residents still at Sugar Ditch live in substandard housing, but their houses are in considerably better shape that the first group of shacks bought by the city. Those 17 shanties and the land they sit on went for a total of $40,000, Darby said. The residents were moved earlier this year into house trailers with subsidized rents.

Mayor James Wilson apparently put out the word last week that residents willing to tear down the shacks could have them, Darby said. The mayor’s secretary said he was out of town and could not be contacted.

Although government assistance is the primary source of income for Tunica County’s 9,400 residents, 73 percent of whom are black, there has been no subsidized housing here.

But a 40-unit apartment complex for the poor is just about finished on the outskirts of town, and a $900,000 complex for the elderly and handicapped is to be built at Sugar Ditch.

A construction company from Oxford, Miss., is scheduled to start work next week cleaning and paving the drainage ditch.

City Attorney William Dulaney said knocking down the shanties won’t require much heavy equipment. ″I don’t think it’s going to be quite as exciting as a bulldozer. It will probably take a hammer or something like that.″

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