Late on Martin Luther King's birthday, someone broke into several stores along North Mississippi. Although police have linked a rash of recent house break-ins in the area to junkies trying to score quick money, there was something different about these robberies.

"It was orderly," explained one of the storeowners. Phone lines were snipped and the perpetrators seemed more interested in trashing the places than stealing anything.

"It seemed like a bunch of white punks protesting against development on the street," speculated one storeowner. A year ago, the former director of an anti-poverty organization broke into Pistils, a plant nursery along the street. He was caught and claimed he was simply drunk, but the owners speculate he had a political agenda in mind.

Over the past year, a debate about gentrification has simmered along N. Mississippi, as new stores and restaurants have opened in this once-predominantly African-American neighborhood. There's concern that new businesses--and rising property costs--could displace longtime residents. Since October alone, a new DVD store, a hipster bar and two casually elegant restaurants have opened along the street.

All the new businesses are white-owned, which owners attribute to city officials not doing enough for potential minority entrepreneurs from the neighborhood. Store owners also note they aren't carpetbaggers moving into the neighborhood; most of Mississippi's newly opened businesses are owned by long-term neighborhood residents.

"We weren't interested in going to the Northwest (neighborhood) even though it probably would have made more business sense," says Amy Twilegar, who, along with her sister, opened Pistils almost two years ago.

"I do understand the flip side of the story," assures Twilegar, "that people don't want to see their neighborhood change." But she points out that it's not the business owners who deserve the blame for gentrification. "City (and county) policy could change in such a way that we could reduce what's happening to this neighborhood," Twilegar says. When she and her sister opened the nursery, for example, they had hoped to keep their operation simple and non-intrusive--but city codes insisted they build an elaborate storefront.

She goes on to specify that the city and county should be doing everything possible to assure that long-term residents are not pushed out by rising property costs.

"They could curb property taxes," Twilegar specifies. Homeowners in the neighborhood have recently seen spikes in their property taxes. County assessors have justified doubling property taxes in the area for even simple home improvements like fixing leaking roofs. Increased property taxes are often cited as a force that drives lower income residents from neighborhoods.

For information on a series of discussions regarding gentrification in the neighborhood, check out or call Our United Villages at 546-7499.