Council Report III, Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism

Dan Camp and the Cotton District

by Kevin Klinkenberg, 2003

If you're in doubt of what to do, just do it. Don't ask someone if it's OK. That, among many others, is a bit of wisdom from Dan Camp - the iconoclast builder/ developer/ designer/ entrepreneur from Starkville, Miss. It's difficult to even begin to write about Dan's many accomplishments, let alone critique them. Trained as an industrial arts teacher, Dan is a self-proclaimed member of the "unwashed" amongst the architectural crowd. Without the burden of an architectural education, and all the philosophical confusion that goes with it, Dan set about building the Cotton District in 1972. He had none of the baggage of obscure French philosophers or anti-human avant-garde architecture. Instead, he simply wanted to make a better mousetrap, and make some money doing it. Thirty years later, he's built a magical place that offers incredible lessons not only for new urbanists, but also for society at large. 
Lesson 1: Love your craft. It's not enough for Dan and crew to simply build with durable, long-lasting, beautiful materials. No, they take it one impressive step further and make many of their own building elements. From windows to bricks, moldings to columns, Dan fabricates some or all of these for his projects. Most importantly, though, is that it's done with an obvious love of the craft itself. Dan speaks of dormers as if they are fine pieces of furniture. Gutters are not utilitarian - they are works of art. Newel posts are aligned in the finest Southern tradition. We should all enjoy our labors so much. 
Lesson 2: Build for the long-term. From the beginning, Dan took the approach that this endeavor was a marathon, not a sprint. He started with his worst land, as any smart developer does, and saved the best for later on. He very admittedly was looking for a way to make some money. The path, however, was through owning income-producing property, not the all-too-common build it and flip it technique. In fact, the only property he sold was a money loser to the tune of $250,000. Now the banks bid for the rights to lend him money. 
Lesson 3: Use creativity to achieve livable higher density. It would be an understatement to say that Dan has created some of the most unique small-residence solutions in America. From the 14- by 22-foot Dixie playhouses to the 16- by 20- foot cottage with a sleeping loft, these apartments are little jewels unto themselves. The easy thing would be to say, "well, it's a college town; of course he can get away with tiny, unique units." However, anyone who has experienced the depressing monotony of typical "student housing" would be wise to question that assumption. In fact, the easy thing is to simply throw up any cheap, utilitarian structure, as it is surely guaranteed to be rented. Camp's whimsical, creative residences (built at 28 units to the acre) shows us that even the beer-drinking, 3 a.m. partying, American college student can enjoy the benefits of traditional architecture and urbanism.

Lesson 4: Have fun with it. There's a simple word that comes to mind when thinking of the Cotton District: joy. Oftentimes we fill hundreds of pages of books with theories, postulations and rationalizations for what we do. But, how often do we say, "I just did that because it makes me smile, and makes other people smile as well?" The Cotton District, and Dan Camp's approach to neighborhood-building, can't help but make you smile. 

Lesson 5: Sometimes the best regulation is no regulation. The world tends to be subdivided into people who respond to carrots and people who respond to sticks. Why not craft regulations and public processes that deal appropriately with both, rather than giving everyone the stick treatment? In the Cotton District, Dan enjoys a unique relationship with the folks at City Hall; one that would make most of us envious. Very often this means building without even having plans. It might mean simply doing what he knows is right, and not waiting for bureaucratic approval. That approach is sure to send shivers down the spines of municipal officials everywhere - especially the ones who require developers to have every conceivable detail drawn before any aspect of a site can be disturbed. And yet, in the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss., it works. If we truly want to create more great places (especially ones that are accessible to the general public), we will need to find ways to trust people, in ways that will make us nervous. But life is full of pleasant surprises, when people are actually treated like adults. 
Lesson 6: Take your inspiration from great places. Dan first started in the Cotton District after being inspired by Alexandria, Va., and its wonderful historic fabric. His fascination with places such as New Orleans, Rome and Charleston have led him to produce buildings of not only wide variety, but also great beauty. It's a continuing lesson for us - take inspiration from good things, not the bad. Industrial processes may be scientific fascinations, but beautiful places they do not make. 
Lesson 7: Treat people with great respect. In every aspect of his business, whether it's building, designing, sales, marketing or maintenance, Dan believes in treating people as a gentleman. It sounds trite and over-simplistic, but doing unto others as they would unto you truly does pay dividends. And the beauty of it is, it's not a difficult thing to do. 
So what else to say about the Cotton District and Dan Camp? Very simple, how do we make more? How do we create a world where there is a Dan Camp in every town? As the new urbanism matures, and becomes the plaything of nationals and multinationals, let's not forget about little Starkville, Miss. The Cotton District truly embodies the notion that small increments of great quality and joy, built over a number of decades, may produce the most satisfying places of all.