“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” was songwriter Joni Mitchell's lament (made even more famous by Bob Dylan).

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has hardly ever fit most definitions of paradise — it's part of what has been somewhat snidely labeled “The Redneck Riviera,” which begins somewhere around Gulfport on the west and runs east through Biloxi to Pensacola, Fla.

But for a long time, it was about as close as a lot of Mississippians got to a beach and waves, until jet travel made beaches anywhere in the world accessible.

The Gulf Coast has gone through many changes over the four decades or so we've been going there, mostly for conferences of one kind or another.

There was the seedy era, when gangsters, reputedly with back-east mob connections, controlled the illegal booze, gambling, and other sins that flourished while authorities somehow seemed not to notice.

Then there was the kinda quiet period, after most of the crime and corruption were banished, when it was a place within a day's drive to take the kids for some sun ‘n’ sand and nice meals at the Friendship House and Trilby's (both long gone) or Mary Mahoney's (still going).

Then came the post-Hurricane Camille period, when much of the beach area was a destruction zone and nobody seemed to care, for the longest time, whether it ever rebounded. The completion of Interstate 10, paralleling the coast, allowed those who'd been going to Gulfport/Biloxi to whiz on by for the bluer water, whiter beaches, and tonier hotels/condos of Destin and other Florida panhandle spots.

Today, the Mississippi coast is Atlantic City South, with large chunks of a beach that once stretched more than 20 unbroken miles, now occupied by behemoth casinos and their associated hotels. From the 1,800-room Beau Rivage, the ritziest hotel/casino complex along the Gulf Coast, it's a good quarter-mile in either direction before one can walk the beach. Next door to the Beau Rivage, a Hard Rock casino/hotel has just opened. On east, the Grand and other giant casinos/hotels block out huge slices of beach. The long Broadwater pier, where I walked many times over the years to watch sunrise over the beach, is now a casino.

The gambling palaces have become the tail that wags the economic dog, creating thousands of jobs, funneling millions of dollars into local and state tax coffers, and pushing real estate prices through the roof. The 20-something bellman who schlepped our bags at the Beau Rivage allowed as how, “I'm into real estate — houses that were $75,000 five years ago are now $250,000. It's easy money.” (Maybe I shoulda carried his bags…)

But in the process, the casinos have also become the 900-pound gorilla. Restaurants have closed; it's hard to compete with lavish, all-you-can-eat $8.95 casino buffets. Lesser hotels have been shuttered; they can't buck the casinos' nicer rooms, cheap food/shows, etc.

The shame is that, when casinos started coming in, the state powers-that-be required them to be on the water. Had they been allowed to build inland, it could have provided much-needed urban renewal and the beaches could have been protected from commercial development.