In the Heart of the Crumbling Country
by Haley Albert
May 7, 2018
Last Summer, in a season of unbearable heat and rain, I drove a compact car with dulled windshield wipers from New York to Louisiana, stopping in places like Beattyville, Kentucky, Matewan, West Virginia, and elsewhere across Appalachia and the Delta. Such unrelenting rain and old car mechanics made for constant low-visibility on the road, while my reasons for being on those infinitely vast highways remained only slightly more clear. The official goal was to talk to people about corruption on behalf of an organization called Represent Us, a non-profit whose mission is to pass tough anti-corruption laws across America that would alter the way political campaigns are financed, among other democracy-restoring items. The official myth was that these small towns were not part of the ‘national conversation’, but victims of it’s myopia and self-flagellation. And worse, that these residents were merely outlines of people, relegated to a handful of popular
The trip was a chance to share fears and desires and personal histories. It was, in a practical sense, an attempt to drawn a line, however crooked, between the pervasive poverty, lack of education, and unaffordable healthcare being described to me. In reality, it was a disparate collection of stories about floods, about torn up streets, about de facto segregation, and about reinventing and reinvesting in yourself and your community.
It was, as is.
Terry in the Bywater, New Orleans
“Charity Hospital was destroyed during Katrina and they never rebuilt it. We can’t afford those doctors bills, thats why we went to Charity. I don’t know what's happening but something is really, really trying to clean this place off the map. Shoot, they nearly done it with the poor people. After Katrina, no one was coming to rescue us out here. They kept lying, saying 500 buses was coming but we didn’t see anything. I was fighting for my life out here. All these politicians put their hand in the cookie jar and look, half them in New Orleans are in prison. They make promises, they pretend to be robin hook, but we know better. I know better because my back still ain’t fixed yet.” Terry, on his scoliosis, and why its become impossible for him to work construction jobs.
Terry, much like my car on the day of the August 8th floods, floats around New Orleans with a curious disbelief. He is a lifetime resident of NOLA still stunned by it’s vibrancy, frequently taking a moment between sentences to admire the blue hues of the bench beneath him, digging his nail into the wood as if he may discover it’s not real. Terry expressed his antipathy for public officials and the water levies they failed to safeguard with a soft resignation; the kind that accompanies a man whose life can be defined in pre and post-Katrina terms, and punctuated by a series of floods that have thrown both him, and his home, off their foundation. Though Hurricane Katrina was 12 years ago, the effects are still being felt today.
Matewan, West Virginia
From the 1940’s-1970’s, Matewan held the record for the most flooded town in the United States. In a single year, the town flooded 36 times. But in 1977, churches, fire trucks, and most private property was destroyed as one of the worst rushes of water to date raged into town, wreaking unimaginable havoc, and leaving power down for 2 weeks. This rural town rests on the banks of the adjacent Tug River, separating Matewan from the state from Kentucky, and has been the single largest producer of coal in the south western part of West Virginia since the early 20th century.
In the mid-eighties the Army Corps finally built a 30-foot flood wall with industrial strength doors, stretching 2,350 feet along the Tug River, to prevent the kind of damage the flood of 1977 left behind.
In 2003, another potentially damning flood would have destroyed the town had it not been for the wall, which has been valorously credited with saving Matewan. A curiously under-explored phenomenon is the reason for the flooding in the first place. Mountain top removal, a common coal-mining practice, greatly alters the land, and causes the kind of erosion that may play some role in flooding, though it’s mostly just speculation as little research has been done in the way of real evidence.
That said, the floods that fundamentally altered the lives of Matewan residents is now somewhat of a badge of pride.
Every morning, the Lue’s clean the pedestrian path along the Matewan flood wall. Linda Lue says that while this should be done by the town, she has taken it upon herself in their absence. And while a clean flood wall, path, and roads without overgrowth, that don’t obstruct her driving would be nice, she would like to see the town help people off the street first.
Adventureland: Pulaski, Tennessee
I accidentally celebrated my birthday at the Pulaski State Fair on August 10th at 10 in the morning. I misread the event description posted to the American Bus Associations ‘Best Events of 2017’ list, and arrived about seven hours too early. The men setting up the roving city of games, rides, and energy efficient LED lights invited me to watch as they ran their safety checks. These men have opted to create their own cities within existing ones as they travel around the world building carnivals.
“I really wanted to be a computer technician, but school’s too expensive and no one wants to teach you more than they know, especially when things are this tight; they call that job security. It’s just safer doing this. Everyone looks out for each other and you don’t have to worry about getting into trouble.” - Will, on how he ended up working for a roving carnival company.
In the Heart of the Billion Dollar Coal Field: Williamson, West Virginia
Randy (left) and his client are talking about divorce when I walk into his shop. The de-cluttering of life about which Randy is giving advice stands in curious contrast to his shop, a space in which clutter is just another word for decor: his walls adorned with photos of his clients and old newspaper clippings, and his counters covered in a variety of pamphlets and maps of places far from West Virginia.
Williamson, commonly referred to as “The Heart of the Billion Dollar Coal Field,” is a lush, once-thriving coal-mining town tucked into the cascading Appalachian mountains. Randy has had his shop on the the main thoroughfare of town since the 60’s, and has been cutting hair since he was a teen. His shop is now one of just a few remaining businesses open in Williamson. Most of the storefronts surrounding him now sit empty except for the occasional squatter. The young parents I speak with just beyond Randy’s shop are passionately kissing when I interrupt them, and immediately express wanting to leave a place where jobs are scarcely available when I ask why they stay in Williamson, but explain that it is not so easy to leave home, no matter how few opportunities for growth home may offer.
In 1977, the civil rights activist Eddie Carthan became the first African American mayor of Tchula, Mississippi since reconstruction. Three years into his term, he was convicted of assaulting a police officer, which is now widely considered a spurious charge, and shortly after that, he was tried, and found innocent of murder. His political career, ripe with hopefulness, came to a premature close. Eddie now lives in a paint-chipped white mansion that used to belong to a wealthy plantation owner, and owns the local hardware store with his brother, pictured above. In addition to extra strength glue and a variety of power tools, the hardware store sells many items that could neither fix nor clean any existing possessions. And in the time I spend there, I saw no items exchanged for money, but instead on the promise to “not worry about it.” I sat in the store with for a few hours as reverends and friends shuffled in and out, exchanging favors like rides home and some dollars for a soda. A few of the men I spoke with used to be employed by the General Motors plant that operated a short distance away, but they’ve been retired since it closed down.
Now, the older generation is concerned that with the lack of jobs for the younger generation, and the amount of alcoholism that's spread as a result.
Somewhere in Mississippi
I lost track of the number of abandoned schools I saw in Mississippi by the end, and the ones that were operating looked like they should be condemned; the buildings had cracked windows, overgrown wisteria, and that mysterious brown grime crawling up the side. I spoke with a few parents who complained about high staff turnover and near non-existent teaching materials. There was a state funding formula for schools introduced in 1997, that did not account for children in low-income neighborhoods, who might require additional materials. In any case, the program has been fully funded only twice in 20 years. Though segregation officially ended in the 70's, de-facto segregation persists, and with it, the clear lost opportunity to educate Mississippi's young people.
Ms. Justice, a mother of one, sits on this chair every evening, promise ring on pinky, and watches the sunset while her best friend of 30 years mows the lawn. "We're trying to decide if we like living together," she whispers hopefully. He's a few days post-hernia surgery and without insurance, he'll be paying it off in monthly installments, for what Carol Ann calls an "eternity." She insists that they're not looking for help, but it would be nice if he could go to the doctor before he needs to be carried there.