There aren’t many viable downtowns left in the Delta. The first photo below is of the main street in my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Within walking distance of the area pictured were five movie theaters when I was a boy. Ony one, featured in an earlier blog, is functioning today.
In my youth, the retail heart of the city was still formed around the railroads. Two major lines bisected our city and I can still remember the excitement of a large steam-powered engine rolling into the station. It was a noisy, steam-spurting, bell-ringing, whistle-blowing, steel-shrieking event as the giant wheels protested that they should stop rolling.
Barbers had to quit cutting hair when the train rolled by Shorty’s Barber Shop on Fourth Street. Merchants would cease making change. Diners would stop in mid bite. Workers would stop what they were doing and marvel at the wondrous machine that humankind had built. There was an excitement that will never come back.
Many of the train tracks in the Delta have been removed. The few remaining station buildings are now museums or community centers. The steam-spewing engines have been replaced by diesel-powered ones that lack the character and romance of their forebears.
A group of dedicated and loving folks in Pine Bluff are restoring one of the great engines to its original grandeur. Future generations will be able to sense the size and strength but not the sounds and smells of the great mechanical beasts that once brought our cities such wonders.
The trains exerted a magnetic force on retail business in those days. The trick was to locate as many stores, shops, dining establishments, and lodging places in as small an area—close to the train station—as possible. It created a place of magic, pure magic.
Then along came the automobile.
This new mode of transportation reversed the magnetic field and created a centrifugal force that spun development out into the hinterlands. Whether this was good for America or not will be for each person to decide.
For me, I think something died within us, as well as downtown, when our shops and businesses fled. They were owned and operated by folks who lived in the community, bought ads in the school newspapers, attended local churches, saw their children born in the local hospital, and believed in our public institutions.
They say it wasn’t the so-called “big boxes” or the internet that killed our downtowns but, rather, "… the seemingly inexorable march of new technology."
Maybe so, but I wonder sometimes who will buy ads in the school newspaper when we are gone.