Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The US you don't see in the media - Little cities of black diamonds

By Radu Meza, Romania (SUSI scholar 2014)

There is much to be said about US culture, and when looking at it exclusively through the overwhelming, globalized media output some of the finer points might elude us and even a keen analyst of popular culture might be tempted to reach misguided conclusions based on superficial knowledge. 
Coming from Europe, where communities cling to their history, and define their identity mainly through their diverging narratives of past conflict, I was expecting a very different, dynamic or rather fluid identity focused on the "now". A short trip through small dilapidated mining towns and shady back country roads connecting scattered homes showed me how wrong my assumptions had been. Far away from the big city lights or the urban or suburban setting standardized world-wide by the big media, the little cities of black diamonds in poverty-stricken Appalachian Ohio like Nelsonville, Haydenville or Shawnee, live trapped in a conflictual industrial past.

Photos by Camilo Perez

Coal mining was once big business here, but now the mining towns, some built and owned by the companies themselves, are barely surviving as ghost attractions for the occasional tourist who ventures into this widely ignored side of the US. Perhaps the best memorial to industrial age struggles between coal miners' unions and companies is the fire burning deep down underground continuously for the past 120 years - after being started by strikers in the late 19th century. As we climbed up the stairs to Robinson's Cave where some of the defining moments in workers' unions had been decided, our guide - a short of breath, somewhat overweight lady in her sixties armed with a jug of Gatorade told us, sparing little detail, about work conditions, technology and tragedies, strikes and strike-breakers, ethnic tensions, moonshine, secret compartments hidden illegal distilleries during theProhibition, company abuses, life and death in communities now populated by old nostalgics living in the crumbling ruins of once lively towns.
Photos by Camilo Perez
Further on, an energetic old gentleman wearing a straw hat and a cane, owner of several decrepit historical buildings in a small city center, self-proclaimed semi-professional hoarder of a curious assortment of local antiques, took us into the old community ball room, cinema, theatre and indoor basketball arena - all-in-one. Having climbed a steep, dark, wooden staircase we reached a huge floor of creaking half-rotten planks, holding evidence of the owner's passion for collecting or rather salvaging anything from painted canvas theatrical scenery to cinema projectors or box office paraphernalia. Our guide told us he had plans for renovating and turning the old buildings into museums, but as anywhere, there is rarely money to spare at county or state level for investment into an ageing, remote community that is now barely around 600.

However close or distant, short or long it may be, communities, especially small ones, look at common, shared history, often intertwined with personal narratives in order to make sense of their lives. When living inside the decrepit shell of an industrial mining town, there's no choice but to cling to a past where life was about conflict, competition and struggling, not just carrying on.

No comments: