King Biscuit's Empty Palace
HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark – In front of a juke joint turned failed café, Abe Boothe and Norris Anderson sat on an elevated piece of sidewalk, a bottle of vodka resting on the pavement between them.
“Ain’t got nothing else to do but drink,” Anderson said.
For blocks, the streets of downtown Helena were deserted. Businesses that once served a thriving blues community resembled empty boxes and the few shops that were open drew no customers while Michael and I were there. Among the only signs of life were the two men, later joined by a third, wearing ragged clothes and drinking in the middle of the afternoon.
“You used to have to fight to get down here,” Anderson, 48, said of the once-vibrant downtown. “There used to be too many people bumping into you.”
“Man, this town was on the map,” added Boothe, 45.
“Ain’t nothing on the map now,” Anderson said. “You can see straight through the town.”
“See that,” he said, pointing to a patch of greenery. “That used to be a garden. This year, they planted flowers ‘cause people were eating all their food. People around here are starving. It’s worst than the depression.”
Helena-West Helena is one of the poorest communities in the nation, but it’s also one rich in history, hosting annually one of largest blues festivals in the world – the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, which used to be known as the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Inside the Delta Cultural Center, located downtown, pictures of great blues artists line the walls: Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, and so on.
“For three days, our town’s alive,” said Tanya Thomas, who works at the front desk of the Center. “Other than that, it’s just like this – dead. Been like this for years.”
The words “stimulus money” have now become part of our collective vocabulary (Michael and I hear it everywhere we go, with people who didn’t graduate from high school talking about it in expert detail). But walk along the streets in Helena-West Helena and it’s easy to wonder if some places are too far gone to be helped by a single burst of money, if their local economy is beyond stimulation.
“Let me put it like this: What good will it do to put $1 million in a dead man’s pocket?” said Leonard Smith.
As a child, Smith worked in the cotton fields; now he's a local funeral director. When we met him, he still had the dust from his fourth funeral of the day on his shoes. “How you going to put a recession on a recession?” he said. “This area’s been down and depressed so long it’s just become a way of life. It ain’t nothing. In other words, the world is just catching up.”
He doesn’t believe the stimulus money will do much.
“Ain’t nothing they’re going to do in Washington that’s going to help me or hinder me,” he said. “Ain’t nothing they going to do in Washington that’s going to trickle down to me.”
Maureen Jones believes otherwise. She has lived in the area for 26 years and sells children’s clothing in a small cluster of shops that share a space downtown. She remembers what the area was like before Mohawk Rubber Company closed and other businesses followed suit in the 1980s. There used to be department stores, antique shops and at least 10 jewelry stores.
“Where was the ice cream parlor?” she asked Daniel Allen Sims, a volunteer who was working with her.
“That was on the next block,” he said.
She said it hurts to see the empty storefronts, which is why she and others are working hard to revive the area, an effort that will be fueled by the stimulus money.
“We have a saying,” Jones said. “We do not have empty buildings. We do not have rundown buildings. What we’ve got are great opportunities.”
It’ll just take money, and some time, to fill them. As we were leaving, Jones yelled out to us from the front of her shop. “Come back and see us,” she said, but then added, “come back in four years.”
Posted by: TooManyPeople | June 30, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse
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