Thursday, August 18, 2022

Who Walks Small Towns in America?


    Wander the streets at night in almost any small town in America and a nostalgia for an earlier time can set in. In the dark the predominance of black and white reminds one of photos from the last century. It was a time when car dealerships like this one above, formerly Teague Motors in Walla Walla, Washington were located on or just off Main streets. Expansive glass windows invited lunchtime ogling by businessmen or allowed farmers on their way to the implement dealer to consider a new car for the wifey.  

    Cafes offering biscuit and gravy breakfasts sat jowl and cheek with lawyer and insurance offices, or stores selling furniture, hardware, and groceries. At least one solid-looking bank building sat on one corner while gas stations with benches, where old men gathered, occupied nearby intersections. The city or county edifices stood their ground often in a prominent block to themselves, while theatres and bars provided nightlife. In the center of it all there might have been a small park with a grandstand. A funeral home added a respectable and somber presence. 

    In Walla Walla where I live now, there were a handful of hotels—some offering rooms for the well-heeled and others like the one over the former McFeeley’s Tavern not so much. Look above on the right side of the photo, you can see the elegant Whitman Hotel reflected in reverse in the glass. Resurrected from a significant decline, it now caters mostly to the weekend wine-tasting crowd visiting from Seattle, Portland and other big cities.

    As a child, I remember the glorious feeling of entering the five-and-dime store on the main street in Mooresville, North Carolina. The fountain served grilled cheese sandwiches, ice cream sodas, and banana splits. I recall wandering its toy aisles looking for a cheap toy that I could afford with my little stash of coins. Back out on the street I felt important walking at the side of adults as they stopped here and there to do their business. Everything within an easy stroll. We might have walked home or taken a taxi. On Saturdays all the stores in Mooresville closed by noon. It wasn’t an inconvenience, but a consideration for employees.


    My nostalgia has limits. 

    In Mooresville in the 1950s and early 60s, I can’t recall seeing any people of color out shopping or even walking down the sidewalks on their way anywhere. In a town where Blacks were a significant portion of the population, they were denied the use of the “public” library or burial in the town cemeteries long after the Civil War and well into the next century. They were also denied the simple pleasures granted white children—easy, welcome, and safe access to downtown day or night. 

    Out west the towns hid “undesirables” under streets and in second story bordellos. Walla Walla had its share of underground passageways built to keep the Chinese population invisible or to provide hidden access to houses of prostitution. One such passage—now filled-in—led from the basement of the former Pastime Cafe across the street to the then upstairs bordello. 

    Walla Walla was late in banning prostitution. Even in the 1980s one could wander former establishments with their dreary small rooms furnished with iron bedframes or walk down a hall and peer into community bathrooms. Now those establishments have been reconfigured into offices or boutique hotels. 

    My town has changed. Few small American towns have had the good fortune of reinventing themselves like Walla Walla has. When I came here forty years ago, I could find a place to park on any block downtown, even on a Saturday morning. There were no shade trees or fancy light poles and benches. It was a drear place with empty storefronts. As apple orchards and pea fields shifted to vineyards and small family wineries became world-renowned, the town changed. In the photo below the gleam of a grill in that back corner of the car dealership is a Jaguar, and there is a collectable Willie’s Jeep to the right. No longer a dealership for the middle-class, it will be one for the better-heeled wealthy.   

    As the crescent moon rose over Whitman Hotel earlier this month, much as changed in my small town. But not enough, not yet. Although people of color have had some success since the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, as a country we still struggle recognizing that all our citizens and all immigrants are members of the same race, the human race. I might be comfortable wandering downtown anytime I want, but the real pleasure will be when anyone of any skin color feels the same. Day or night.