To quote Evelyn Nieves of the Times' photo blog: "To visit Pine Bluff, Ark., for the first time is to know it suffers from a broken heart. Main Street, jilted by fickle industries with more attractive suitors, is a hologram of itself -- rows of two and three-story buildings, empty, faded, barely alive."
Last time I visited, all that was left of one old building at Fourth and Main was a huge pile of rubble. They said it collapsed early one evening after absorbing years of vibrations from the freight trains rumbling past on the tracks that run down the middle of Fourth, but I figure it just gave up hope. Luckily it happened when, this being downtown Pine Bluff in 2014, not a living soul was in sight.
Since then another old building on Main has started to shudder and shake, and even lost its top floor, which just collapsed one day. The malice of time keeps striking poor old Pine Bluff, which over the years I would come to think of as my home town.
Of course someone like William Widmer who lives in New Orleans, where decay is an art form, would be charmed by Pine Bluff's present-day air of desolation, and appreciate the last after-shocks of all those lived lives, the palpable residue of lost dreams. And want to capture it on film.
Oh, the stories I or any other old-timer could tell him -- of old times there not forgotten, of antebellum mansions complete with grand ballrooms and frame roadhouses where a tinkly piano still played ragtime, of highbinders who ran savings-and-loans into the ground and the sharecroppers who turned Main Street black on Saturdays when they came into town to get their week's provisions, of good country people and old-fashioned lawyers whose word was still their bond....
They were all there in that Southern version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," enough of them to keep a Faulkner absorbed for years and assure Flannery O'Connor of an inexhaustible storehouse of grotesques -- if only there were still a Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor left to write about them. But now those authors, too, are ghosts, doomed to immortality. And it is left to a William Widmer to record the last tangible remains of the intangible.
Pine Bluff had already started its slow slide downhill by the time I arrived, and the velocity of its decline had only gathered speed by the time I left with the decidedly mixed feelings of hope and regret that every expatriate from Pine Bluff knows. And shares when we run into each other in Little Rock or Fayetteville, or in the lobby of the Peabody in Memphis.
As for those sophisticates I run into who speak of Pine Bluff only dismissively, they don't get it. They don't understand how their disdain says less about Pine Bluff than about their own shallowness. They don't understand the beauty of blight.