The Beauty of Blight

Posted: Jul 31, 2014 4:53 PM

It's not every day that the New York Times blog devoted to photography -- it's called Lens -- runs a piece about Pine Bluff, Ark. (pop. 47,000). But it did just the other day when Evelyn Nieves' blog post featured the work of William Widmer, a photographer out of New Orleans who was driving through Pine Bluff on his way back home from an assignment in Kansas City, and was stopped cold by what he saw. The town had captivated him. The photographer would wind up spending the rest of the day in Pine Bluff walking its streets, snapping photos, and trying to figure out how soon he could get back. So he could take more pictures of what can't be pictured, only felt.

I understand. I went to Pine Bluff for the first time in the middle of a long-ago summer looking for a job to tide me over for a year till I could get back to graduate school in history, and wound up spending 30 years there. Through a lot of the town's ups and downs, mainly downs. I should have realized from the start that I'd walked into history all around me, or maybe sociology. Specifically, a chapter of John Dollard's classic study, "Caste and Class in a Southern Town."

That bright weekday morning now more than 50 years ago in the past, I walked out of the Pines Hotel on Main Street and looked right and left, wondering which way the Pine Bluff Commercial could be. That's when a tall, sunburned country type in khaki approached. Yes, he knew where the Commercial was, whereupon he took my elbow and steered me gently to the far edge of the broad sidewalk. So he could point out just how to get there -- over the railroad tracks, past this store and that, which he named one by one, till I'd get almost to the courthouse and there I'd find it on the same side of the street. It was quite a different experience from any I'd had asking for directions in the place I'd just come from -- teeming New York City.

I was definitely back in the South. It was as though this man had all the time in this world and the next to show me the way. And maybe he did because over the years I began to think of him as one of those angels you come across in life without knowing it at the time.

I can understand why Mr. William Widmer's first sight of Pine Bluff caught his artist's eye. "It was a clear, crisp Southern winter day," he recalls, "and downtown was still and vacant. That first walk, the light was perfect down Main Street." Yes, I can imagine it -- even see it, hear it, feel it. The boarded-up storefronts, the echoes of the life that was once there, the now abandoned hulk that was the Pines Hotel, the crumbling old Saenger theater ... the whole afterlife of a Southern town.

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.