The South is easy to find but hard to sort out, and it is full of paradoxes. Once, I was talking Southern fiction with William Styron and he said, “I come from the High South”—he was from Virginia, and he was mildly boasting. Like many writers who had left the South to find a life in the North, he often talked fondly about the region that had formed him.
There is plenty to boast of in the Deep South, with its cultural pleasures, where the cities in particular are vibrant, the art galleries of Atlanta, the gourmet restaurants of Charleston, the cities with pro sports or great college teams. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is scheduled to perform César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, as I write, and the Mississippi Symphony is scheduling six concerts for its Bravo Series (Mozart, Beethoven) in Jackson. There are presidential libraries, playhouses and botanical gardens. Civil War battlefields abound—these solemn places are well kept and enlightening: You could spend months profitably touring them. The golf courses of Georgia and Alabama are famous, there is motor racing, and every large city has a grand hotel or two, and a great restaurant.
Parts of the Deep South are commercially prosperous, too, with booming industries—medical research and technology, aerospace and aviation, car manufacturing. The Mercedes you bought could have been made in Alabama, BMW’s plant in South Carolina will soon be its largest in the world, Nissan makes cars in Mississippi, and so does Toyota. There are many associated businesses, suppliers of car-related components. This is a testament to the enduring pride and work ethic of the South, not to mention labor laws.
I think most people know this. They may also be aware that the Deep South has some of the highest rates of unemployment, some of the worst schools, the poorest housing and medical care, a vast number of dying and depopulated towns. As for being hard-up, the states I visited in the Deep South have nearly 20 percent of their people living below the poverty line, more than the national average of 16 percent.
This other Deep South, with the same pride and with deep roots—rural, struggling, idyllic in places and mostly ignored—was like a foreign country to me. I decided to travel the back roads for the pleasure of discovery—doing in my own country what I had spent most of my life doing in Africa and India and China—ignoring the museums and stadiums, the antebellum mansions and automobile plants, and, with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle in mind, concentrating on the human architecture, in particular the overlooked: the submerged fifth.
PART ONE: SOUTH CAROLINA
The South began for me in Allendale, in the rural Lowcountry of South Carolina, set among twiggy fields of tufted white, the blown-open cotton bolls brightening the spindly bushes. In a lifetime of travel, I had seen very few places to compare with Allendale in its oddity; and approaching the town was just as bizarre. The road, much of it, was a divided highway, wider than many sections of the great north-south Interstate, Route 95, which is more like a tunnel than a road for the way it sluices cars south at great speed.
Approaching the outskirts of Allendale I had a sight of doomsday, one of those visions that make the effort of travel worthwhile. It was a vision of ruin, of decay and utter emptiness; and it was obvious in the simplest, most recognizable structures—motels, gas stations, restaurants, stores—all of them abandoned to rot, some of them so thoroughly decayed that all that was left was the great concrete slab of the foundation, stained with oil or paint, littered with the splinters of the collapsed building, a rusted sign leaning. Some were brick-faced, others made of cinder blocks, but none was well made and so the impression I had was of astonishing decrepitude, as though a war had ravaged the place and killed all the people.
Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.
Most of the shops were closed, the wide main road was littered. The side streets, lined by shacks and abandoned houses, looked haunted. I had never seen anything quite like it, the ghost town on the ghost highway. I was glad I had come.
Just as decrepit, but busy, was a filling station and convenience store, where I stopped to buy gas. When I went inside for a drink I met Suresh Patel. “I came here two years ago from Broach,” Mr. Patel told me, from behind the counter of his cluttered shop. Broach is an industrial river district of 1.5 million in the state of Gujarat. Mr. Patel had been a chemist in India. “My cousin call me. He say, ‘Come. Good business.’”
Many Indian shopkeepers, duka-wallahs, whom I knew in East and Central Africa, claimed Broach as their ancestral home, where the Patel surname identifies them as members of a Gujarati, primarily Hindu subcaste. And Mr. Patel’s convenience store in Allendale was identical to the dukas in East Africa, the shelves of food and beer and cheap clothes and candy and household goods, the stern hand-lettered sign, No Credit, the same whiff of incense and curry. A 1999 story in the New York Times magazine by Tunku Varadarajan declared that more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are owned by people of Indian origin, a statistic supplied by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association—and the figure is even greater now.
All the convenience stores, the three gas stations and the one motel in small, unpromising Allendale were each owned by Indians from India. The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight—and even the intense sunshine was like a sinister aspect of that same blight—all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.
Later I saw just outside Allendale proper the campus of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, with 800 students, and the old main street, and the handsome courthouse, and a small subdivision of well-kept bungalows. But mostly, and importantly, Allendale, judging from Route 301, was a ruin—poor, neglected, hopeless-looking, a vivid failure.
“We have to change the worst.”
In an office tucked inside a mobile unit, sign-posted “Allendale County Alive,” I found Wilbur Cave. After we shook hands, I mentioned the extraordinary weirdness of Route 301.
“This was a famous road once—the halfway point from up north to Florida or back,” Wilbur said. “Everyone stopped here. And this was one of the busiest towns ever. When I was growing up we could hardly cross the road.”
But there were no cars today, or just a handful. “What happened?”
“Route 95 happened.”
And Wilbur explained that in the late 1960s, when the Interstate route was plotted, it bypassed Allendale 40 miles to the east, and like many other towns on Route 301, Allendale fell into ruin. But just as the great new city rising in the wilderness is an image of American prosperity, a ghost town like Allendale is also a feature of our landscape. Perhaps the most American urban transformation is that very sight; all ghost towns were once boomtowns.
read more… smithsonianmag.com