Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

Today, Susan and I headed back to Cedartown for a few hours. Susan was born in and grew up in Cedartown, while my parents were born there. I lived in Cedartown for a year or so when I was four and five years old, before we moved to Rome; later, Susan and I lived there for almost six years after we got married. In between those two times of calling Cedartown home, I visited there regularly to visit grandparents and relatives.

From my parents' stories and my own childhood visits, I remember Cedartown as a small but growing community with several large employers (including several factories--Goodyear, Jockey, and Arrow Shirts all had large operations in Cedartown at one point). It was a town with its own groceries, its own clothing stores, its own restaurants, its own office supply stores, its own department stores, its own furniture stores, its own auto dealerships... in short, Cedartown was the sort of town that dotted the landscape in the 1940s through the 1960s. It was a town that families could call home, a town where it was possible to find everything one needed without having to travel out of town. Of course, Rome was only a half-hour away, and Atlanta was two hours or so--but most residents found it quite possible to carry out their lives in Cedartown without having to make the trip to these larger towns.

I remember that my grandmother's house on Olive Street was just a few hundred yards away from a factory of some sorts that was just on the other side of Highway 27 (Olive paralleled Highway 27 south of Cedartown); I saw that factory hundreds of times, but I had no idea what it actually produced. Nevertheless, it was a large building, and its parking lot was filled during the day, which meant that many dozens of people worked there and earned a paycheck.

That's the way these small towns were in the middle of the last century: they had reached a sort of municipal "critical mass" that made it possible for them to be largely self-sustaining. They weren't suburbs or bedroom communities--they were homes, and they met their residents' needs. People lived there; they worked there; they went to school there; they raised their families there; they shopped there; they saw their children make a home there. Generations were born and lived and died there, and other generations followed in their footsteps.

I remember being amazed when Dad told me that Cedartown had two thriving movie theaters in the 1940s; by the time I was visiting there in the 1960s, it had only one barely-surviving theater. Susan and I went to the West Theater a time or two when we were dating and after we were married, but for the most part there was no reason to go; it was a run-down theater with second-run films that never appealed to us.

Cedartown used to have at least two car dealerships---a large Ford dealership and a large Chevrolet/GMC dealership. If either is still there, we could find no evidence of it today. The lots are converted or empty; the only cars that can be bought there are used cars from small lots that dot Highways 27 and 278.

Factories are torn down or empty. Industrial parks are now home to small businesses, mostly distribution centers; there is no sign that anything is thriving there any longer. Homes that were once opulent and impressive are worn and dreary; most of Cedartown seems to be in deterioration or decline.

Cedartown isn't an exception. All over, there are small towns of 10,000 to 20,000 people that were once thriving, healthy communities; the shift in economic focus in the past forty or fifty years has eliminated the local factories that offered numerous jobs to support the residents, and it appears that for the most part, the only jobs in small towns like this are sales/cashier jobs at the local WalMarts or grocery stores or fast food establishments, or jobs in the many banks that somehow still survive in these declining communities.

It's sobering to realize that in my own lifetime, I've witnessed the gradual elimination of local self-sufficiency in Cedartown--and I know the same process is occurring in hundreds (if not thousands) of similar towns. I see little chance of reversal; as more manufacturers shift to a global focus, moving more of their factories to facilities in other countries, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for communities like Cedartown to offer that balanced hometown experience to its residents.

Communities like Rome, with 35,000 residents in the city limits and another 20,000 or more in the surrounding county, have a greater chance to survive--but even these towns are suffering from some of the same shifts that have devastated the small towns. By the time my nephew Oliver is old enough to really understand the stories of our childhood, the sulf-sufficient small town may seem as isolated from his own world as the pioneer villages of the 1800s were from my own childhood.


Art said...

The small town radio business is a snapshot of what you're talking about. A few years ago I worked at WBHF in Cartersville. The owners told me they had lost a lot of advertisers when Wal-Mart rolled into town and shut them all down. Wal-Mart isn't going to advertise with WBHF because they're going to go with a Clear Channel station that can cover everything from Cartersville to Atlanta. And a lot of Clear Channel's content isn't even local to Atlanta, it comes from Tampa.

WBHF hangs on as a non-profit now, but similar stations are either disappearing or going Spanish. Not only are local businesses being slain, but the radio farm system, too.

cliff said...

This is the problem with the nationalization of retailing and the internationalization of manufacturing: there's little room left for local market independence. I remember when Rome had a television station; I remember when both AM and FM radio thrived in northwest Georgia; I remember when Cedartown's WGAA was a major regional AM station. All of that has fallen by the wayside... and with every one of these changes, more jobs go away.