By Erica Shekell
As we approached Petersburg, Va., Freedom Rider Dion Diamond explained to us over the bus microphone that on our left was a new mall which had devastated the thriving downtown economy when the mall was built. It wasn’t until we saw the downtown that this meant anything to us.
The bus dropped us off across the street from the old Trailways station where the original Riders had stopped. Mr. Diamond led the group of us around the corner and down a long, sloping street. The street was lined with myriad small shops – wig shops, doll repair shops, ice cream and massage parlors, old department stores and a number of unique shops of very specific niches – and the majority of them were closed, boarded up, for sale or abandoned. Paint was peeling off the bricks.
We were almost the only ones walking on the sidewalks. Even the stores that seemed to still be surviving were closed at the time, perhaps because it was Sunday and Mother’s Day. Our group was so large that we overflowed off the sidewalk and halfway into the road – but it didn’t matter – we were in no one’s way because no one was there. Several of the students commented that this street was one of the eeriest places they’d ever seen.
It was hard to believe that something so apparently vibrant had been so completely devastated. We couldn’t wrap our heads around it. Peter made the comment, “I can’t get over how a city dies.”
We understood then what the mall had done to what looked like an amazing and vibrant local economy.
It was strange when a lone pedestrian or a single car passed us. There were about 50 of us – “probably the biggest number of people who have been on this road in 10 years,” someone commented – and we all had cameras and video cameras. Many of us were in nice clothes. I felt that we were very conspicuous – that we were tourists invading a solemn place that ought not to be invaded or trivialized through photographing it.
I wasn’t sure if we were looking at the town correctly through our numerous lenses. Some of us were photographing it for its aesthetic and photogenic qualities – looking at it with the eyes of an artist – and others seemed to be photographing it from a photojournalistic standpoint – photos meant to reveal the truth and change it. A few students were posing for photos on a bench near a small tree, and I wondered if they were looking at the scene from the eyes of a tourist – one who sees it as a spectacle and wants to show photos of themselves there just to impress their friends – but I wasn’t certain if this is what they thought.
I wondered if it was right to treat the dilapidated downtown as this place of exoticism and mystique – particularly when it was not some fantasy or a museum display, but a possibly inescapable reality for real people. It made me question the ethics of our photography along the Ride and photography of such things in general.
Petersburg was a very different experience in that we weren’t learning just about a historical problem that has been already solved, but an example of a problem that will be our job to solve.
Tags: Erica Shekell