By John Walker
Today we found ourselves in the historic city of Petersburg, Va. Like many southern towns, it is much more famous for its history than its current state. When we came in, I strangely felt like I was back in Kentucky. There, off the side of the highway, was the long line of strip malls that make up that modern U.S. town. What 20 years ago they called progress is now just a sign of a dying community. Dion Diamond, original Freedom Rider from Petersburg, unexpectedly stopped our bus when he saw the Trailways Bus station was still there. His own amazement came to my attention. Are we that far removed from ourselves?
Dion had the bus pull over immediately and soon enough we were on an impromptu walking tour of downtown Petersburg. Within minutes of reaching the heart of downtown, the comments of fellow student riders came to my attention. Many of the riders who have never been to the South had no words to describe what they were seeing. There were boarded up windows in every other building, traffic was bare, and the nicest place downtown was the tiny diner that defines many similar towns. All I could do was try to explain to my new friends what happened to this town, just as Dion was doing. As I stood there describing the fate of this town there was a realization. I was describing the death of hundreds of communities across this country.
Many times I hear these towns described as dying, bombed out, or ghostly. I call them home. Others see the failure of a once thriving village. I see the broken promises of a lost generation. So the next time someone asks me if I will ever leave my home I can only answer truthfully. No. Here is where I take my stand. Whether it is the flooded out, gutted out, river towns or the blasted mountain hollows, this is where I plant my stake. There will be others to take the fight to the cities and I respect them for it. But mine is in the forests and by the streams, wherever they may be. Mine is in the towns where everyone knows your business. I don’t mind, because my business will be their wellbeing.
So in short conclusion I say it’s time to wake up these communities. They aren’t dying, just sleeping. And when they finally wake, just maybe America will take a long look at itself and say “Oh, there you are. Welcome back.”