My first visit to rural America. And I find that it consists largely of fast food restaurants and car parks. Endless rolling strips of wide roads surrounded on both sides by an uncountable number of fast food chains and car dealerships, and car garages, and car body shops, and the odd Walmart. And all of that surrounded by acres of asphalt for parking.
Nobody walks. In rural America that’s plainly evident by the fact that there are no footpaths by the roadside, and no public rights of way anywhere: the countryside is divided up into generous parcels of private property with little white clapboard houses and flags fluttering on the porches, but there is no common land in the countryside of North Carolina. Just the endless winding roads and houses that all look very much alike, with trucks and cars parked under car ports.
But many are abandoned. Houses have been just left to rot and collapse, with the invasive “kudzu” weed overtaking quickly (this plant was introduced to prevent erosion but ended up covering huge parts of the landscape in the dense and indestructible weed, wrapping itself around buildings, trees and telegraph poles alike). All is clearly not well in this part of America, with its abandoned houses and empty shops and derelict factories. Foreclosure sales are clearly still prevalent in this area – and a part of the US real estate market that I actually have some prior knowledge of, having worked for a company that hoovered up a lot of the bad mortgages in the US post-2008.
And the homeless. Not just in the cities. Homeless on the streets of small towns, such as the man sitting on the old courthouse steps, wearing an American flag baseball cap and describing how people and money are rapidly leaving the area. It isn’t just tiny little houses being abandoned. In Shelby’s “historical quarter”, huge old colonial mansions were shuttered up with “Shelby Security” signs on the lawn. Near Rutherfordton, an abandoned house still had a collection of wasp nests and National Geographic in the attic, dating to the late 1970s.
In Atlanta the homeless were everywhere in the city centre, and ironically, it appeared that the Salvation Army building had been converted into luxury apartments, though I am not sure who would want to live in them, given that in all respects it was almost as if the city was still dressed up for its appearance in The Walking Dead.
This is both rust belt and bible belt. So many churches, mostly wooden Baptist churches with thin spires, and boards outside stating wisdom such as, “If you are willing, God is able” etc.
People are probably turning more and more to God, given the collapse of much of the local economy over the last few decades. And many that haven’t turned to God have turned to opiates instead, which is a big problem in North Carolina, as it has become in many parts of rust belt rural America: people addicted to pain killers, or just simply good old fashioned heroin.
I got to see an American school and see a football game. Slow and ponderous, with the ball moving a few metres along the pitch before another “huddle”. What interested me most were the two armed “resource officers” pacing up and down the home side. A few days after I left there was a shooting at Butler High School, not far from where I had been. One student was killed and classes resumed a couple of hours later.
However, “Southern hospitality” is clearly a real thing, with everybody being very friendly and helpful, even if there is the usual bemusement at some bewildered looking English person wandering around with a camera. “Have a great day and y’all come back now, ya’hear!”
This is the first post in a series from North Carolina and Georgia.