Harold Terry loves to talk about how it used to be in Pine Bluff, the days when his mother would drive neighbours who didn’t own cars downtown to shop every Saturday and he’d tag along. “They would buy me candies, every time,” he says.
When the now derelict Hotel Pines was in its heyday in the 1920s, Harold’s home town also boasted a 1,500-seat theatre. Pine Bluff was booming and jobs were plentiful – it was even home to the state’s first radio station. Then came the great flood of 1927, and at the height of the Great Depression three years later the crops failed. Two of the town’s banks went under.
The 1960s were riven by the racial tensions that defined the South, and civil rights campaigners were shot during protests to end segregation. But Pine Bluff prevailed and moved through the 1970s and into the 1980s in optimistic mood. That decade saw the construction of The Pines, a large suburban mall that attracted commerce from across Arkansas.
One of the town’s key employers was established in 1941, but its long, slow decline has been mourned by few outside the city limits. Pine Bluff Arsenal was one of the key chemical weapons sites for the US military, manufacturing and storing everything from VX gas to white phosphorous. But in 1969 President Nixon banned nerve agent weapons and the production facility was slowly abandoned. It existed mainly as a storage site, holding 12 per cent of the US stockpile, until the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty in 1993 saw the US agree to destroy its holdings. Pine Bluff’s four production lines have been cut to just one, making riot-control technology. It still employs more than 1,000 people but this represents just a fraction of its former workforce.
It is hard to imagine the old bustle now. The flight of white residents and soaring crime rates went hand-in-hand. The shopping mall and big-box discount chains like Wal-Mart killed the old mom-and-pop stores, and in some cases put whole downtown districts in mothballs, including Pine Bluff’s.
In 2010 Moody’s credit ratings agency listed Pine Bluff as one of 22 US metropolitan areas in most danger of succumbing to a double-dip recession, citing its “negative migration trends and no clear economic driver” as the primary reasons behind its decline.
“I am disappointed,” says Bobby Garner, 76, who has been serving burgers at his Sno-White Grill, just three blocks from the town’s all-but-abandoned Main Street, for the past 43 years.
“There used to be three gas stations between here and Main Street,” he recalls, pointing to empty buildings on the block.
Mr Terry, who returned to town after 25 years in the US Air Force, is trying to do his bit to revive downtown, recently opening up a modest restaurant just off Main Street, Terry’s Home-Cooked Express. He and another friend, Jack Stradley, are planning a one-day music festival for April.
On arriving here three years ago, Mr Stradley bought two abandoned theatres and is restoring one. The larger of the two, the Saenger, with 1,700 seats, he has donated to the city. He hopes both will soon be open again. “My opinion is that the city has hit rock-bottom and we are starting the turn-around,” he says, pinning his hopes on Police Chief Hubank and the new mayor.
But ask Bobby Garner at the Sno-White Grill whether the town can ever be brought back to the way it was, and he’ll look up with watery eyes and says simply: “No.”