By Sam Burnham
Let's take a minute to talk about this Catfish Kissin' Competition thing.
I've developed a love for rivers over the years. I guess that comes with growing up in a city built on three of them. It might be from an early love of fishing. It could be from all the historic locations that are associated with rivers. It's all of this and more.
But I can narrow this one down a bit further. I can remember the exact moment it hit me that poor stewardship of our rivers is as un-Southern as anything that we can do.
I saw a post by Vanishing South Georgia on the pollution caused by the Rayonier plant in Jesup. Trust me, I do get tired of hearing many of the environmental protests out there. I do think it can get excessive. And that was where my mind first headed when I started reading on an industry that has a major impact on the economy of Wayne County. But I stuck with the story and I saw the picture.
What is that? Just across the river bank and a treeline about six trunks deep is a pooling mass of...whatever that is. I'm guessing that it isn't teeming with fish. I'm also betting that if it leaks into the Altamaha it won't be teeming with fish either.
I totally agree with Brian's sentiments in his post. I'm not crusading against Rayonier or any other company that is making a product and employing a lot of people. And I don't trust the government to have our best interests in mind when it comes to topics like this. If a river in Cleveland catches on fire, that's one thing. But if the Altamaha, or the Ogeechee, or the Medway burst into flames, that's a different matter entirely. We are not talking about the Rust Belt or some big polluted city. We're talking about Jesup, Midway, and Richmond Hill. The photo shows a thin separation between the natural world and the industrial world. It our duty to keep them apart without destroying either of them.
So what is the answer? A concerned and educated populace that is mindful of what is going on around them and river keepers who keep people informed about current events can go a long way in keeping the South safe for fishing, hunting, boating, hiking, anything outdoors - a long way in keeping The South Southern.
Case in point: I've mentioned before about Burwell Creek in Rome. There is a wetland and forest area that is right in the middle of town. It's a plot of land that would make a great connection between the existing Ridge Ferry Park and the trails and history of Jackson Hill. It's an opportunity for a major park in the city center.
The area was up for sale to be developed into a major retail and residential development. But the Coosa River Basin Initiative announced the plan and worked to inform people of the potential for a park as well as losing such an area of floodplain along the Oostanaula River and the people spoke up. They mobilized, protested, shared information with other people, organized a voting campaign and eventually saved 90% of the property. The government didn't do it. And honestly, the CRBI didn't do it. But it could not have been done without the CRBI and the work they did in rousing concerned people.
I am sure there are times I'll find myself in disagreement with the advice of the group. That is to be understood. But I like knowing that river keepers are watching to advise the public of what is going on with their rivers - the resources that provide us with water, recreation, and beauty all over Georgia. They help us to understand how these resources work, how to keep them healthy, and, during the rainy months, how to keep them in their banks and out of our homes and businesses.
That's why I've signed up to kiss a catfish. I'd much rather eat a fried one than pucker up to kiss a squiggly live one. But if kissing one means there are plenty of clean and healthy ones to fry up with grits, I'll pucker up. If you'd like to donate to make me kiss that squiggly joker, you can donate here.
By Sam Burnham
The other night, as I was winding down for the evening I came across an article from NPR News that stated that there are ballot initiatives in several states this election cycle focusing on public transit as an option to alleviate traffic, deal with commuter issues, hopefully decrease the pollution levels in cities, etc. Atlanta is included in this list as it is scheduled to vote on spending $2.5 billion over the next 40 YEARS. Do not adjust your screen, you read that correctly. MARTA is proposing a T-SPLOST to raise $2.5 billion to fund transportation upgrades in Atlanta.
40 years isn't a term on a T-SPLOST. 40 years is a sentence at Georgia Diagnostic for murder. 40 years is a typical career length before someone retires. In 40 years people who aren't even born yet will have gray hair and grown kids and will still be paying a penny per two dollars so in the year 2057 people in Midtown can catch a bus to Cabbagetown. We have no idea what technological or financial events might occur to make this project even more absurd than it is in 2016.
While I'm somewhat impressed that Atlanta is trying to rook the whole state into this scheme by claiming that somehow traffic on the downtown connector is just as detrimental to the lives of people in Toccoa or Sylvester as it is for Atlantans, I just don't see this option as sustainable.
At some point, you reach a limit of how many people will fit in a space. Atlanta's growing water and sewer needs, the space available for development, the food deserts caused by the relative inability of the citizens to produce any of their own food. Atlanta needs far more innovation than multi-billion dollar stadiums and bus routes.
This brings us back to our small town model.
Even in the idyllic model of a thriving community, the issues with traffic, gridlock, and pollution are minimal. This is just a fact of operating with a small population center. This model is not promoting these mostly abandoned small towns as future metropolises of the future, it is saying that a decentralized economy and workforce are a more effective model or, at the very least, an equally effective model. We aren't looking to upgrade De Soto to Atlanta. We're looking to create a healthy De Soto.
As we address food deserts in this model, so many of the communities in question are surrounded by arable farmland. Others are set in the verdant wild-lands of the state. Between hunting, fishing, and agriculture (including residents who till their own gardens) an inhabitant of a 25 square mile community should never be more than a mile or so from fresh nutritious food. There are a lot of good folks in these towns that are already producing volumes of food. Too many of them are marketing their products in Atlanta, Savannah, and Charleston, not because they a bourgeois and want to sell to fancy people and restaurants but because there isn't a customer base in their community. In this model, the farmers quit taking the food to the people because the people come to them.
What this model needs is some innovation.
There will be a smaller demand for energy as there will be fewer buildings, fewer streetlights, less illuminated signage, less wasted electricity. Fuel will be less of a factor as commutes will be shortened or eliminated. If the grid can be upgraded to accommodate an efficient use of solar, most of these towns could supply much of their own power, especially in the summer.
Think 40 years down the road. Atlanta will just be finishing off the aforementioned T-SPLOST package and will be just as crowded and congested as ever, it not more. But in the outlying areas, innovation and a changed mentality toward small communities could have taken hold. Many of the benefits of the big city, such as entertainment and leisure activities, may have made it back to our towns. Rural areas could possibly be holding a substantial voting base and will have more economic pull within the state. The people who made this transformation happen would have returned education and medical care in these areas to effective levels.
We have a tendency in the United States to think that bigger is better. We centralize everything. But what happens is we create monstrosities that are not sustainable. They create an economic drain that results in corruption, ineffectiveness, and failure. We deserve better and we can do better. But we have to change the conversation. We can't just fix Atlanta and expect that to solve all our problems.
A 40 year package to spend $2.5 billion on a problem that probably can't be solved is an exercise in futility. There are better options available. Let's talk about the 1000 little answers to one big problem.
Let's keep the conversation going. More to come.
By Sam Burnham
We often hear the old adage that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. That sounds morbid, particularly to a historian that cherishes so many of the treasures from days gone by. What if the repeating of history were not a curse? History as a whole is not a journey through loathsome atrocities that we'd all be better off forgetting. Some of it was quite winsome, perhaps even worthy of repeating. That is the point I want to focus on in this post
Georgia is speckled with a plethora of small towns. Often, town might not be the right word. If a home is the people in it, than may of these towns have, at least metaphorically, ceased to be. There are still a scattering of residents but the shops are closed up, the industries shuttered, All that remains are the structures that were left along the now quieted streets. Weeds may have crept in and the pavement may be cracked but we are left with an image of what once was.
While the Peach State is blessed with thriving historic downtowns in places like Rome, Columbus, Cartersville, Milledgeville, and, of course, Savannah, many more of the old towns are sitting, waiting to see what happens next. And for far too long what has happened is nothing.
Occasionally, you encounter a town where someone stepped in, invested some money to refurbish a building or two in hopes of sparking a revitalization. They may have even started a unique enterprise in hopes of attracting visitors...and money. But more often than not, there was a sad ending. And now a refurbished building sits empty, probably surrounded by others that look a little more weathered.
There are several reasons that a town might have died. Their local traffic artery may have been replaced by the new superhighway that bypassed town. The local cotton mill might have relocated to another country in search of cheaper labor and operating costs. The younger residents may have left for the big city, searching for excitement and opportunity. Our economy has, in recent decades, favored the larger cities, leaving the rural towns trying to survive after being born in an era where local businesses were more sustainable and therefore more profitable.
However, as real estate prices soar in the urban areas, I wonder if we will reach a time when doing business in these small towns might once again become more profitable. We have the strength of the connections offered to us by the technological advances of the past few decades. Our ability to communicate in real time has erased distances and allowed us to be in several places at once. It's as if a business operating in Talbotton could be in metro Atlanta, or even Boston or New York, while paying rural Georgia rent and taxes.
If such an idea were to catch on, these small towns, with some existing infrastructure, could be brought up to speed with the larger cities. If businesses that are capable of bringing money into the local economy were to relocate, it could raise the market demands for service industry jobs to return. There would be a greater demand for the arts - which is not always lacking in these towns. Music festivals and venues, as well as community theater already exist in many of these towns. And considering the variety of buildings that are available - ranging from churhces, tho cotton warehouses, the tobacco barns - the opportunities could be limited by only the imagination.
As the popularity of locally-owned businesses grows, these small towns could provide a home to people who wish to start something different but might be looking for a slower pace of life. Bringing these towns back, on some level, would be a healthy thing for Georgia - and so many other Southern states that have these same types of towns. The economic and cultural strength that they could provide would diversify the economy of the state and spread out resources more evenly across the state. We could see a revitalization of hospitals and schools in the rural areas. The real estate and some level of infrastructure is available. Many of these towns have access to highways and railroads. The electrical, water, and other utility systems are already in place. There are already streets and roads, churches, schools, even the buildings that can hold businesses are already in place. They are just waiting for someone with an eye for polishing a diamond in the rough. It could be an opportunity whose time has come. It's just a matter of details.
...To Be Continued...
All of the photos in this post were graciously provided by Brian Brown at Vanishing South Georgia. The fact that Brian has published such prolific blogs featuring the vanishing history of North, South and Coastal Georgia speaks to the existence of these disappearing communities. Much of what Brian documents is already gone or is beyond saving but there is much more on his sites that are ripe for the scenario I've laid out above.
If you like the photos you've seen in this post, check out his sites:
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire