Rails Across America, Part 2
The second installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Yazoo City, Mississippi
Yazoo City, Mississippi is a heart-wrenching example of a small American community left hung out to dry. The train that cuts its way through town, with its thunderous horn blaring in warning, offers a sobering view of the largely boarded up main street, government projects, dilapidated homes, and abandoned infrastructure. What can’t be seen from the train is less photographically poetic but equally depressing: multiple interstates, a sprawling complex of federal prisons, dozens of franchises, dusty strip malls, and overgrown sidewalks. Though the county seat was once prosperous from agriculture, lumbering, and industrial manufacturing, Yazoo has been diminished to an anemic shell. Its population fell over twenty percent between the last two censuses, and nearly half of the remaining population lives beneath the poverty line, many on government welfare checks.
Since Yazoo’s peak 30 years ago, the city has gotten stuck in a self-perpetuating downward cycle. Some say that the middle class has moved out because the public schools are terrible, pushing property values down and further weakening the schools. The community votes for quick-fix government, which inevitably has resulted in poor governance and a deterioration of the community fabric. (In separate conversations with a business owner and a consultant who both asked not to be named, I was told that town officials have been known to pay $50 in cash through indirect means for a single vote.) Some older residents believe Yazoo City is a textbook example of a stagnant welfare state. Many of the poorest citizens work temporarily only to receive unemployment benefits once fired; others have multiple children, presumably because welfare checks increase with dependents. Today, it’s hackle raising to walk anywhere after dusk. On top of it all, Yazoo has regularly been victim of devastating natural disasters. Most recently, a tornado swept through in 2010, obliterating huge swaths of town and leaving behind devastation that is still widely observable.
Citizens of Yazoo City have difficulty identifying the cause or the timing of the city’s decline. The reasons I heard most often are the mechanization of farms and subsequent unemployment of laborers in the 70’s and on, the arrival of the interstate that bypassed Main Street in the early 80’s, the ascension of impotent or possibly outright corrupt politicians to town government in the mid-90’s, the collapse of big employers like Mississippi Chemicals in the mid-80’s, the prevalent dependency on welfare checks, poor parenting, the rise in production costs of cash crops (cotton, corn, soybeans) and catfish over the past decade, and the exodus of the middle-class to neighboring Madison (a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi).
The federal prison, brought to town by Yazoo City native former Governor Haley Barbour, was supposed to “set the world on fire” upon its arrival to town in 1996, but really did nothing beyond attracting 19 franchise food establishments to open up to cater to the increased traffic. One woman tells me, “When cotton was king, this town thrived. Now we have the prison. As far as major industry, we have none.” Everyone I talked to agrees that the decline began in the 80’s and really accelerated in the 90’s. Yazoo was once wonderful, they say, but is no longer so.
But there are still sunny days in Yazoo City. The countryside around for miles is gorgeous and verdant; the food is Southern delicious. What’s more, there are currently ongoing efforts to revive the town by various individuals and community organizations. In my short three day visit, I met an array of the humble and unsung town heroes, like the Adams family and Ms. Ruth. The Adams’, residents of Yazoo for generations, has invested much of their wealth in buying up and refurbishing dilapidated buildings on Main Street since 2005. Bit by bit, they are breathing life and color back into Yazoo. Ms. Ruth never graduated high school, but is a perfect example of a principled, self-made older black woman who puts family values and hard work over everything, the American ethic that must have made our country great. She’s mostly retired, but has the energy and the charisma of a powerful leader. Additionally, Yazoo is home to a number of cultural gems like the Downtown Market and the King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church. The market is a new family-owned shop that has been subdivided into rentable stalls filled with wares by local artisans. The church holds a two-hour service that consists of an exuberant and public welcoming, clapping, singing, shouting, and an unforgettably passionate sermon delivered a cappella by the reverend, shaking and sweating in the air-conditioned chapel. These are but a few resilient examples of Yazoo’s social wealth.
I don’t pretend to have any idea what the future holds for Yazoo City. Though the city has struggled with the same economic dilemma as most of post-manufacturing America, I feel the crux of Yazoo City’s economic problems is actually cultural. As noted, there are two conflicting social forces present in town: one is a negative, corrosive apathy born of poverty and weak leadership; the other is an energized, hopeful spirit born of hard work and community pride. (Both of these movements transcend race, class, profession, and any other checklist category.) I know which side I’m rooting for, but am lost as to which will win. What happens to Yazoo over the next decade or two will be largely dependent on the domination of one of these two forces over the other. If the citizens can somehow empower and rally around effective leadership, I think there is great hope yet for this small Southern town.
Postscript: Beyond Haley Barbour, there is an individual who I feel is in a particularly opportune position to affect positive change, 21-year old Fletcher Cox, who was drafted to the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.
Please let me know if I have misrepresented this city in any way. I have tried my best to summarize an unfamiliar place honestly, but welcome any disagreement. I have also used the terms “town” and “city” interchangeably.