Rails Across America, Part 7
The seventh installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
The present day struggles of Malvern, Arkansas, hometown of actor Billy Bob Thornton, tell a precautionary tale of the economic forces that have dramatically altered life in American small towns in the past few decades. Malvern was founded around the railroad industry in the 1870’s, which was developed in the area to service the therapeutic hot springs in modern day Hot Springs. Just a decade or so later, Malvernites discovered large deposits of local clay suitable for brick making. This became such a big local industry, peaking in the 1920’s, that the town has proclaimed itself the “Brick Capital of the World” and hosts a festival every summer called Brickfest. According to multiple residents, Malvern enjoyed a terrific post-world war crescendo in industrial activity that reached its zenith in the 1970’s, but has since been parched and drained to a fragment of its former self. Unfortunately, Malvern has become the sort of city where visitors are referred to fast food franchises to eat, (with the exception of one boutique bakery that few residents know exist) the closest non-franchised eatery to downtown is over a half-mile away, Main Street segues into a wide and unwalkable road and is always roaring with traffic, and travelers are warned, “You won’t find beautiful girls here; you’ll find crack heads.”
As County Judge and former Malvern Mayor Bill Scrimshaw and his colleagues recount, Malvern’s economy has been battered by a series of crippling events. Coinciding with global recession of the early 1980’s, many of Malvern’s largest employers cut jobs or closed shop. One of the most calamitous exits occurred in 1985, when Reynolds Aluminum shuttered an enormous plant eliminating 1,400 well-paying jobs in this town of ten thousand. Amidst the job exodus, Wal-Mart entered, exacerbating Malvern’s economic insecurity by cleaning out local businesses downtown. Testament to Wal-Mart’s irresistible magnetism, Burger King recently boarded up and literally moved a half-mile closer to the Super Center, located just off the interstate. A shopping plaza on the other side of town where Wal-Mart was previously located is now a vast, desolate, and marginally occupied plot of gray pavement. Though the few businesses surviving on Malvern’s Main Street have grown increasingly lonely, jobs have slowly returned to Malvern, spurred by the recent relocation of a call center, which employs almost five hundred people.
Many Malvernites describe their town as a less-than-ideal place to live. A young African-American mother notes that citizens don’t mix, sticking to their own small circles. A female bank executive believes that the people of this dry town (no alcohol) tend to settle any differences through religious means: “Nobody can get along and when they have a conflict, they just split and form a new church.” Mark Bivens, editor of the Malvern Daily Record, estimates there are 72 churches within the immediate area. Furthermore, the community’s leaders are astoundingly inaccessible, and are occasionally referred to with a snicker for their absenteeism. Several individuals corroborate that, contrary to what the US Census found, Malvern’s population fell over the last decade; the discrepancy is explained by a prison built five years ago. A Chamber of Commerce representative lists only four tourist attractions: kayaking behind the Wal-Mart, a walking path by the kayaking area, the historical museum, and the movie “thee-ay-ter”. Darrell, owner of a local diner, remarks, “They keep saying it’s going to be a tourist town, but if I was a tourist I wouldn’t come here. There’s nothing to see but old empty buildings.”