Monday, June 20, 2011

Kingwood Pike, West Virginia

If you’re not used to narrow, winding, sharp-climb mountain roads, heading out of Morgantown, West Virginia on the Kingwood Pike can be a harrowing experience. If you’re on a bike, it’s worse. There isn’t any shoulder on the Kingwood—it’s narrow to begin with—and you’ve got coal trucks and lumber trucks competing for the road, along with everything from the big diesel pickups riding high on their 4x4 drivetrains to the ratty 1987 Caprice running on three cylinders, wide, slow and smoky, packed with a family, not one of whom weighs less than 300 lbs.

Kingwood starts as County Road 81 before Monongalia County gives out and Preston County begins; then it’s just the Kingwood Pike till it hits Reedsville. After that, it’s state route 7. In the summer, the trip is a riot of smells—honeysuckle, rhododendron, goldenrod, dogwood, hot grass, smoke from the sawmill where they’re burning sawdust, hot grease and the hint of dough as you pass the older houses, the ones without air conditioning, with the doors and windows open to catch the breeze.

These days it’s a lot easier to ride the Kingwood; once they put the Tour de France on the Versus channel for cable and dish. Versus got its name as a fishing and hunting channel, branched out into Indy-car racing before adopting the Tour. That happened right around the time the Americans, Armstrong, Hincapie, and the rest, began to dominate the cycling world, and suddenly I found people passing me on the hills with their fists in the air, rather than throwing their slurpee cups at me.

I started riding the Kingwood when my mother first took sick. Pa and I would go to the hospital in the morning, and we’d sit by her bed till noon or so, and then go home for the afternoon. I’d get in my jersey and take the Lightspeed out the front door. Ma and Pa lived at the top of town; going down the back hill to the day-old Wonder Bread store near the reform school, you’d hit 40 without thinking. Then it was all uphill for miles and miles.

The Kingwood runs between Morgantown and Kingwood. After Reedsville, it’s the Morgantown Road to the mapmakers, but to everyone who lives there, it’s the Kingwood even after it crosses the Cheat River and meanders all the way to the Maryland border.

The Kingwood isn’t the major road through West Virginia, and it wasn’t the main route back in the ‘30s, when Eleanor Roosevelt took a shine to the countryside there. Back then, you came out of Washington on US50, which took you all the way past Parkersburg to Cincinnati. 50 ran south of Morgantown, and you might take the Grafton Road, US119, up into town, but the coal and timber trucks used that route and to call it dangerous was to awaken a certain sardonic glint in the eyes of the locals, most of whom had someone in the family driving coal or timber, and most of whom had someone in the family who’d died behind the wheel. With a big coal truck lumbering down the hill toward you, unable to keep itself to its own lane, you'd pull over till your front wheel hooked over the 5-inch lip between pavement and gully, and pretty soon someone up the hollow would see the dust and smell the smoke of burning rubber and upholstery and maybe they’d come down to see if anyone had made it, and maybe they wouldn’t. It depended on the day, and the chores. In late fall, when the leaves are off the trees, you can still see the hulks of model T and model A Fords and Oldsmobiles and Hupmobiles on their sides, rusted out, down off the uphill side.

So if you were smart, you took the road up toward Reedsville, and that’s pretty much how the Arthurdale Project got started. Eleanor Roosevelt had developed an interest in utopian schemes to relocate disenfranchised or unemployed workers to subsistence farming communities. Scott’s Run, West Virginia, was the first site for that relocation. A hardscrabble deep-mine company town, Scott’s Run had, in the ‘20s, supported close to 40 separate mines, with a high demand for labor and, consequently, a polyglot mix of workers, including local Scots-Irish, Eastern European immigrants, Great Migration blacks, and even Jews and Italians. Roosevelt had adopted Scott’s Run as early as 1933, and the Reedsville Project, later renamed Arthurdale, was the first of the New Deal planned communities that would eventually include the Greenbelt towns and a number of FSA demonstration villages and towns, not to mention the first urban housing projects in places like Chicago.

Scott’s Run was north of Morgantown, but it was on state route 7, so when her motorcade cut off US50 on Roosevelt’s periodic visits to Scott’s Run, she passed through the rolling farmland, much of it already under foreclosure or awaiting a tax sale, south of Reedsville. That was where she chose to relocate her mining families, in a fully planned community that could serve as a model for new lives made possible by the New Deal: running water, enclosed sewer systems, new construction, community centers, schools, small craft studios and larger factories, small farm plots for each family.

Throughout the ‘30s, Arthurdale existed as a counterfoil to Scott’s Run; a benevolent, thriving community under the warm maternal eye of the state, set against the ramshackle company-town housing, open sewers, underpaid workers and undereducated children of that excrescence of untrammeled capitalism. The Roosevelt administration poured money into Arthurdale, every subsidy begetting a further subsidy, every setback requiring a remedy, and the result was to create a built-in symbol of failed creeping socialism for those who so hated the New Deal. By contrast, though, New Deal propagandists swarmed over Scott’s Run, producing articles and exposès, and a raft of truly memorable photographs by FSA photographers Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott. As early as 1935, the New Deal had a photographer entirely dedicated to the opposing poles of Arthurdale and Scott’s Run: Elmer Johnson, who would later move to memorialize Greenbelt, Maryland, another of the New Deal’s planned communities, and would provide a steady stream of pictures documenting the horrors of Scott’s Run (“Note Sewerage System” read one subcaption to a picture of a miner’s house, a picture for the most part of a large puddle in front of a high-perched frame house), and the virtuous community-building at Arthurdale.

The New Deal sent two of the best photographers to supplement Johnson: Ben Shahn and Walker Evans. Predictably, both of them found Arthurdale dull as dry toast, and concentrated their activities on Scott’s Run. Shahn focused on the politics—he was a devoted Communist, and class struggle was his bread and butter—while Evans was entranced by the architecture, the topography, and the signage.

In fact, Evans may never have actually photographed Arthurdale; there’s evidence the pictures attributed to him were actually made by Elmer Johnson. If he did, the pictures that resulted are perfunctory, even clumsy. By contrast, some of his most famous photographs were made in Scott’s Run, and along the roads that connected it with Arthurdale. He escaped the stultifying self-righteousness and artificiality of Arthurdale to Morgantown, where he set up on the bridges over the creeks and even the Monongahela, and he went into the miner’s shacks in Scott’s Run, Pursglove, and Masontown to make remarkable images, images of grace and beauty.

And he did photograph the Kingwood Pike. It was his sort of road; because of the steep elevations, buildings tended to cling to the road or perch above it, so he could set up the big view camera and shoot his pictures without clumping through the bramble and thick undergrowth that comes with the warm, wet climate of that part of West Virginia. Two of these pictures show a filling station on the Kingwood just beyond Reedsville. In one, he’s pulled his car up to the gas pump and then included it, front and center, in the picture. Another shows a telephone pole with a gas station behind it.

Homely subjects, gloriously rendered. This was the problem with Evans’s work. In a mirror-reversal of Shahn, who recorded a class struggle that never boiled over, and so failed in his struggle to link politics and photographs, Evans recorded a hardscrabble rural life whose forced simplicity was the very core of a great beauty. Evans’s pictures show an America about to be thrust into modernity, and he grieved the losses that would come.

Along the Kingwood, though, things didn’t turn out as he feared. The foreclosures continue—unlike in the rest of photogenic America, they never stopped. The road is still host to clusters of small stores and filling stations. They’ve been refaced; the logos on the signs have changed, but behind them you can still see the rusted hulks of the cars Evans was photographing almost eighty years ago.

If you were to reset the battle of the Roosevelt years today, you couldn’t do better than to return to Scott’s Run and Arthurdale. The interstates have made the area less accessible rather than more: you take I495 up to I70 and then to I68 to get from Washington to Morgantown, and then I79 north to I70 again and to Pittsburgh, or south to I64 and thence to Lexington, Kentucky. There’s no notion of exiting, no bypass more scenic than the vistas the interstate offers you. The deep mines are closed up, and the Scott’s Run Settlement House, one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite stopping-places, is just up the hill from an Old Navy, an Olive Garden and a Red Lobster. The University Center Mall, as it’s called, isn’t anywhere near the university. When they cut it into the hillside, proximity to I-79’s exit was the priority. It hasn’t done well. The hillsides around the mall didn’t take to the excavations and relocations of hills and streams. They look like bad strip mine reclamation zones, gullied and barren above the Barnes and Noble, the Starbuck’s and the Walmart. Twenty miles south, between Reedsville and Brown’s Mill, what’s left of Arthurdale is a failed monument to the New Deal, with a nice website that presents it as a thriving historical restoration, with demonstration activities and the restored community hall available for rent—to virtuous preservationists, one assumes. For no one else comes here, website to the contrary.

The road itself still winds and climbs. The buildings Evans photographed are mostly still there, though the gas stations have new logos and new vinyl siding. Behind them, though, you can still find the rusting hulks of the cars that Evans aimed at, some 80 years ago. There’s a funeral home just past Reedsville, on the left, that Evans might have noted, might have stopped the car and taken out the camera to see if it would make the picture it might make. It’s pretty much a shed, with just the giant M above its double-entry doors to mark it as The Morgan. The rest is modified prefab, and there’s no website, just a mention in the search engine. Dying doesn’t happen fancy, here, for a person or a community or an ideology. But it happens.

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