Hinterlands: Rural Detroits

“Now Open – Fireworks”

By Curtis Price

Posted July 15, 2021


Leaving the bleak, blue-collar Decatur, Alabama neighborhood known as Old Mouton, which aptly ends in a near vacant strip mall, I hit 67, the highway shunting traffic into 20, filled with the 24-7 rumble of trucks barreling toward Memphis. But by not turning on 67, I drive straight, ending instead little by little in a rural area. A few turns later, the grass grows higher and the distance between older, non-descript buildings widens. This is an area that hasn’t seen development in decades.

One of those turns leads to Old Trinity road, a narrow, worn-down, two- lane street that goes on for several miles before dead-ending in the town of Trinity. Driving along Old Trinity road, I cruise through sparsely populated, residential areas, mostly mobile homes and wooden houses that look like large shacks. The air is heavy with humidity and the smell of vegetation broiling in the mid-day sun. What is striking is the amount of decay. It seems every third house is abandoned, some buckled in.

 It reminds me of a rural Detroit. Some structures have been burnt, but most still stand, tottering like street corner drunks in knee-high weeds. Backwoods near the train tracks, lays two piles of rubble, obscured by trees and dancing shadows, the remains of older houses hastily dumped without proper burial. Were they torn down and dropped off from elsewhere? Abandoned, did they implode under their own weight in the backwoods where they formerly sat? Were they ripped apart by tornadoes? Each reason is equally plausible and the true reason obscured.

Trucks rumble through here too, from the factories at one end of Old Trinity near Woodruff.  Most factories off Woodruff are small, looking as if they might employ a few dozen to a hundred workers. Except for the Wayne’s Farm Poultry plant. Wayne’s Farm is large and a reason why, despite Alabama’s repressive anti-immigrant laws, so many Latinos have settled in Decatur. But the rest look like they’ve been there for ages. Again, no new development.

Yet a few dozen miles away, in Huntsville, lay shiny, one-story sprawling suburban industrial parks engineering advanced weapons systems with the latest technology. A gleaming new Mazda plant, rising like an industrial Phoenix out of former cornfields, is sprouting up midway between Huntsville and Decatur. Such on the local level is capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Some areas are raised and stroked while others knocked down and gutted.

Alabama, of course, is fully rooted in the globalized economy. In recent decades, the state  became a Southern site for the auto industry, with Japanese transplants scattered along the north-south central axis. Aerospace has gotten a toe-hold in the Mobile area too, with Airbus. AAA USA and VT Aerospace now embedded. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, Alabama’s union density is the highest in the Deep South, although none of the transplants and aerospace factories are. (1)

Yet as Allan Tullos notes in Alabama Getaway, “In its newly celebrated global presence, Alabama shows contradictory faces, represented through the glad-handing eagerly extended by development officials and in labor practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Effusive in offering infrastructure improvements, tax breaks, and promises of compliant labor, state officials hop from industrial recruiting trips abroad to meetings in Montgomery with representatives of governments to discuss trading relationships. Meanwhile, the Birmingham-based Drummond Company faces repeated charges of union busting, failure to protect labor leaders from murder, payments to paramilitary terrorists, and exploitation of workers in unsafe conditions at its vast, open-pit coalmining operation in near La Loma in Columbia, South America.”

Tullos wrote over a decade ago. Today, however, outside the major cities, other parts of the state – rural and depopulating – are being primed, like post-industrial versions of Third World slum scavengers, to dispose of refuse generated elsewhere.

The most notorious example of this, notorious only because it couldn’t be hidden, was the infamous “poop train.” In 2018, a train piled with millions of pounds of human excrement from New York, was forced to stop in Parrish, Alabama, after a neighboring town successfully won an injunction banning New York shit from being unloaded. Parrish, not having zoning regulations, instead hosted the “poop train” unwillingly until behind-the-scenes wrangling sent it on its journey elsewhere. The state’s attorney of Alabama described the landfill as “America’s biggest industrial pay toilet.” As a SLATE article noted, “According to the AP, it’s common for Northern states to ship their waste to rural areas in the South, and landfills on inexpensive land can make good money from the practice.”(2) How many other such landfills are sprinkled over Alabama is anyone’s guess; it’s an industry shrouded in secrecy and willed silence.

In Gadsden, a city of 40,000, in central Alabama and once the second economic powerhouse in the state after Mobile, the last remaining factory – Goodyear Rubber – which had been in the city since the 1930s – shut down, stripping the city of its major employer and tax base.  Soon afterwards, Pilgrim’s Pride, a major poultry processor, proposed Gadsden to site a rendering plant, turning foul-smelling discards from pulverized chicken flesh into pet food and other uses. Unusual for this part of the South, community opposition has been fierce, with the outcome still up in the air.

In Anniston, a majority-black city 20 minutes drive from Gadsden, rocket fuel and low-level radioactive waste from around the country gets sent for processing at what remains of the local Army base, where mustard gas and other chemical weapons captured from WWII German armies were once stored before being disposed of on site in a pre-environmental regulations era. Yet only another hour away, a new graphite factory using state-of-the-art techniques in Alexander City will refine mined graphite to power electric batteries for Montgomery’s Hyundai plant. Ruthless development tied to equally ruthless economic stripping of economically superfluous areas.

In this way, having been separated from most viable economic activity, Alabama’s hinterlands stand primed for new roles as dumps for waste from elsewhere, a phagocytoxic neo-colonialism surfaces where instead of the North exploiting the state’s raw materials, the North spits out its undesired effluvium, a trajectory possibly to be boosted by China’s clampdown on recycling Western waste.  (3) Southern states supply an attractive alternative, with cheap, plentiful land, low population densities, and capital-friendly business cultures. In such a scenario, disposable people in the rural South will have a future processing toxic discards shipped in from more prosperous locations.

Notes

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm

2. “Poop Train From New York Stuck in Parrish Alabama.”https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/poop-train-from-new-york-stuck-in-parrish-alabama.html

3. “We’re Not a Dump: Poor Alabama Towns Struggle Under the Stench of Toxic Landfills.?https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/15/were-not-a-dump-poor-alabama-towns-struggle-under-the-stench-of-toxic-landfills

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