Friday, July 9, 2010


I’m just old enough to remember shopping at the 5 & 10 cent store with water fountains for WHITE and COLORED. Fifty years later those signs are gone, but the racism isn’t.

By Elliott Erwitt, in North Carolina, 1950.

Today, you don’t have to go out of your way to cross paths with people who let you know, in short order, that they’re bigots. And it always seems such a waste, such a loss, for everyone.

Several years ago, I drove from the mountains to the coast without leaving the northern tier of NC counties, adjacent to Virginia. If you fail to see a hundred lessons in race on that trip, then you’re not watching. Two-lane roads pass through boarded-up and fading towns. Farming communities are in varying stages of disintegration. It remains Jesse Helms country.

I can still picture the dirt road to my grandparents, a dusty trail through acres of milo. But one day the road was paved. The field was carved into lots. Soon came a row of little brick ranchers with carports on the side. In front of each house, a scrawny sapling was anchored with three heavy straps. Once, I could have told you the name of everyone on that road. But I never knew the names of anyone who lived in the brick ranchers.

The New South has meant different things to different people. For me, it summons up Terry Sanford, Research Triangle, the Queen City, civil rights, and air conditioning…juxtaposed against the Old South of tobacco, textiles, furniture, BBQ, and funeral home fans in church.

Around 1979, it hit me. Headed through Georgia on 441, I saw it happening. Every town was starting to look like every other town. A row of fast food franchises greeted you at the edge of each town. I was fortunate to hit Madison, Georgia when the azaleas were in bloom, decorating the yards of gracious old homes with their ornate porches. And down the road, Eatonton, Georgia announced itself as the birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris. Home of B’rer Rabbit. But the last time I took 441, the bypass was completed, and Eatonton was just a name on a big green exit sign.

People talk about the ways that air conditioning transformed the South. The impact can’t be overestimated. But we’ve paid a steep price for a little comfort. (And still do.) If not for air-conditioning, I suspect we’d see a lot more trees in southern towns and cities. AC made shade trees obsolete.


Anonymous said...

The Davis Motor Co was in Albemarle. I'v seen the building (long after it was no longer a car dealership) but do not remember where it was. Agghh! I'll be thinking about this quite a bit now!


Anonymous said...

I'm spoiled by AC but rationalize its use for health reasons. Still, I mourn sleeping porches and hot sultry nights counting the lightening bugs with my cousins and trying to sweat silently.
But I'm also reminded that modern conveniences have made life easier and more tolerable for many and that only the most recalcitrant romantic would advocate a return to a time of brutalizing manual labor, spotty hygeine and a lack of conveniences,
We've become spoiled but not necessarily by modern conveniences as much as by our unflailing ability to consider many of these things as entitlements rather than as opportunities and blessings.
I wonder if a fundamental lack of appreciation is not somehow endemic to the human psyche.

GULAHIYI said...

My dad took the Davis Motor Co photo ca. 1941.

GULAHIYI said...

This started out as a reflection on the South before AC.

"General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman," in the words of one historian.

A couple of articles attribute the rise of the Republican party (and ultimately, the election of Ronald Reagan)to AC which helped make the South more attractive enough for (Republican) Northerners to move here. I don't really buy THAT argument.

It is safe to say, though, that the population of the South would not be what it is today without AC, and this fits right in with concerns about adequate generating capacity to meet peak demand for electricity. AC is a major factor is pushing the demand for electricity at peak use times (i.e., the recent widwespread hot weather). More than a few of those mountaintops in West Virginia have been blasted away to obtain the coal to satisfy those who want to turn down the thermostat and occupy chilly rooms in the middle of summer.

I do have AC myself, but try to use it sparingly.

I agree that a certain mindset accompanies the habit of wastefulness and changing that is a monumental task. Even if people want to change, though, we have done away with many of the coping mechanisms for dealing with the summer heat. Architecture is one example. Compare the broad porches, big windows and high ceilings of the old Victorian homes with those little brick ranchers. And, of course, the shade trees have been wiped out to make the strip malls more accessible.

BANJO52 said...

And without those porches, there's less casual chat, isn't there?

AC plus suburban sprawl have given us distance from each other. Is it possible we wanted anonymity and didn't know it? I'm really not sure of my own answer.