In 2004, a good friend and I drove around Georgia, Alabama and the Florida panhandle. I had just gotten back from Fort Huachuca, he was getting leave from Fort Benning, and we both had family in Broward County, Florida. (And in my case, Miami-Dade as well.) We had been to the region quite a bit ... but rarely outside the confines of an Army post. So why not take my old Ford Focus and tool around the deep southeast for a few weeks before heading down to Fort Lauderdale?
It was a great trip. The South is definitely different. The first thing you notice is how the countryside is intensively farmed. In fact, there is this ah hah moment when you realize that most of the woods you have seen are actually tree farms. My buddy said, “We’re not in New England,” after which we started yelling “Niner niner!” every time we spotted anything really alien. For example, take Quitman, Georgia, with the decaying mansions set back from the streets and its obvious poverty and extreme segregation. Neither poverty nor segregation are alien to New York or New England, of course, but once-rich and now-poor all black small towns are not particularly common. The only thing not “niner” in that town was the small market catering to Mexican immigrants.
Or consider Dothan, Alabama. The town depends on Fort Rucker for its existence, but that was not what made it not like New England. Nor did the suburban sprawl around the town; most American towns look like they’ve exploded across the countryside. What made Dothan southern was the way the sprawl had sucked all the life out of the center of the town, leaving it mostly a vasty expanse of parking lots. There was none of the quaint cuteness that would have filled a similar town in New England; but even California towns have more life in their centers. (In that sense, Quitman was actually more like a northeastern town than most Southern ones.)
The deadness of the centers applied to the larger cities, as well. (Birmingham was a partial exception.) We arrived into Montgomery at night, so it was less than surprising that the central city seemed deserted. We did find a nice little brewpub next to a retro-style minor league ballpark. It closed early, but the patrons suggested two other nearby bars. We went to one on the first floor of a motel on a hill at the edge of downtown, where the buzz-cut bartender sold me a $15 contraband Cuban cigar (putatively) that I then got to smoke right at the bar. (Some differences, they are awesome.) But the difference really showed up during the day, where the downtown seemed to never open. It was an expanse of parking lots, vacant storefronts and drive-through banks, punctuated by the piles of government buildings and frighteningly devoid of traffic. And I don’t mean just pedestrian traffic. Kids could have played hockey in the middle of Dexter Avenue at 10am, if there had been any kids. And lunch didn’t change anything. Did all those government workers stay holed up in their offices?
Now, it is not like the northeast did not have abandoned urban centers when I was growing up. Central New Haven circa 1990? Ugh. The once-great “Hub” of the South Bronx? Awful. Baltimore? You have seen the Wire. And my first visit to Buffalo in 1990 can only be called depressing, along with my second, third and fourth.
No, what was weird to a northeastern sensibility was that downtown Montgomery felt abandoned but not decayed. The streets and plazas were spotless. The empty storefronts were well-sealed and well-maintained. It all looked as if it had been suddenly abandoned in the face of an invading army. It was strange.
But that was just weird. What made Montgomery downright eerie was all the Confederate memorials. Sure, Rosa Parks had her plaque. And there were no slaveowning banners. But you couldn’t escape the oddly-respectful memorials to the Lost Cause. Statues of “The Statesman,” e.g., Jefferson Davis. Murals in the state capitol (which the legislature no longer uses) celebrating horseback-riding antebellum aristocrats. A memorial to the Confederate dead who served in the “War of Southern Independence.”
The monuments to the Civil War were even more common outside the big cities: the below picture is from Havana, Florida, and it captures just how strange the monuments are:
Consider exactly what those soldiers were defending their families, communities, state and nation from. And then consider that the term “nation” is in that sentence. Wait ... what?
In southeastern Georgia we saw many more slaveowning Battle Flags than in Alabama, including a bumper sticker on a truck bearing the ominous slogan: “It’s Not Over.” A Shell station off of I-75 right over the Florida state line flew a gigantic Third Flag of the Confederacy. The design of the Third Flag is sufficiently obscure that it leaves little doubt that whomever put it up knew exactly what it stood for; no pretending to hide behind “southern heritage” here.
It completely weirded me out. As I wrote at the time, “It’s not the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, it’s slavery, dude. I can see memorializing the poor bloody soldiers who suffered and died for the CSA, but the CSA’s leaders should be treated the way the Germans treat the Nazis.”
Now, this was late 2004, so some of the strange atmosphere was supercharged from the recent election. In Georgia, an angry pickup driver threateningly tailgated us on a rural road, probably incensed by my Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers. He pulled up next to us and looked like he was about to start something when he noticed my friend was wearing BDUs. He got solemn and suddenly sped off. In Gainesville, we overheard loud laments about the war in Iraq from hospital workers eating at a Japanese steakhouse made up to look like a pagoda. And in Birmingham, Alabama, a diner did in fact serve us “American fries.”
And while not directly election-related, we kept running into angry demonstrations against the use of “Happy Holidays.” This was not a new thing by 2004, but I had lived in Mexico from 1996 to 2002 and spent most of 2002-04 in New Haven, various Army posts, and overseas. So the angry demonstrations against a completely anodyne phrase that had been used in the more Jewish parts of America since before I was born took me completely off guard.
But for all that, the real strangeness had to do with the war. The war that had ended 139 years ago by that point and will reach its 150th anniversary this year.
Which brings us to a recent comment by Dave Evans of Georgia, who took issue with my characterization of the Confederate flag as the “slaveowning banner.” In the next post, I will lift my response to him from the comments. I think it is worth highlighting. But for right now, I just want to leave it with the statement that driving through the English-speaking South is a far stranger experience for a New Yorker than anywhere in English-speaking Canada west of Quebec.