Clarksdale Passenger Depot, early 20th century

Until he died three years ago I visited my father every August in Arkansas, where he retired in the early 1990s. I always went for about 8-10 days and almost every year I borrowed his car and took a side trip to some locale. Memphis, Shiloh, Pea Ridge, and Clarksdale, Mississippi were a few of the places I visited, sometimes alone, sometimes with my father in tow. (In one of the trips where I went solo I got my dad’s Cadillac up to 95 mph on Highway 61 just outside Greenville. And yes, it felt great.) Every time I returned to New York friends would look at me incredulously when I told them where I went and what I saw and did. It would surprise many folks who live outside the Northeast how provincial this region can be, especially in Boston, where my family is originally from, and New York City, where I live today. Things to see and do west of the Hudson or Charles Rivers? Absurd. (See here and here.) People have literally told me that they could not imagine doing something in any part of what they dismiss as “the flyover.”

Many small towns I have visited were doing their best to capitalize on heritage tourism, some more successfully than others. The Civil War is just a small part of it. Music (jazz and the blues), literature (Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, et al), and other historical and cultural points of interest are also part of the equation. Towns such as Helena, Arkansas that boomed with Mississippi River commerce decades ago have been bypassed by changes in transportation. The city is too far off the highway to maintain its relevancy. One town that is succeeding is Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the Delta Blues Museum. I knew the town was making it when I saw the thriving galleries in the small midtown. It’s the maxim that wherever the artists and gays go, the money follows. The rest of the state is catching on.

Clarksdale, 2009

(images/Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History; Thomas R. Machnitzki)