The little Cajun town of Rayne, Louisiana is known as the Frog Capital of the World, and as such has many murals dedicated to frogs. You can read the history of Rayne here, and a little about the Frog Festival experience from my outsider perspective here.
While visiting Rayne for the festival, I was excited to find an old-time downtown where an independent hardware store, a pharmacy unaffiliated with any chain, and most exciting to me, a five and dime, are still in business.
To most non-Texans, Waco is associated with the 1993 FBI standoff with David Koresch and the Branch Dividians that led to the latter group's fiery death. It's known to me as the city where my mother-in-law lives (also, Ted Nugent). When asked about the downtown area, she explained that after the tornado in 1953, the deadliest in Texas' history with 114 deaths, downtown Waco never recovered. Today there are some businesses still operating, and a popular warehouse district nearby, but downtown Waco and its surrounding area has a lot of vacancies. Let's look at those first.
Welcome to Port Gibson, population 1668 or so, the town whose souvenir T-shirts and signage proclaim as "Too beautiful to burn."
Judging by Port Gibson's deserted Main Street, they might want to reconsider this promotional angle.
Aside from not being ugly enough to burn, Port Gibson actually has a few other points of interest to bring in tourists: it's a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail (more on that later), it's the site of the Battle of Port Gibson, and it's close to the Natchez Trace national scenic trail.
We stopped in Port Gibson on a road trip on a summer Saturday in early afternoon. Because it was blazing hot and our destination was still hours away, the visit was rather rushed, and I didn't get to enter the few open businesses. Also, the midday glare was too bright to properly view the photos I was taking. So although conditions weren't ideal for creating this post, when it comes to photography I take the "we may never pass this way again" approach, and shoot it in the time and conditions I do have.
I want to explore downtown districts in decline across America, from
those that are struggling to those with tumbleweeds blowing through. I
want to show the history and the potential contained in neglected
The commercial downtown districts
of American towns and cities have taken a beating ever since the advent
of the shopping mall. And after malls arrived, the big-box superstores
pounded more nails into the coffin.
The next step in this cycle is the rise of urban villages, such as
Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge, which are new working/living/shopping
developments with an artificial downtown feel. Meanwhile, in the true
historic downtown of Baton Rouge, many storefronts, work spaces, and
living spaces lie empty.
I'm always fascinated to find an genuine Main Street, USA; I'll take
it over a strip mall any day. But even more intriguing to me are the
downtowns in jeopardy: the businesses just scraping along, the ones
defying the odds by continuing to exist (like the hat shop that's been
in Detroit for more than a century, the only shop on its street still
open), the greasy spoons, the old man bars, the angular midcentury
display-window entryways, the old neon signs.
On the main street of Phoenecia, in New York's Catskills vacation
region, I made a beeline for the pharmacy at the end of the street, and
was not disappointed: it had a creepy display of old plastic dolls in
the window, and inside it still had the original wooden display cases
along the walls, with antique medicine bottles behind the glass.
Elsewhere in the store I found bendable hair roller sticks and and the
Epilady hair removal device that I hadn't seen since the '80s, their
packages faded and yellowed, but still for sale. My purchase (not the
Epilady!) was placed in a crisp waxed paper bag.
It's like living, dying history at once. That's what I want to
capture: the places stuck in time, the places that didn't make it, and
the people who are still there.
I want to document such downtown districts in every state. I hope
those who see the project will consider the sustainable option of using
and adapting the neglected downtown spaces we have, rather than
throwing up another new imitation on the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately, I entered too late in the game to have a real chance of winning the $50K prize.
I was disappointed to not have that funding to carry out my project, but then I decided to do the project anyway. It just won't happen as quickly as it would have with all that loot behind it. I'll start out in Louisiana, and then whenever I travel and find a downtown in disrepair, it'll get added to the blog.
I'm still working out how I want to do this, but one of my first downtown studies, Baton Rouge, will appear here soon.