PINE BLUFF IS A WORRIED PLACE. Straddling the oft forgotten edge of the Delta, where rice and soy fields butt up against the lonely, piney woods that blanket our state’s navel, the town has lost its former railroad glories and drawn in on itself, outwardly fading into a downtrodden narrative that is far more often imposed upon it than self-inflicted. All too often, Pine Bluff finds itself splashed on front pages and social media feeds. “Top 10 Deadliest …” “Most Impoverished …” “Fastest Shrinking …” “Most Dangerous …” “Highest Crime …” I’m not sure I know that town, or at least the version of it I so often see in the media.
I grew up in Rison, a little place 23 miles south of Pine Bluff, where church is held three times a week: Sunday morning, Wednesday night and Friday nights at the football field. For us, and even more so for our parents, Pine Bluff was often a necessary evil. A quicker trip to Wal-Mart than the one in Monticello. When the first of my friends got driver’s licenses, weekend joy rides to Pine Bluff were common until one too many crime reports on the evening news forced someone’s parents to put the kibosh on our weekend plans for good. Slowly, almost so slowly that the process was lost on me, the city began to fade. It simply became a place we didn’t go. It was dangerous. We knew this not because anyone we knew had actually ever been in danger in Pine Bluff, but because the idea of it being true was so pervasive that it had to be. How could so many people be wrong? In my high school chemistry class, our teacher often reminded us that “the chemical symbol for lead is Pb because if you go to Pine Bluff, you’ll get shot full of lead.”
And then, to me and so many other Arkansans, Pine Bluff stopped being real and started being a place only referenced in the occasional report on TV, or a click-bait headline splashed across the Web. But to just over 45,000 Arkansans, Pine Bluff is home, a place still fighting a daily battle against itself, its reputation and its history. It had been a decade since I last visited the city for anything other than gas, and now I wanted to go back to see how wrong I was. I wanted to know how wrong we’d all been—how wrong we all still are—about this place. Who were the people who decided to stay? What kept them there when so many people had given up hope?
What is left in this city, other than the smell?
For most people, no doubt, it’s the smell that is the biggest signifier of the town. A sulfuric bite that reaches out from the numerous paper mills that dot the city’s eastern edge. As my mother always said, it “smells like money,” and it’s always reminded me vaguely of home. But today, under a Crayola-blue sky, the only thing I can smell is the cloying sweet of doughnuts. I am at the curve in the road where Camden Road becomes Blake Street, across from where Sissy Jones rules her jewelry-store empire from what I imagine must be a throne room constructed with diamonds and Lincoln Logs.
Beneath a neon sign, whose aesthetic, in today’s throwback culture, would fit in perfectly in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, sits the white cinder block shell of Irish Maid Do-Nuts, a store that’s stood here since 1961. Now owned by Steve and Chery Grinstead, the doughnuts are made fresh daily, from the same recipe that was used on opening day.
The tiny bakery is a time machine masquerading as a doughnut shop. Walking in, I marvel at both the fact that the decor hasn’t changed in my lifetime (and probably not in anyone else’s either) and that I’ve let myself go over 10 years without visiting. Steve is minding the cash register and gladly hands over two doughnuts, one cream cheese, the other chocolate-glazed. I debate on asking for a milk carton since dozens of them sit proto-Starbucks style in a gleaming case by the register, but I decide against it.
When I hand him my card to pay, he sets his face into a grandfatherly smile that I’m sure he’s made a million times: “Sorry, we’re cash only.” My face falls, and I offer to visit an ATM and return.
“No problem. Have a good day,” he says and pushes the bag of doughnuts across the counter toward me. I protest, but he points to the time. It’s nearing closing, 10 a.m. (the doors open at 4 a.m.), and he has to hurry. His wife has a hair appointment, and they can’t be late. He slides me a carton of milk and smiles. On my way out, I wonder if this is the type of kindness that flourishes here or the kind that has been all but lost to the conventions of life in 2015? I bite into the still-warm chocolate doughnut and decide that they are probably one in the same.
On the opposite side of town, where the saccharine smell of doughnuts is replaced by the faint airs of rust and diesel, sits the Arkansas Railroad Museum. In my memory, it exists as a shrine to the gigantic, where machines would dwarf me several times over. On the weekend, my father would bring me to marvel at the hulking locomotives on display. Seventeen years later, as I walk into the cavernous museum, I see that aside from my own height, not much has changed. The building is still cathedral-like, quiet and vast, but now that their wheels no longer tower over me, the engines are less monstrous, less extreme. Regardless, touching 150-ton machines is powerful at any age.
The museum is housed on the grounds of the Cotton Belt Shops, the birthplace of the hulking steam engines that ran the line between St. Louis and Dallas. At its peak, the rail yard saw 40 trains a day and employed over 5,000 workers. Things are much quieter now.
Although littered with trains, the 70,000-square-foot building is less like a graveyard and more like a mechanical library. Visitors are encouraged to ring a bell that sends a toll pealing throughout the hall. I do so, and before the sound dies completely, Peter Smykla has found me. He’s been a volunteer since it opened in 1983.. As he walks me around the museum, I find much of what I remember is still here: a bright-red caboose from World War II and a black demonic-looking engine equipped with a snow plow that had once struck me with awe, looking as though it had been engineered by Darth Vader himself. I wonder if, around any corner, I might find my father staring up at a machine.
You can tell Peter’s life has run on these rails. He speaks lovingly of the trains, telling stories from the history of each car, as if he’d personally built each one. His face lights up when we reach the back of the museum. Here sits the collection’s crown jewel: Engine 819. In 1942, she was the last steam engine ever made in Arkansas, and she was built just feet from where she now stands. I remember her chugging through the little strip of downtown Rison on her final voyage to be installed in the museum. She had been a giant to me then, black and roiling, leaving a wake of dark steam in her path. I was in awe.
Now, she sits cold and dark, and the largest of her wheels rises up to almost touch my shoulder. “She’ll never leave this place,” Peter says. “It’d cost over $750,000 to get her back up and running.” I ask him if he can ever envision her wheels moving again, and he laughs at me. “I’m an octogenarian, and the other guy that works here is in his 90s. Won’t be long till everybody that would know what they’re doing is dead.”
There is a silent irony in this museum, where the engines that once moved this city forward are now shuttered forever. On my way out of the museum, I stop to sign the guest book and see that it’s full of names. I easily count over 30 states listed, even visitors from Germany, France and the Netherlands who had been in the week before.
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, as it is now, has stood at the south end of Pine Bluff’s downtown corridor since 1994. From my own childhood, I remember field trips to see plays in its theater. In second grade, The Jungle Book; third grade, Peter Pan. Its theater is surrounded by three galleries and a STEAM studio—a hands-on educational exhibit that combines science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics—that allows children to work, build and play with technologies like electrical circuitry, computer coding and animation.
Courtney Taylor is the center’s assistant director and curator. She walks me through the tight hallways of the center’s administrative offices, and we stop at a steel door that stretches floor to ceiling. She keys numbers into a pad on the wall. “You’re the first nonemployee I’ve ever let in the vault,” she says.
I ask her if I should feel special, and the answer is apparent as the door swings open. Like a scene from a Dan Brown novel, paintings hang by the dozen on movable walls suspended from the ceiling. “This is it,” she says waving around the room. Tables sit piled with prints, and sculpture-filled shelves line the walls. I have to try and mask an outward sense of giddiness since stepping into the vault is like being let in on one of the state’s biggest secrets.
“Be very careful,” Courtney tells me. She is gingerly moving the sliding walls, creating a path that leads us to the back of the vault. A Paragould native and Hendrix College graduate, she’s been at the center since 2013, and is now in the middle of curating a forthcoming exhibit that will highlight the artistic legacy that has come from Pine Bluff. “What most people don’t realize is what a driving force [the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff] has been in the arts scene here. Henry Linton,” a wall swings out and she points to a delta river triptych. “Kevin Cole,” she motions to a complex drawing that shows ribbons, colors and shapes exploding across a plane. A brilliantly hued tire sculpture by Danny Campbell sits inside a glass box. The art center’s vault holds more than 1,300 pieces, of which almost 60 percent are Arkansan artists. Of those 1,300, fewer than 50 will eventually be a part of the exhibit.
As we leave the vault and walk back to her office, she tells me that her goal for the center is to “be a crossroads. Everyone belongs here, and this art belongs here, here in Pine Bluff. This place still matters. There’s just so much more here than people expect.” She’s referencing the center, but I can tell she means the same thing for the city.
I ask her about the future of the center. “I hope we continue to be a kind of training ground for kids to enter the arts and sciences, to be the place that sparks where they want to go in their lives.” I ask her the same question about Pine Bluff, and she looks at me flatly. “I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that,” she finally smiles. “I’m not a city planner.” She pauses. “In a lot of ways, especially in our STEAM education, we’re leaders in the state, and I hope that we can bring back some prestige to Pine Bluff.” Courtney hopes that by getting students interested in these fields, it might bring more economic activity back to Pine Bluff.
She pauses and looks at her hands; she’s holding an LED light board made by students in the STEAM studio. “In Pine Bluff, we get to be a leader. We get to be a place where people come together, and we want to be that for all of southeast Arkansas.” The center is working hard to broaden its footprint in this corner of the state though touring theater performances and grant-funded outreach programs. “Where there is need, there is opportunity,” she says.
She soon introduces me to Khatiana Butler, an art education major at UAPB. She’s interning at the center, giving tours and leading kids in the STEAM studio. She tells me about her desire to one day be an educator, to give back to this corner of the state. She’s from Eudora, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town nestled among the rice and fields of the Arkansas-Louisiana border.
“This is where I was raised,” she says when I ask her if she sees herself teaching in southeast Arkansas after graduation, “and who knows the issues here better than I do? There is a lot of room for improvement here, but I think my generation will be the one to take that on.”
Later that day, I’m riding in the front seat of Danny Campbell’s used-to-be-bright-red pickup. He’s the chairman of the art department at UAPB, and we’re rolling down Interstate 530 near where it ends at the Delta’s doorstep, just past where the Pines Mall—once the most glorious and ornate building my 6-year-old self had ever seen—sits, now a husk of its former self. He turns us onto the small county road that will take us to Grider Field. “You know, I grew up on a farm, on 112 acres down in the boonies, before I came up here [to UAPB] for college,” he says to me over the truck’s steady rumble. After graduating from UAPB, he got a master’s degree from both Charleston Southern and Howard universities before moving to Atlanta to teach. “And as soon as I moved back here to teach, they said, Have you been to the airport? Have you been there to eat?”
He’s driving us to a legend. The Grider Field Restaurant was built with the purpose of driving daily traffic to the field that was once an Army pilot training school during World War II. It’s obviously succeeded. The restaurant has only one empty table when we walk in, well after the typical lunch rush would have ended at most places. Outside the windows, planes dot the tarmac. There is a buffet along the back wall, a 10-foot-long sampling of church recipes and flavors that only the hands of a grandmother could yield. A woman behind the counter speaks the gospel: Pick a meat, two sides, biscuits or cornbread, do you want dessert? I come away with fried chicken, green beans, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and a bowl of peaches, sugar, cinnamon and love that I’m convinced is a cobbler. While I’m paying at the register, one of the waitresses takes my tray to a table. I tell her not to worry, but she brushes me off: “Don’t worry, baby, you only get the special treatment on your first visit.”
Danny is an artist. Predominantly working on sculptures, using the shredded remnants of the tires he finds on the highway to create playful, almost living works. He’s fascinated with color and how it can symbolize life. He is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about his place both as an educator and an artist in Pine Bluff. “You know,” he says, between forkfuls of smothered chicken, “Pine Bluff has been through a lot, and really, I think it’s been UAPB and the arts community here that have helped keep the city together.” His unique position, as a member of both communities, makes his role in them all the more important.
For Danny, the future of Pine Bluff hinges on defining itself as a progressive city, a place where anyone can find a welcoming community and ample chance for opportunity. Danny, who’s lived in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., still sometimes sees an outdated way of thinking in some parts of town. “To so many people, everything is a ‘black and white’ thing; not everyone is fully accepted here,” he says. “We still have that stigma that, This is the South, and this is how the South is going to be run, but we have to overcome those who feel afraid of others. … To learn to work with others, come together, learn from each other.” Danny can admit that it’s a tough challenge, but he’s optimistic for the future. He sees change coming in the students he teaches, the people who move to Pine Bluff, and the young people who choose to come back to their hometown.
I finish my cobbler and look out the window. A couple who’d been seated across from our table are walking across the tarmac to where a line of small single-engine planes sits waiting. They climb in and shut the doors while the propeller begins to spin. Danny laughs at my watching them. “They fly in from all over just for lunch,” he says. The little red-and-white plane makes its way down the single runway and slowly creeps into the sky.
Back on UAPB’s campus, Danny takes me to the university’s museum. The museum, housed in Childress Hall, documents over 130 years of history, from the school’s founding as Branch Normal College in a city of about 3,000 to today, in which the university employs almost 35 percent of Pine Bluff residents. Because of this, as UAPB goes, so goes Pine Bluff. “This is the second-oldest institution in the state,” he reminds me as we walk through the exhibits. “There’s such a wealth of history here, there’s a collection of art here that no other city in the state can offer.” Danny’s right. When thinking about the museums that dominate the Arkansas arts scene, the story of black Arkansans largely remains untold outside the campus galleries of UAPB.
In one of the campus’ galleries, photos from 1968 show Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the commencement speaker. I remind Danny of author William Faulkner’s quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
He laughs at me. “You certainly get that feeling here, don’t you?”
On our way back to his office, Danny gives me a tour of the art department. The hall walls are lined with student work, and in each classroom and studio, there is a steady hum of creation, the slight scratching of pencil on paper, the gentle whir of pottery wheels. It’s easy to see where Danny’s optimism comes from. When so much of one’s time is spent not only on the creation of art but also on the creation of artists, the world can’t help but seem beautiful.
On the opposite shore of Lake Saracen from the university’s campus is the Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center where I decide to end my day. The center is located inside the city’s regional park, a stretch of land straddled by Lake Saracen and the Arkansas River. The elevated visitors center houses a collection of local wildlife, some alive in aquariums and terrariums, and others mounted in towering displays of nature that recall a southeast Arkansas version of The Lion King on Broadway. Behind the building, pathways venture past live alligators and bald eagles, both safely secured from a wandering band of school children on a field trip by barriers and fences. One of the eagles is being fed chunks of meat as I pass. She turns her head and shrieks at me.
I turn myself onto one of the many trails that radiate out from the center and let myself be carried along the bayou walkway as squirrels scamper away from me, their bodies beating a quick rustle against the leaves. Birds call in the trees, and a carpet of dark moss-covered water hides who knows what below. I round a bend and see the Arkansas River as it curves down and becomes the Port of Pine Bluff. There is an assuredness to the languid flow of the river here, like it paid little mind to the city that grew up along its edge. I wonder how much has changed since the first trappers settled the area in the early 19th century, since the Quapaw had been the chief inhabitants. How far must I walk to find them? To find whatever version of this place I, and everyone else, thought was lost?
There is a splash at the water’s edge. A nutria, perhaps a turtle. The familiar twang of sulfur begins licking at my nose. I look up, and fluffy white petals of clouds are lazing themselves downriver. Behind me, where the occasional sound of traffic can still be heard through the trees, are the survivors of Pine Bluff, the ones who persevere, the hangers-on.
They love their city, and with that love comes questions. Questions about the future, about jobs, about political leadership, each of them dire. What will happen tomorrow? Next week, next year? Will jobs continue to leave, the population shrink? Will Pine Bluff ever be more than a troubling statistic to anyone that doesn’t live here?
I think back to what Courtney said to me as I left the Arts & Science Center. She had rolled her eyes when I asked about the now infamous photo essay that ran in The New York Times, a collection of 19 photos of the city’s crumbling downtown core. Courtney had knocked on the wall. “This building is sound; we’re not going anywhere. Pine Bluff is like every city,” she’d said. “It deserves to have a strong cultural presence; it deserves to have strong art, diverse experiences, great resources.” She’d walked me through the center’s STEAM studio, an open gallery freshly filled with hands-on science experiments that help children grasp concepts like magnetic fields and kinetic energy. “I don’t feel like we’re doing anyone in Pine Bluff a favor by being here; this isn’t charity work.” She’d been daring me to doubt the city’s future. “Pine Bluff isn’t off the map, like people sometimes believe it to be.” In a few hours, the room would be filled with local elementary school students, busy playing, building, learning. “Why not Pine Bluff?” she’d asked.
Why not, indeed.