Growing up in my quiet hometown of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, what I remember most distinctly was that there was one of everything downtown. One coffee shop, one pizza place, one gas station, one pharmacy, one ice cream parlor. All locally owned, no franchise businesses or strip malls. I would bike down the hilly, tree lined streets past the 60 year old elementary school and meet my friends for a greasy calzone or sugary cup of iced coffee. That this particular experience was representative of a dying small town tradition never occurred to me. I thought our town would stay the same forever.
Of course it didn’t. The local pharmacy has been replaced by a CVS and the coffee shop now competes with a Starbucks, along with a host of other chains, in a strip mall down the road. While the political contexts of rural New England and Appalachian Kentucky are dramatically different, the slow corporatization of Hazard and Hopkinton share distinct parallels. In Hazard, what was once a vibrant and busy downtown is now still and quiet—aside from city buildings and professional offices, downtown is comprised largely of residential or abandoned/unused properties. As of now, there are no restaurants downtown, and few retail businesses.
Working with InVision Hazard, the community group organizing to revitalize Hazard’s downtown, has led me to wonder why it is that we fight to hang on to our hometowns. Collective attachment to a place that is unique in its particularity, embedded in our memories of home and community, is in many ways contradictory to the forces of global capitalism that dissolve idiosyncratic local spaces. Hazard is surrounded by the kind of strip-malls that now engulf the majority of small-town America, monotonous in their identical repetition, the WalMarts and the RiteAids stretching like concrete mountains from Maine to Florida. In the strip mall parking lot you could be anywhere. A sense of place is exchanged for the sterile ease of uniformity, free of particular associations, free of story or memory.
Over the past few weeks, I have come to appreciate the tight social bonds and deep community memories that form the story of Hazard. I have come to understand that the objective of revitalizing Hazard’s downtown is not only to provide jobs and income to small business owners, but to create more of those increasingly elusive “third spaces”, where people can gather to celebrate collective social experiences that transcend work and home boundaries.
One beautiful and bittersweet example of the necessity of such third spaces in Hazard is the story of the Tree House Café. When I met with Jenn Noble, the visual artist and Hazard native who started the Tree House (which was Hazard’s only coffee shop) she spoke to me about the sense of joy and community visitors brought to the TreeHouse. Packed with diners that travelled as far as Lexington to sample a taste of Hazard, the Tree House brought vibrancy, art and necessary social space to town. Jenn hosted poetry readings and political debates while serving up fresh and healthy local food. A TV crew from Japan even came to document the restaurant’s success.
Unfortunately, high utility costs and the difficulties of running a business in an old building with a difficult landlord forced Jenn to close the Tree House. Too often, this same story has become the narrative of locally owned businesses in small Appalachian towns like Hazard. The structural reality of absentee or uninvolved property ownership in Hazard, where landlords charge high rents for buildings that are poorly maintained and thus difficult for small businesses, parallels the larger history of absentee and corporate land ownership across Appalachia. When common space is controlled by wealthy or powerful elites, be they local or outsiders, the reclamation of both rural landscapes and downtowns becomes an act of community self-determination.
Make no mistake, however, downtown revitalization efforts are also a response to a blunt economic reality in the coalfields. According to the 2016 Kentucky Center for Economic Policy report on “The State of Working in Kentucky:” “In June 2016, Kentucky had 10,600 fewer coal jobs than in June 2009. With an average weekly wage for Kentucky coal workers of $1,394 in 2015 compared to $831 for all workers in private industries it’s not easy for displaced coal miners to find employment that pays them as well” (4).
Of course, there are questions about the long-term sustainability of small-businesses in towns like Hazard, where few residents have the disposable income available for a $5 latte or a new hip record. However, by building a strategic, democratically designed plan for downtown Hazard, community members hope to build a diverse and resilient economic ecosystem that reflects the needs of Hazard’s residents.