In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Small town social ills rival those in big city

Like any big city newspaper, the Miami Herald long has been concerned with afflictions associated with the inner city poor. About how a community such as Overtown struggles with crime, drugs, joblessness, morbidity, failing schools, childhood poverty and an unskilled workforce left behind by a changing economy.

Urban ghetto problems — sometimes couched in more polite terms — have been a recurring theme, at least since I started writing for the Herald 38 years ago. Of course, after living in West Virginia and Mississippi, covering big city ills brought something of a culture shock. Covering murders and miseries in Overtown, I knew I’d come a hell of a long way from Welch, W. Va., where I was born, or Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, where I had landed my first newspaper job.

Lately, culture shock comes with re-visiting those rural reaches. Welch and Clarksdale, both ravaged by changing economics, suffer many of the confounding social maladies once associated with big city slums. Small town America — at least the rural communities I knew in my youth — morphed into Overtown, even as Overtown, with millions invested in redevelopment, morphed into a place with promise.

I was born in a small regional hospital in Welch called Stevens Clinic. In 2006, the 75-year-old hospital was closed, renovated and reopened as Stevens Correctional Center, a medium security prison with 322 beds. It was an appropriate re-fit for my birthplace, given the drug-fueled crime epidemic that has swept through the coal fields of southern West Virginia. Between Oct. 26 and Nov. 26, a drug task force assigned to McDowell County (Welch is the county seat) and adjacent Wyoming County busted nine methamphetamine labs and arrested 32 meth cooks and dealers. The McDowell sheriff’s office, mindful about how many more drug operations are hidden in the region’s rugged mountain enclaves, just obtained an Army surplus armored personnel carrier.

Inner cities suffer their crack and heroin problems, but in Appalachia crystal meth and prescription pain pills sustain the black market economy. Much of it, before Florida finally tightened the regulations for pain clinics, supplied by storefront pill mills in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Oxy overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in West Virginia, which leads the nation in fatal prescription drug overdoses. With an average of 12 ODs a month, no community in the country suffers a more horrific rate (per-capita) of fatal painkiller overdoses than does McDowell County. No wonder they call oxycodone “hillbilly heroin.”

Back in 1950, McDowell County, which led the nation in coal production, had a population of 100,000 and was awash in mining prosperity. By the time presidential candidate John F. Kennedy visited Welch a decade later, mechanization had already eliminated thousands of mining jobs and sent the county into its long dismal descent. Kennedy called McDowell “as distressed an area as I've ever seen.” When he introduced an anti-poverty program a year later, President Kennedy saw to it that a McDowell County couple were the nation’s first food stamp recipients.

Today, 35 percent of McDowell’s residents depend on food stamps. The county’s population has fallen to 22,000. Folks with education and ambition and gumption simply got the hell out.

Those left behind suffer social ills that rival any urban ghetto. Thirty-six percent of McDowell’s residents live below the poverty line. More than half of the children under 18 are from impoverished households. The county’s median family income is $20,695 — less than half the national average. A tenth of the county’s teenage girls have babies.

Last year, the Associated Press offered up a dismal portrait of McDowell. “Seventy-two percent of [public school] students live in a home where neither parent is working. About 46 percent of students live in a home without a biological parent; many of them are in jail for drugs. … Many of the students have never sat in a dentist's chair to have their teeth cleaned. There is no central water system, so fluoride is not readily available. … Twenty-two percent of the adult population in the county lacks basic literacy skills. … Some children come to school and they’ve never held a book.”

Progress among students was so dismal that the state took over the county school system in 2001 and kept control until 2012. Yet more than two-thirds of the kids still flunked proficiency tests in math and reading. Anyone who misconstrues these kind of social problems as racial or ethnic or urban, would benefit from a tour of these poor, politically corrupt, 95-percent white counties in the pretty green mountains of southern West Virginia.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation declared McDowell the unhealthiest county in West Virginia, blaming obesity, smoking and the lack of family and social support. The most shocking statistic: Men in McDowell have a life expectancy of 64, the lowest in the nation, comparable to the average life span of Botswana or Namibia. Statistically, if I hadn’t gotten out of the coal fields, I’d have a 50-50 chance of being dead by now.

So much for my idealized notion of small town America.

Clarksdale, where I lived from 1965 to 1972, hasn’t fared much better. Except there, in cotton country, it was the farm economy, once so labor-intensive. The population of Coahoma County has fallen to half of what it was in 1950. What’s left has been racked by obesity and diabetes. A third of the population lives below the poverty line. Some 57 percent of the county’s children depend on food stamps. The life expectancy for men and women together is under 67. North Koreans live longer. Iraqis, despite a dozen years of war and terrorism, have a longer life expectancy.

Clarksdale, with about 20,000 residents, a tumbledown antebellum town bisected by the Sunflower River, has plenty of new material to add to the town’s legacy as the birthplace of the blues. The modern Delta blues derives from a violent crime rate that’s twice the national average, a property crime rate three times the national average.

When I was a reporter with the Clarksdale Press-Register, back in more prosperous times, I never had the occasion to write the kind of story the newspaper published last year, describing events on May 24. “That evening, at about 9:41, police stopped a car at Riley and Sycamore streets. The car wasn't using its headlights and it was a routine traffic stop, but as the officer approached the vehicle, four men got out, each armed with a gun.

“One man, Eric Hawkins, allegedly approached the officer. He carried an SKS semiautomatic rifle, a Russian-made rifle that chambers an M43 round, the same round used in the AK47. It’s a big gun.”

In the shoot-out, Hawkins was wounded. The others escaped. Two dozen officers, some from nearby towns, “hit the streets of Clarksdale. But they weren’t enough to deter the mass shooting two hours later.” Just after midnight, drive-by shooters sprayed a nearby night club. One man was killed, three others wounded.

I have written stories out of Overtown and Liberty City and North Miami Beach, about gang members taking on cops with assault weapons and about “mass shootings.” It was naive, I suppose, to think that it was somehow different, safer, less violent back in small town America. I wanted to think that a place like Clarksdale hadn’t changed since the summer evenings when I strolled through the dark streets of the poorest part of town without a thought of danger, able to follow a baseball game as I walked along, from house to house, block to block, carrying on a running commentary with the residents who sat on the front porches of their narrow little shotgun houses, radios tuned to the St. Louis Cardinals broadcast. Talking Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock.

But nostalgia lies. Mechanization devastated mining and farming employments just as ruthlessly as outsourcing and automation and new immigrants cooped city jobs. Welch and Clarksdale, with their derelict buildings and abandoned storefronts and their daunting social problems, no longer resemble the kind of small towns celebrated by Norman Rockwell. They’re not the communities I remember. The communities I want to remember.

They’re more like Overtown, except that Overtown looks less and less like Overtown, with a massive $250 million commercial, residential and train station redevelopment project in the works, with the University of Miami’s Life Science & Technology Park going up in the neighborhood’s northwestern edge, with new condos and affordable housing rising over areas once deemed high-crime areas, and with a late-night entertainment area prospering a few streets to the east.

Overtown’s great worry, lately, is that gentrification might devour the community. The places I remember from my youth, places left behind by an economy with little use for rural small town America, could only wish for such a problem.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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