Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina
The Rockingham Speedway now stands empty, a ruin, a few campers parked across the street at the accompanying dragway next to a new solar farm. Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young

A Carolinian drives along a familiar road to make sense of what exists in between the South’s most regressive and progressive narratives.

When I was growing up in Irmo, South Carolina, in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time taking long, aimless drives. Most often, I’d head across the dam into Lexington, then follow U.S. 1 past haciendas and taquerias and strips malls full of insurance companies and antique stores. I’d pass the chicken processing plant, the hardcore club, the new condos, and I’d speed across the bridge over Broad River and into downtown Columbia, finishing the 20-mile circuit, before looping back around and heading toward home.

The South found on that stretch of U.S. 1 displays both of the dominant macronarratives that Ferrel Guillory, a journalist and senior fellow at MDC, an economic development research organization, says define the South today. There are the Confederate flags and McMansions of a South understood, in Guillory’s words, as “a largely red territory governed by right-wing Republicans”—that is, the South seen in the resurgence of naked white supremacy in Charlottesville and elsewhere. But there are also the urban farms, high-end soul food, and other facets of “the good-life South, as it were, that particularly people with some affluence can enjoy in the region.”

These two views are supposed to be the two opposing visions of the South, one regressive and one progressive. But all along U.S. 1, you can see the in-between spaces.

Matt Hartman’s trip along U.S. 1 (CityLab)

Columbia, SC

The capital of South Carolina is a sprawling suburban city that could be anywhere, full of malls and movie theaters and chain restaurants. There are abandoned shopping centers that have been superseded by eat-live-shop destinations, as well as new gentrification bringing capital back to the historic main street it largely abandoned when the shopping centers were thriving.

It’s these spaces, the ones existing between the two macronarratives, that best display the fault lines of development. And this being the South, it should not be a surprise that those fault lines are not new: The past is never past, as William Faulkner said, and U.S. 1 is the perfect place to see why.

One hundred years ago, to combat a “stigma of backwardness,” as Howard Preston called it in Dirt Roads to Dixie, progressive Southern businesspeople vowed to create a new federal highway system to cure the region’s enduring inequality. They failed. Instead, they created a new tourist economy that further entrenched old wealth. Today’s proponents of the progressive good-life South are once again trying to use tourism as a fix for the inequality fostered by the right-wing South. But following U.S. 1—part of the highway system 20th-century progressives created—through the heart of the Carolinas makes clear that today’s progressive movement is as conservative as it is progressive.

Vacant strip malls dot much of the areas northeast of downtown Columbia. Some, however, are being refilled with family-owned businesses. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

Spring Valley’s Village at Sandhills is an eat-live-shop destination that is part the mass consumerism blamed for destroying traditional Southern culture, and doing so along racial lines. “I feel some kind of way about neglecting cultural centers when they’re trying to recreate the fake small-town storefront in the suburbs,” says Paulina Hernandez, the former co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a “Queer liberation” organization working with people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. “Wealth has figured out a way to consolidate.”

Northeast of downtown, 1 passes between the city’s two HBCUs, Allen University and Benedict College. Neighborhoods in the area have been ravaged by capital flight, leaving entire strip malls vacant. Residents are still making their lives in these husks of bad investments, though. There are family-owned restaurants and bars and barbershops with handmade signs in trailers and dilapidated storefronts, but they just don’t attract many tourists.

Spring Valley’s Village at Sandhills is part of the mass consumerism blamed for destroying traditional Southern culture, and doing so along racial lines. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

Camden, Bethune, McBee, and Patrick, SC

Modern roadways, Southern historian Bill Ferris tells me, “redefined our understanding of a city. They are extended along interstates now; the accretion of commerce and residences is important.” No longer isolated communities, regional economies and cultures are knitted closely together by the connecting highways.

One of the ironies of good-life tourism is that it still depends on the kind of mass-produced culture it simultaneously seeks to overcome. Because small towns “are seen as cultureless and uneducated [if] they don’t have a movie theater, a mall, or a Starbucks,” as SONG lamented in “Small Town Crossroads,” towns like Camden, South Carolina, must court that commerce to compete with larger cities for residents, even while attempting to sell themselves as historic small towns where you can find a quieter, more authentic community.

Bethune Pottery is located in an aluminum-sided building in Bethune, South Carolina. It sells hundreds, maybe thousands, of the kitschy concrete statues that dot the surrounding suburban landscape. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

As a result, Camden is at odds with itself. Like many small towns, its tourist advertisements can seem like they are grasping at straws. It’s been successful at attracting the Columbians I grew up with to good-life events like the annual steeplechase, the Carolina Cup, and a restaurant named Blackmon’s Little Midget boasts rave reviews on Yelp. But elsewhere, shop windows contain only for rent signs, minus a handful of junk and antique stores, which Southern historian Ted Ownby claims, in Southern Journeys: Tourism, History, and Culture, are “the stores that seem to thrive in what were once active downtown districts.” Almost literally, their commerce is dependent on the detritus of a past life.

Bethune, South Carolina—population 352—is notable mostly for Bethune Pottery, an aluminum-sided building selling hundreds— maybe thousands—of the kitschy concrete statues that dotted the suburban streets I grew up on. You can find Jesus, local mascots, random animals, servants—almost anything.

A Dollar General is seen in the reflection of a gas station window in McBee, South Carolina. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

Other towns without Camden’s proximity to Columbia, and thus its commercial highways, are even more dependent on that kind of commerce. They’re all junk stores. But SONG’s Paulina Hernandez is quick to point out that the kind of progressive culture typically associated with cities—like LGBTQ communities—has never been absent from those towns. “LGBTQ people are carving out community in that context,” she says. “There’s an anti-Southern, anti-small town, anti-country bias. But people have always existed and worked and organized in every small town.”

Hernandez explains that the newly celebrated urban trends toward co-ops, farmers’ markets, and community-based organizations comes out of these rural small towns. These are the things good-life tourism is highlighting in Southern cities but instead of a new farmers’ market pavilion, there’s a neighbor with a stall in a field in Bethune; instead of fundraising events at coffee shops, a donation jar for a neighbor with cancer in McBee. It’s there; it’s just not sellable.

Cheraw, SC, and Rockingham, NC

Before U.S. 1 and the rest of the federal highway system were first created, Southerners languished with often unnavigable roadways that limited industrial development. Rather than focusing on farm-to-market roads that would improve local industry however so-called business progressives eventually settled on trunk-line roads to spur a budding tourist economy.

A statue of Cheraw’s native son Dizzy Gillespie at the center of its manicured downtown. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

While they brought tourists, they failed, according to the author Preston, to create “industrial development and educational advancement—the two most sought-after ways in which southerners wanted the South changed.” Indeed, Preston went on to conclude: “As roads have improved throughout the course of the 20th century, the poor, provincial, and dilapidated South, the one that good roads reformers sought to change… still exists, like no place in the nation, beside the slick, commercial, comfortable South, the one that highway progressivism helped create.”

The same contrast exists today, further complicated by the rhetoric of cultural diversity. Good-life proponents, often spurred by activists like Hernandez, have had great success highlighting forgotten African-American chefs and African cuisines, puncturing monolithic Southern stereotypes with the more multicultural reality.

But you can’t eat or live in cultural legacies, so it’s understandable that these towns seek to monetize them. They must create jobs locally and raise tax funds to build local infrastructure, two facets SONG and MDC cite as particularly pressing difficulties for the marginalized and rural poor. Bill Ferris cites Kinston and Shelby, North Carolina, as recent successes in which cultural tourism “anchored struggling communities to bring them back.”

A Blue Lives Matter flag flies from a pickup truck in front of a Confederate soldiers’ monument in downtown Rockingham, North Carolina. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

Cheraw, South Carolina, is right to place a statue of native son Dizzy Gillespie at the center of its manicured downtown. “Attempts to harness culture for development are nothing new,” Ferris argues.

Moreover, in order to appeal to wealthier, more liberal travelers from urban areas, these towns must address their regressive legacies. For instance, in Rockingham, just over the state line, the authors of the most recent master plan (adopted in 2013) felt compelled to specify that the businesses they hope to attract must be “non-offensive.” Cheraw’s shopping district declares “I Hate Wal-mart,” but a billboard listing local stores has half of the names whited out.

But the actual impact of these attempts is mixed. Rockingham, North Carolina’s master plan proudly announced that NASCAR’s return to the Rockingham Speedway shows progress toward “turning the town into a destination,” but only a year later the Speedway closed due to financial troubles. The Rockingham Speedway now stands empty, a ruin, a few campers parked across the street at the accompanying dragway next to a new solar farm. A spacious showroom in Rockingham is empty minus a lone desk with a plaque that seems to read “Richmond County Chamber of Commerce.”

In downtown Rockingham, municipal parking lots are cracked and empty, a Confederate monument stands in the center of the town square, and a truck speeds by flying two full-sized Thin Blue Line flags; it’s unclear which of those counts as offensive.

The successes highlight a strange dynamic, as well. On one trip, I see a family leave Rockingham’s other point of pride, a newly built Discovery Place, when I stop for an early dinner with a few other families at Pattan’s Grill. The restaurant uses the same authenticity-centric branding as the good-life South’s most celebrated restaurants, claiming local ingredients and family recipes—the very things those celebrated restaurants try to reclaim from small-town communities. But Pattan’s lacks the same refinement; the presentation feels like a poorly executed copy of more successful urban operations—an experience that highlights the bankruptcy of the very notion of cultural authenticity.

Southern Pines, NC

Cheraw and Rockingham stand in stark contrast to Southern Pines and neighboring Pinehurst, North Carolina, forty minutes north along U.S. 1. There are still the same strip malls as along the rest of the road, but there are almost no vacancies, and the brands filling them are of a higher class, the Dollar Generals replaced by Harris Teeters. Old U.S. 1 veers right into downtown Southern Pines, where people line the streets, eat at crêpe restaurants, shop at boutique stores, and play basketball in a well-manicured park. They visit local bookstores and perhaps buy fudge at the creationist museum. It’s the mythical small town, made viable for the contemporary era.

“Southern Pines is extremely fortunate,” Mayor David McNeil tells me. He cites the town’s “beautiful long-leaf pine trees” as well as local anchor institutions that create jobs, including both a community college and highly regarded medical and retirement facilities. McNeil says that Southern Pines has been growing over the past twenty years as more young people, many of them military families based at nearby Fort Bragg, move to the downtown area, which he calls “a regional shopping and dining destination.”

Native American lollipop stand in Vass, North Carolina, just north of downtown Southern Pines. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

It truly is a stunning place, but “fortune” obscures the role of power in its creation. From their beginnings Southern Pines and Pinehurst attracted wealth, founded as getaways and retirement locations for well-to-do Northerners is search of a better climate. Perhaps even more importantly, Pinehurst’s founder, Leonard Tufts, was chairman of the county’s Good Roads Committee in the early twentieth century, ensuring his investments benefited from the area’s modern highways.

In Dirt Roads to Dixie, Preston called the Capital Highway—a road that was later rechristened US 1—“Tuft’s inspiration.”

“Of course, it passed within close proximity to [his] growing resort at Pinehurst,” Preston added.

According to Preston, such influence was common in Southern development. Early roads activism was grassroots, focusing on routes that would benefit poor rural Southerners. It was businesspeople that used their influence to turn investment to the tourist routes that “ultimately proved of far greater significance to promoters, members of the business community, and land developers than to the vast majority of Southerners.”

A concrete statue spotted just north of Southern Pines, North Carolina. (Mary Catherine Penn and Jonathan Young)

The resulting tourist economy does little to shift the balance, either, especially when it comes to racial inequities. Census data from 2010 show nearly 40 percent of white residents in the Southern Pines-Pinehurst area held “management, business, science, and arts occupations,” while 43 percent of African-American residents and 45 percent of Hispanics worked in service jobs. At the same time, the poverty rate for whites (10 percent) was a third of that for black and Hispanic residents (28 percent and 37 percent, respectively). “An over-reliance on tourism is an over-reliance on a low-wage, low-skill economy,” Guillory says.

Tourism also has a nasty habit of whiting out the things regressive Southern politics have created over the past centuries. In fact, they’re often just white, full stop: The Wal-Marts and Dollar Generals widely derided by pop culture and good-life proponents alike for their racist clientele are far more integrated than those in downtown Southern Pines. Ownby offers some explanation for that point in Southern Journeys, saying that historic tourist sites and quaint small towns rarely have the “political or moral complexity” required to confront “the most central burdens in Southern history,” as including them would endanger tourism profits. For all its progressive allure, the good-life South ultimately functions through the race, class, and geographic inequalities it seeks to reverse.

The Triangle, NC

Preston concludes Dirt Roads to Dixie by arguing that “the widespread mistaken assumption that the interests of the South and its people would be served best by satisfying the needs of business first” ended up creating a highway system—and resulting economy—that “fathered conservative changes.” North Carolina’s Triangle, including Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham, and suburbs like Apex and Cary, spotlights a contemporary version of the same dilemma, with all the contradictions of uneven development.

On one hand, the Triangle seems to have addressed all of the shortcomings of Southern Pines’s tourist economy. Drawing on the three major universities in the area, it created Research Triangle Park in the 1950s to lure corporations like IBM and, more recently, startups and other lucrative white-collar jobs. Today, the slew of celebrity-chef-run eateries, hip music festivals, a budding arts scene, and other attractions lure workers and firms who want the culture of major cities without the price point. Raleigh doubled in size between 2000 and 2012. It’s expected to grow an additional 70 percent by 2030.

But that story obscures as much as it reveals. Along Old U.S. 1 near Apex and Cary, wealth and poverty are nearly side-by-side: farms next to the occasional mansion, trailer parks with names like Shangri-La next to land clear-cut for a new McMansion development. Once in the historic downtowns of Apex and Cary, shoppers line the streets, meandering between gelato stores, wine stores, Southern home goods stores. Outside of the historic districts, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and housing developments multiply.

It’s easy to picture these towns as exercises in colonization: a Containment Area for Relocated Yankees, as the oft-used Cary pejorative goes. It’s true enough of most wealthy, sprawling suburbs that uprooted marginalized communities to attract well-off tech workers; little of Raleigh’s economic success seems to be benefiting people who didn’t already have it. “People who grow up in low-income families [in the Triangle] are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation,” one report from MDC concluded, while the Equal Opportunity Project ranked the Raleigh commuting zone 94th in economic mobility out of the 100 largest in the nation. Because of the South’s racist history, that means people of color are especially harmed.

At the same time, an immigrant community has flourished in the area—made possible by the mutation of Apex and Cary from traditional small towns into an expansive metro area. “It’s naive to think we can freeze culture,” Ferris says, claiming that a progressive South must welcome these communities as part of the South’s identity. “They are distinctively different, but they are still Southerners.”

Yet, inverting the tale of development to claim it benefits people of color is too simple, despite how often good-life proponents do so, because intraracial class conflict adds yet another complication. Hernandez calls it “a class ascension thing,” saying she worries “that we think we can live in any one place and hide away from what’s happening.”

Placed in context with the other places along U.S. 1, Raleigh’s complications show that today’s tourism boosters are replicating the failures of their forerunners. For all the good-life South’s benefits and pleasures, it is not creating a more equitable South. In fact, by directing investment into projects that benefit the already wealthy, the good-life South not only fails to confront the regressive South, it enables it, cementing the already existing racialized underclass.

Small towns are recapturing their traditional existence, but only by making use of the mass-produced culture that destroyed them. Cities and towns are growing, but only at the expense of other parts of the region. Oppressed communities are being centered, but only as existing racial hierarchies are solidified. Good-life tourism may be building a future, but it is not a progressive one.

There is another way forward, through the kinds of resilience and organizing SONG highlights; the kinds of community that have found a way to exist in the poor, defunded areas; and the kinds of ambitious, multiracial political projects that have always existed in the South, like Cooperation Jackson and Texas’s Democratic Coalition. But it isn’t profitable for business owners, and it isn’t furthered by indulging in the good life.

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