I was scrolling Facebook recently when I saw a post that a friend of mine had shared. It was an essay from a fellow I’ve never met before, and it was about his recent trip to Martinsville. It had generated a lot of comments and shares.
“It’s not going to get better,” the piece opened, and I immediately knew I was about to read Hot Take #4738 about how the city of Martinsville is some kind of cesspit.
I have read this same essay over and over again. It always takes the same form: somebody grew up in Martinsville and moved away, and then they return for about two days and write a portentous dissertation on how far the city they once loved has fallen, usually describing Martinsville as some kind of unholy cross between decline era Detroit, 1970s New York City, and Hell.
One memorable example of this condescending genre was titled “Struggle and Hope in a Small Virginia Town,” a photo essay published in Slate in 2014. The writer/photographer went out of his way to capture images of sad-eyed children in weed-strewn parking lots and battered American flags. If he’d also taken photos of train tracks and a stranger’s shoes, he would have nailed all the major photos necessary for a college freshman’s Photography 101 portfolio. Looking at the photos, I didn’t even recognize Martinsville. It was like those tabloid photos that show how ugly a major Hollywood starlet is because someone managed to snap a photo of her in sweatpants scooping up after her dog.
But let’s get back to this gentleman’s essay. He explained that he had originally written it two years ago and it was brought back to the fore when he stayed at a local bed and breakfast and couldn’t sleep because of how terrible Martinsville is.
In his essay, he talks about how prosperous Martinsville used to be when he was growing up, and how he eventually saw its tragic decline shortly before he moved away. The only culture the city had was the Martinsville Speedway and high school plays. Sure, there were occasional dances or piano recitals, but there were no museums or art galleries! Driving wistfully through Martinsville those two long years ago, he saw empty storefronts. There were no men wearing hats, no women wearing skirts and carrying large handbags, and, I assume, no whale oil dispensaries or newsies shouting the latest updates on Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal.
No, he said, that world is gone, replaced by a darker, angrier, more bitter one.
Speaking as an emissary of the dark angry bitter modern world, I have a couple of points I would like to make.
First off, it is either staggeringly unobservant or wildly disingenuous to say that Martinsville has no theatres, museums, or art galleries when it has the TheatreWorks Black Box, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Fayette Area Historical Initiative, Piedmont Arts, and Studio 107. The essay writer seems to have worse powers of observation than Helen Keller. And that’s not a joke about her being deaf, blind, and mute, that’s a joke about her being dead for fifty years.
What I’m about to say is an unpopular opinion, but I’ve worked in the city of Martinsville from 2007-2009 and again from 2012-present, and I’m here to tell you that the city (and the county) objectively gets better every year. The uptown Martinsville I remember from 2007 is very different from the one I see today, and if anyone disagrees with me, they just aren’t looking close enough.
I’m not going to pretend that the city is perfect. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to enter a 40-year coal contract in the 21st century, to name a random example. But things ARE improving, and they’re improving because dedicated citizens are going out every day and doing their level best to make the city a better place.
I will also say that there is ALWAYS something happening in Martinsville and Henry County. Anyone who has tried to plan an event without having it conflict with five other events can attest to this. Anyone who thinks that there’s nothing to do in Martinsville isn’t looking all that hard.
I realize I’m coming down pretty harshly on some dude I don’t even know, but I’m sick of reading the same defeatist essay over and over again. I’ve been sick of it since I was a full-time journalist, going out of my way to share positive stories with the public (of which there were no shortage), only to have people constantly tell me they wished we would run a NICE story in the paper for once. We ran nice stories all the time; folks just didn’t want to see them because they conflicted with the narrative they had created in their minds.
Essays like this gentleman’s only serve to denigrate the hard work that the people who have stayed put in every day. I have much more sympathy for them than I have for a guy who came down from New York for two days and didn’t sleep well because he heard a siren.
I was born in 1984, and as a result, I missed out on Martinsville and Henry County’s boom period. I do remember the tail end of it, but by the time I was in high school, the factories were largely closing up shop and unemployment was spiraling out of control. I graduated from college in 2007 right before the recession hit and I was fortunate to land the job at the Rives Theatre; my applications were getting rejected at gas stations because I didn’t have enough gas station experience.
My generation has never known the economic prosperity that the Baby Boomer generation experienced, and frankly, I don’t believe we ever will. For those who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the prosperity of the time felt like the status quo.
The prosperity of that era was the result of a booming post-war economy. It was never meant to last; it was undone in the ‘70s by the expense of the Vietnam War and increased international competition that gutted our nation’s manufacturing industry. Martinsville once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in America, but the collapse of the city’s economy was a reflection of the collapse of the country’s economy. Much of that middle-class prosperity probably could have lingered into the present if supply-side economics hadn’t infected our nation in the early 1980s, but it seems that once you stop taxing the super-wealthy, they don’t like going back to the way things were.
There are two ways to approach that reality. You can either whine and moan about how nothing is like you remember it and men don’t wear hats anymore, or you can open your eyes and appreciate what we do have and the people who work hard to lift the city.
Personally, I prefer the second option, and I find I sleep pretty well at night.