MARIANNA TO HELENA-WEST HELENA
We arrived for breakfast right at 7:00 AM at the Sweet Temptation restaurant. Nancy and Pat joined us there for some final conversation. Tom fueled up for the run with a bowl full of grits and headed out of town south on Alabama Street, safely escorted by Mayor Jimmy Williams and what felt like the entire squad of Police. Further down Arkansas Highway 1, he got a honk and friendly wave from a passing truck—it looked like Mr. Claude Kennedy heading north from the University Research Station. I drove south down the highway and pulled into a farm entrance at the 5K mark. Not long after I’d stopped, an Arkansas State Trooper pulled up alongside me. I thought maybe I was in trouble, but in the end he was just checking that I was OK. We had a nice visit and I told him to look out for my husband running up the highway a few miles back. Before he could drive off, though, yet another car pulled up—it was Pat Audirsch! We had forgotten to exchange the key to the house, and she didn’t want to have to chase us down all the way in Helena (more on that to come…), but glad she caught us.
The weather’s been unusually hot and today was no exception. We’re routinely hitting 90 degrees here, while reports of 50 degree weather are reaching us from back in Minnesota. We’re not ready for winter yet, so you won’t hear us complaining. For each step on the pavement, we just keep hydrating, and as we made it further down the road, we finally passed the sign welcoming us to Helena-West Helena, Arkansas. Normally, this would mean that we’re almost done running, but it was still quite a distance to our landing spot at City Hall. West Helena sits out “on the bypass”, while downtown Helena is on the river side of Crowley’s ridge. I ran the last leg over the ridge and past the big kudzu entanglement at the top. Cathy Cunningham greeted and welcomed us to town, and we met a handful of people in the square who were busy prepping for the unveiling of the Elaine Massacre Memorial on Sunday.
Our first interaction of the day was with Helen Halbert, the mayor’s chief of staff, as we waited to sit down with him for a conversation. Helen has roots in Helena, even though she grew up elsewhere in the state. She grew up visiting her grandparents in the area, and her husband is from Helena. After college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he wanted to come home, so they’ve settled in Helena, and she says it’s kind of like coming home for her too.
Mayor Kevin Smith stepped out of his office and invited us in for a conversation. The Mayor was born and raised in Helena. His earliest memory is of fishing and sitting around a campfire on the river. He talked about his mission. The mayor is on the board of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation. He’s very interested in getting people to use the river, especially exposing some of the underprivileged populations to the richness of the river valley. They’ve just invested in the Venture Bus—like the magic school bus, he says, and calling Shannon the director, Ms. Frizzle—and it takes kids out on the river. Shannon, i.e., Ms. Frizzle, runs it.
He and his wife have hosted people on river expeditions, considering the mayor himself canoed the Mississippi River to New Orleans after college. He has one adventurous son that he’s watching out for. Mayor Smith kept journals of his canoe trip but the ink is smudging, so it’s hard to make out all the wisdom he documented, but he did come to one big realization after reaching Louisiana—more about that later. He also talked about canoeing with his young daughter and some “big bubbas” meeting him as he was coming off the river. They thought he was crazy for being out on the water—the river is too dangerous. He laughed and told them it wasn’t just him, but also his six year old girl that was out there as well!
Mayor Smith laments that the world is so fast paced. When you slow down to canoe, walk or bike, you see things at a higher resolution. On his journey down the river, he saw pervasive poverty from Cairo to the South. Appalachia was getting all the federal dollars for poverty, and he had an idea to redirect some of that funding to the Delta. After his river tour, he went back to DC and worked with congress to initiate the Delta Regional Authority, having proven that the Delta region was poorer than Appalachia and needed the support. He was able to work with Bill Clinton’s administration to get this agenda off the ground, and now the DRA is an active force for grant making and other lines of support from New Orleans to Cairo, IL, helping impoverished communities make change and grow.
Mayor Smith’s oldest son is turning 30 and has twin daughters are 20—they live in San Francisco and Little Rock. According to the mayor, they won’t come back to Helena and he won’t encourage them to. Issues with schools, jobs, and crime keep Helena from being the best place to live—this is true of much of rural America. Maybe more true here. As the mayor puts it, 350 years of undervaluing education and now we’re in an information age—we need a new reason to exist. We spent decades, even centuries in an unsustainable practice, cheap labor, exploiting natural resources, whether logging or agriculture. “We need two things to succeed (things we devalued for 200 years) – personal freedom and education,” he says.
The mayor does have a hope, if not an answer, though. The Alluvial Aquifer is an untapped resource. It will never be depleted as the Mississippi River recharges it constantly. He’s working with the Mayor of Memphis to study this. He’s a democrat too. Right now, though, two kids under 16 years old will get you $4-$10 thousand. Some local residents do seasonal work and collect unemployment or welfare. The Vice Mayor of Paducah has some good thoughts on the subject—we should look him up, says the mayor.
We went to the Southbound Tavern for lunch with Cathy and Richard. Mayor’s wife and daughter were there having lunch with him. Richard took us on a tour. We walked around downtown, noting that Cherry Street was historically established by the white community in Helena, and Walnut Street was established by the black community. Apparently, the white folks often ventured over to Walnut Street Juke Joints and restaurants some of the time, but it was never OK for the black folks to venture on to Cherry Street.
Richard also took us to the Delta Cultural Center to see the latest art installation called Break Glass: A Conversation to End Hate by an Arkansas artist VL Cox—a racially charged critique of the history, and some may say present, of the Delta through sculpture, painting, assemblage, and installation. We also saw many other works by local artists as well as the permanent King Biscuit Blues exhibit (Delta Sounds), which houses a radio studio for live broadcasts, stories of artists who touched the Helena scene, and relics from the industry.
From there we went to the Depot Museum to see a bit of civil war and flooding history in the area before Shane Williams fetched us for a driving tour around the city. We recapped the downtown, the river park and river walk, and made it over to the Helena Museum of Phillips County where Joseph, the museum director, gave us a quick tour of the highlights of the museum. This included civil war generals, Native American pottery, and Maybelle Thatcher whose spirit allegedly roams the museum. Joseph prefers the story that Maybelle is the wax mannequin donated along with several other items from a local department store and has found her way into museum lore.
We drove back to our van downtown by way of the levee road, with a great vantage point to see the town, after visiting the historic cemetery on the ridge. After a brief walk around town to see the state of development, making a dance in front of a turquoise building, we drove out to Shawn and Carl’s restored historic home for a couple of drinks and conversation. Carl sure can make a whiskey sour! Then we were over to Todd and Shannon’s for the night, where we met up with Macy as well and a brief interlude with Holly. The house was bustling with young professionals, apparently the norm in these parts—there’s a vibrant community of “Teach for America” folks amongst others, working to make an impact in Helena.
The black bean burgers were good. We were spent. Crashing upstairs was easy. Muddy the dog didn’t make his way into our room, but we would have had him delightfully.