Bluefield Daily Telegraph
In the early 1980s Billy Joel had a song called “Keeping the Faith” in which he sang about his younger days — playing stickball, singing on the corner, learning the facts of life and much more. One particular phrase from the song has stuck in my head for more than 30 years — “’Cause the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
What a line.
We all tend to look back at the past as if everything were great and look at the future with much skepticism. Everyone does it. That thinking permeates our lives and alters our views.
Holding onto the past, while it may be comforting, is not the pathway to success, be it in our personal lives, as a business, or even as a city.
My mother grew up in the Bluefield of the 1930s and ’40s. She met and married my father while they were students at Bluefield State. She was a graduate of Genoa High School.
Gearldean Roberson first saw James Redd at a basketball game at the Arter Gymnasium — he was on the team. Days later at Scott Street Baptist Church she told one of her friends, “I’ve got to meet that guy with the Mickey Mouse ears.”
Many people would describe those times as the “good old days.” Bluefield had businesses in every downtown building. Multiple passenger trains came through town daily with hundreds of people. Coal and freight traffic kept the railroad yard full of rolling stock on its way to Lambert’s Point or westbound.
Pictures of that era showed streets filled with people and traffic police on every corner. It was in the midst of World War II but the country was behind the war effort and within a few months the war in both Europe and the Pacific would wind to its conclusion.
Following the war the U.S. and local economies flourished and the true end of the Great Depression came to be as a new era of prosperity grasped the entire nation.
While to many those were the “good old days,” to many they “weren’t always good.”
Mechanization in the coal industry led to fewer miners being needed and thousands laid off from the southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia coalfields over the next decade. The creation of the interstate highway system saw the decline of passenger traffic on the railroads and less freight being hauled as over-the-road trucks were able to move more freely between cities. The ugly face of segregation was alive and prevented more than a quarter of Bluefield’s residents from eating at certain establishments or in later years swimming at the city’s pool.
The point is, the good days for one person may not be the good days for another.
We oftentimes hear today that Bluefield needs to go back to the good old days when downtown was filled with business and activity. While a vibrant downtown is vital to the tax base, culture and future of our city, we need to realize that we will never see a downtown of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, or even ’70s again and we need to move forward.
The “good old days” that created the shopping mall are now proving for downtown cities across America to be not so good. Let’s look at two West Virginia cities as examples.
When Huntington built its mall in the late ’70s it was built outside of town, in Barboursville, along Interstate 64. Downtown Huntington lost a lot of business it has never been able to replace, though the new Pullman Square has brought new life to the riverfront.
Contrast that with Charleston. Charleston built its mall downtown. The Town Center sits adjacent to the Civic Center and while its anchor stores may have moved from stand-alone stores in other parts of downtown to the mall, the pedestrian traffic is still downtown. There are few vacant storefronts in the capital city.
Furthermore, Charleston has managed to keep tax paying businesses in the city, unlike Huntington, and that is part of the reason why Huntington has had financial crises over the past 20 years.
Savannah, Ga., had a blighted downtown as it lost many of its stores and businesses in the 1970s and ’80s. However, things turned around when the Savannah College of Art and Design, better known as SCAD, expanded its campus and presence into vacant downtown buildings.
Now Savannah has a thriving downtown built not around brick-and-mortar stores, but on the presence of SCAD students and the businesses that have developed in as a result of the school’s presence.
“Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
Bluefield is a college town with a railroad history. Let’s use those resources which built this city to help.
It is highly unlikely that stores such as J.C. Penney and Sears will ever return downtown. But what about creating things that would bring people downtown.
Housing for college students could bring hundreds of people and services they need to the district.
What about BSC classes downtown? Bluefield State already owns the old Appalachian Power building.
The railroad hobby is a multi-million dollar business. Whether it’s model railroading, train spotters or those looking to visit and photograph the magnificent machines, how can this area capitalize on its abundance of steel wheels?
Let us remember that at one time the “good old days” were “tomorrow” and it took a vision and action to make them become what is remembered today.
Bob Redd is a sports writer for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.