an essay by Matthew Boedy
There are many famous streets in the South. Beale, Bourbon, Main. But there are also some famous intersections.
Some cannot be explained except in the South such as the meeting of War Eagle Drive and Roll Tide Lane in Huntsville.
Some are self-explanatory such as Spaghetti Junction in Atlanta.
Some are lesser known but still important for their particular meaning to the world. Police in Aiken, South Carolina, often report the stealing of the street signs that mark the meeting of Whiskey Road and Easy Street.
Some come wrapped in history such as the crossing of Peachtree Street at Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta made resonant by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Gary Pomerantz’s book about the “often separate but mutually dependent worlds of whites and blacks” that make up the Civil Rights capital.
Some intersections are marked by history. At the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, stands a marker designating the spot in 1958 where the Trappist monk Thomas Merton had a revelation, described in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. This revelation moved him from watching as an observer, a bystander, to something more involved, even as he would return to his monastery in the Kentucky hills. He wrote: “The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”
Ironically this revelation moved Merton not from passive to active but from bystander to guilty bystander.
It is this thought that comes to me now after reflecting on one particular intersection in my town.
I admit I didn’t notice at first the intersection of M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard and Dixie Street in Gainesville, Georgia.
In the summer of 2015 I moved to this seat of Hall County in northeast Georgia to be a professor at the local university. I began soon thereafter to drive on MLK every few weeks because it was the quickest route to the local recycling collection point. To get there, one could go the length of U.S. 129 and double-back, crossing the railroad overpass, or travel through the industrial section of town, over the rough tracks that used to be the economic center of this town at its founding. At the end of either path you would find a sparse parking lot home to a county trailer and a series of Dumpsters.
MLK Boulevard in Gainesville, like a lot of locations of roads named for the Civil Rights leader, runs through this industrial area and also the black part of town.
A road was not designated for him here until 2000, after protest from an African-American women’s group known as the Newtown Florist Club. [I say “until” because King had streets named for him as early as the 1970s. However, the vast majority of such streets in Georgia did not appear until after the creation of the King national holiday in the mid-1980s, according to the Georgia Encyclopedia.]
The Newtown group, named for the largely black neighborhood it was born from, unsuccessfully requested to rename Myrtle Street three times before. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, those “business and property owners along the street” disinclined toward the change forced a scaling back of the original length and a compromise was forged.
This is why MLK runs along a west-east, 1.3-mile route from Highway 60 to the rebirth of Myrtle. MLK crosses US Highway 129, known locally as Athens Highway. One side of 129 is the western MLK. The other, the eastern. Dixie Street is the middle point, a road that intersects, halving the route.
In the west MLK runs through the Newtown and Fair Street neighborhood, home to old bungalows and cottages, some dating back to the 1920s. While homes there are “generally well-maintained,” according to the city, some are “in need of repair.”
The city recently moved out residents from the nearby government housing built in the 50s and has announced plans to replace them with “affordable and market-rate units,” filling a desperate need in the city. This multimillion development three blocks from MLK is supposed to bring new life into this area. City planners have a vision of an intersection of MLK and the city’s other main thoroughfare, Jesse Jewell Parkway, with a Starbucks on one corner and a city art park on another. This is why perhaps there are a series of immaculate new cottages, 3 bedrooms and two baths, for sale along the eastern half of MLK for as much as $135,000.
This may save east MLK. But the west is already taken, long “blighted” by government vocabulary. On this stretch of MLK commercial and industry dominate the landscape. There is a tire store, a locksmith, a new janitorial supply, and a small flea market. There is also a Hispanic bakery and a Hispanic church. All but one of the properties that face MLK are zoned heavy or light industrial. The other is zoned business. There will be no new homes any time soon.
Which makes the intersection of MLK Boulevard and Dixie Street all the more interesting.
On one side of Dixie at MLK is an industrial plot with a large warehouse and concrete loading zone, surrounded by green plants and a fence with wire on top.
But on the other side is 838 Dixie Street, a 1,000 square foot house with two bathrooms and two front doors. The only single family home on the block. The street is only one block, running north until it ends at High Street 150 yards later.
I know this information from a quick glimpse at county property records. But also my drives through the neighborhood.
I have become curious about this part of my city. And so on my way home from the recycling center, I wander and observe. I try not to slow down too much as I take mental notes.
I am coming to understand my town, some months in, through these drives. And I find myself drawn in particular to this out of the way – or at least out of my way – intersection, this few feet of asphalt and concrete that form the T that make MLK and Dixie.
I drove past 838 Dixie the other day to see a man grilling on the small porch, smoke wafting into the sky on a cool winter day. My guess is he has not been there long. About a year ago in March 2016 the structure was converted from a commercial building to a residential one. The large concrete parking area gives its history away.
One has to wonder why someone retrofits a commercial warehouse in the middle of a commercial sea for rental property. And who would want to rent there? Perhaps the better question is who has no other choice.
The first conjecture comes from a bystander. And the second from a guilty one.
The intersection of MLK and Dixie is more than an odd congruence of history. It is the South summed up in a few words, the South as it was, and as it is now.
I am from that South, it a part of me. And my mediations on this intersection have been from afar, at least for now. A curiosity. But such inquiring comes not merely as a bystander, but a bystander made that way. One removed from involvement. And so that makes me guilty.
Having been in this town for some months, I can conjecture well that the “Dixie” part is small, smaller than it has been. Those who fly the Confederate flag seem to be tiny, if not tinier since Dylan Roof tried to arouse their hatred by killing nine black worshippers in Charleston. His plan was to start a race war, though the grace of Mother Emanuel seems to have stopped that cold.
Though a few days after Valentine Day’s a Confederate flag and a banner proclaiming a new KKK “meeting hall” was unfurled over the roof of a building in Dahlonega, another small Southern town one county up from Hall. It was quickly removed. It is more than speculation that the owner of the building had something to do with those who apparently sneaked to her roof in the middle of the night to plant the display. The owner has been in a year-long fight with the city over the property.
Here in Gainesville there are a few trucks that drive through town with bumper stickers or tags with the old Georgia flag, the one that include the banner of the Confederacy. Last year a truck with a large Confederate flag standing in its bed was parked on my campus of the University of North Georgia.
To the east, Hall County abuts Forsyth County, long known for its history of being the home of the Klan. In the last few years residents have found flyers on their cars inviting them to join the white supremacists.
These are people I do not understand.
But “Dixie” is not just the racists, the white supremacists, or those who applaud them indirectly. It is another group, another location. Where white and black don’t intersect or interact.
My town has another road named Dixie. Dixie Drive runs through west Gainesville. While it may have more affluence, it is not by much. Fifty-year-old ranch houses and small duplexes run on both sides from its intersection with Browns Bridge Road, the four-lane artery to the lake.
There are a few American flags hanging from facades, old cars with two colors, panels replaced but not repainted. Driving through the lone neighborhood off Dixie Drive, Westhaven, whose once proud brick entry sign is now hard to read, I saw houses and yards like those on East MLK.
This Dixie is hardly the one we usually think of. This is poor and middle class white folks, now living among more than a few Hispanic faces, in a county that voted 78% for Trump.
And the result wasn’t merely because Gainesville is a “red” place. These voters flocked to the president’s sloganeering about the past, the future, and the economy, and their fading place in all three as much as the voters who propelled him to victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
These are people I do not understand.
It may be used as a political pawn at times, but this “Dixie” here is just a road, a name on a sign. One part of an intersection where you can buy a mattress wholesale. On the other end, where Dixie curves and becomes without notice Cronic Drive, the land becomes undeveloped and horses feed. There is a swamp on the other side.
It is as if Dixie disappears there. At the other end, it has disappeared. There is no street sign at the corner of Dixie and Browns Bridge Road.
There are two Dixies, perhaps more. But only one that intersects in the common mind with MLK. Perhaps there are multiple MLKs, too.
The official Dixie is being erased slowly. Confederate heroes are losing their statues across the South including New Orleans, Kentucky, and Virginia. Of course in 2000 South Carolina removed its Confederate flag atop its Statehouse and put it right in front, near the sidewalk, on a pole sitting enclosed, gated, secure.
I was there when it came down. A reporter, observing. I wrote how the flag taken from the dome had been replicated a thousand times and put into the hands of children who smiled as they waved it.
These are people I do not understand.
More recently, the flag was removed from the grounds of that public space and put in a museum. The latter action came after the Charleston massacre.
Here in Gainesville, the town square is home to a 28-foot statue of a Confederate soldier holding a rifle atop a pedestal. Known as “Old Joe,” it was erected as part of a trend of statues known as “Silent Sentinels” in the decades following the Civil War. Our statue has been there for more than a century, though no one now is sure when it was first placed.
I went to that square for a concert when I first moved here. The concert featured a country rock cover band. Many people scattered around that statue, avoiding it mainly because it blocked their view.
And there is the Dixie Hunt Hotel, a fixture on the Gainesville downtown square for at least a hundred years, albeit under different names at times. It was once described as “North Georgia’s finest hotel,” albeit on its own matchbook. It is now an office building known as the Hunt Tower. Dixie in this case seems to refer to a long-lost chain of hotels now lost to history.
Official Dixie intersects – to choose a woefully neutral term – with the history of African American achievement or lack thereof in Gainesville in many ways throughout history.
Dixie in this sense is the systematic racism, the racism de jure and de facto, the redlining and color barriers, the effects of decades of segregation. It impeded progress, silenced some histories from being told. And so those who edited the “Hall County, Georgia” volume in the Black America Series published in 2004 noted that “this saga of pioneering African Americans in Hall County is long overdue.”
And pioneer they did. One of the former cooks at the Dixie-Hunt is featured in the book. He went to open the first fast-food restaurant in his historically black neighborhood.
And it may be happenstance, but the owner of the lone house on Dixie Street – Esco Riley Jr. – supplied photos for the book. His father, a senior deacon in a local Methodist church, appears in a photograph taken at the opening of a black chapter of the Freemasons in 1948.
Esco Riley Jr. owns other land, just a few miles from Dixie Street, on Chestia Drive that dead ends near the interstate. I drove down his street the other day. There was a trio of Hispanic men putting a deck on a house that was so new its windows still had stickers on them. There was another new house on this dead-end street, as well. Mr. Riley’s yard had some nice lawn ornaments and a chain link fence. I did not call on Mr. Riley, preferring the bystanding, if not the drive-bying.
While there has been some progress, such as the street naming, life for many blacks in Gainesville has remained difficult since King was murdered and even before that.
In 1936 a tornado leveled large parts of the town. Two hundred people died, 1,600 were injured, and more than 750 homes were damaged or destroyed, leaving 2,000 homeless. It is hard to know how many of those homes were owned or lived in by blacks. But soon thereafter a “new town” was made for the black residents atop an old landfill.
Two decades later industry moved close by and the Newtown Florist Club began buying flowers for an unusual amount of funerals of black people. While the state later said the high rate of throat and mouth cancer were caused by high levels of smoking and drinking, residents blamed it on the often obvious grain dust from the industrial sites.
According to the local newspaper, slumlords and substandard housing conditions, lead-based paint poisoning and other health risks have also challenged Newtown. But this neighborhood was often, according to the Hall County volume, a place where “one could have most of one’s needs met in one’s neighborhood without having to chance an unpleasant or undignified encounter while venturing downtown.”
Today of the 33,000+ residents within the city limits, about 15 percent are African American. While Southern hamlets like Gainesville used to be divided by two races, now Hispanics are nearing the white population; blacks are a distant third.
These are people I do not understand.
I have driven through Newtown and Fairview and down Athens Street looking. Wandering, and wondering.
These are my conjectures, the conjectures of a guilty bystander.
When will MLK look like Dixie? When it no longer has to intersect with Dixie?
When will Dixie disappear? When someone wants to rename it?
These are abstract, aloof questions.
There are others.
How do I come to understand myself as Dixie? When Dixie understands me?
And of the guilt of my bystanding, my aloofness from blacks, (not to mention the Hispanics)? What am I to do? I will never be innocent. Can I be not guilty?
How do I come to be with them? When they are with me?
And as I type here looking out my window miles from MLK and Dixie, north of downtown, I wonder how I am like Thomas Merton, the monk.
Merton once wrote: “We forget that the Negro is there because of us. His crisis is the result of our acts, and is, in fact our crisis.”
And decades later, his prophecy has come true: “Our total inability to see this is turning a common political problem into a violent conflict, in which there is no possibility of real dialogue, and in which the insensate shibboleths of racism drown out all hope of rational solutions.”
Merton was not a Southerner as we have come to think of one. He was a world traveler, cosmopolitan. But he knew the South. Not merely as an observer or bystander. He knew it because he understood these people, all of them.
At that intersection in Louisville, he was “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Such a moment made him nearly laugh out loud. There was immense joy at being “a member of [the human] race in which God Himself became incarnate.” He perhaps smiled then and thought “there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
It is as close as he came to exorcizing guilt. Only by love.
Matthew Boedy is a professor in the English Department at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, Ga. He was most recently a finalist for the 2014 South Carolina First Novel Competition sponsored by the South Carolina Arts Commission.