Since I was a kid, Pine Bluff has been famous for all the wrong reasons. The headlines are grim: Most recently, it was named the second most dangerous metropolitan area in America after Detroit based on violent crime statistics such as murder, rape and kidnapping. Forbes.com ranked city the seventh most dangerous for women.
An X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully are faced with a biological element that melts human skin is called ‘The Pine Bluff Variant’ after the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
When a reporter visited the town recently to do a police ride-along, acting Police Chief Jeff Hubanks said that ‘the little old white lady with the kitten on her lap is perfectly safe in this town’. He seemed to infer that crime was confined to drug dealers and rough areas.
But violence in Pine Bluff isn’t limited to the wrong side of the tracks. These days the town’s nickname is ‘Crime Bluff’, and the last time I drove through I saw a boarded-up Main Street that looked like the zombie apocalypse had already happened.
The historic Pines Hotel is crumbling, and the Saenger Theater is closed. The Pines Mall where I hung out as a kid is a hive of gang activity, and most of the major retailers have shut their doors. Burnt-out cars and trash are everywhere.
It wasn’t always this way. My parents lived in and around Pine Bluff their entire lives, and described teen years that were a mix of Norman Rockwell and Happy Days. They did their best to shelter me from the spiraling crime rates, and in many ways my childhood was idyllic. I grew up in a beautiful house with a yard filled with giant Magnolia trees.
Dad was a very successful CEO, while mom taught biology at the high school. I have many happy memories of early days at Trinity Episcopal Day School, where I thrived in the small classes and gifted and talented programs.
I remember summers biking to my grandma’s house, swimming at the Country Club or Eden Park, drinking frosted Cokes at Derwood’s ice cream stand and hanging out at the then brand-new mall. Pine Bluff built a Convention Center and Arts and Science Center. Back then, we had hope.
But there was a dark side, and by the time I got to junior high school I lived in a pretty much constant state of unease. My parents built a four-foot wall around our entire house, but we still had one dog stolen and another pet poisoned by neighbors.
I grew up knowing the difference between Crips and Bloods graffiti tags, and my junior high school had photo IDs to keep gang members out—soon afterward, they installed metal detectors.
I saw fights and drug deals on an almost daily basis, and was stabbed with a metal hair pick in the girl’s bathroom because I looked at someone ‘funny’
The school was a huge circle with grey walls, and I was told that the one-way hall design was based on an overcrowded prison. I saw fights and drug deals on an almost daily basis, and was stabbed with a metal hair pick in the girl’s bathroom because I looked at someone ‘funny’.
When my mom and dad separated, I moved with her 600 miles away to Georgia. In our new town, a guy getting DUI on his riding lawnmower was big crime news.
A few years later, Dad sold his business and moved away to a safer area. Almost all of my childhood classmate’s families are gone now: Some couldn’t sell their homes due to a dead real estate market, so they boarded them up and left town.
The last holdout was my grandma, who didn’t want to leave her church. But after hiding in her dark bedroom in terror while watching her next-door neighbor’s home being invaded at gunpoint, she relocated near my dad.
The sad part is, I know that my story isn’t unique. Pine Bluff has the worst PR, but versions of this story are being played out all along the Delta region. This area, which covers parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, is one of the poorest in the country.
The childhood home I adored has been listed for months at a price that is comparable to what we sold it for more than 20 years ago – and there still no takers
Extreme poverty is a combination of several factors: People in the area traditionally worked on farms, but increased mechanization meant those jobs vanished. Most of the city’s largest employers have gone: At one point, The Pine Bluff Arsenal stored 12 per cent of the US Army’s original chemical weapons stockpile, but most of them have been destroyed.
The educational system is completely failing. And the people in charge of the city seem unwilling to accept how bad things have gotten. According to US News and World Report, the high school has a less than 30 per cent literacy rate. Even if the job situation improves, no one wants their children to be educated in a Lord of the Flies environment.
Articles about high crime rate don’t often address something that no one wants to talk about: The town’s long history of racial tension. After desegregation in the 1960s, some (predominantly white) families responded by creating private schools. For as long as I can remember, the city’s problems have been framed as black vs. white issue—but the color that really mattered was green. When the economy dies, the town soon follows.
After the jobs started going away, the schools closed and those who could get better jobs and opportunities went elsewhere and took a big chunk of the city’s tax base with them. Many who were left behind became stuck in a permanent recession.
A few of my old die-hard friends have stayed with them. Some hope that the new mayor will turn things around. The city is trying to change its image: I found a ‘Positively Pine Bluff’ promotional video on YouTube that appears to be narrated by Morgan Freeman. But with universally negative comments like ‘If you believe this video [you’re] on crack’ it appears that they they have a long road ahead of them.
Others are less optimistic. ‘It’s dead,’ a childhood friend told me. ‘Drive around. Or don’t, actually, because parts of it are worse than Baghdad.’
The last stop on my drive down memory lane was the most depressing. The childhood home I adored has been listed for months at a price that is comparable to what we sold it for more than 20 years ago ($124,900) and there still no takers. It’s being sold ‘as is’, and the beautiful wall my dad built appears to be crumbling.
I thought about knocking on the door, but I decided that I would rather hold onto my happy memories than risk seeing the house now. They say you can never go home again. Sadly, in this case I would never want to.