Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.
On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.
Our visit was centered in the city of Danville, which Deb Fallows wrote about here. Danville is the major city within Pittsylvania County, which is geographically one of the largest in the state. The city’s population is about 40,000, split roughly 50-50 black and white. In its day, it was one of the richest places in the Piedmont area, and a major center of first the tobacco and then the textile industries. Danville was also, for a one-week period in April 1865, the final capital city of the Confederacy—with implications down to the present, as we’ll explore in upcoming dispatches.
Now textiles have disappeared almost entirely, and tobacco hangs on in much-reduced form. (These days, the main tobacco-business force is JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which has bought brands like Natural American Spirit and Benson & Hedges, and has expanded its warehouse and processing facilities in Danville.) While Virginia’s population has boomed—roughly 4 million in the 1960 census, 6 million in 1990, 8 million in 2010, and rising—Danville’s is a little smaller now than it was in the 1960s. This part of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina has endured the simultaneous collapse of the three industries that were the mainstays of its many small towns: tobacco, textiles, and furniture making. Danville’s comparative good fortune is that it didn’t have as many furniture factories to lose as some neighboring places did.
And yet: Danville is now benefiting from another aspect of its battered industrial heritage, which it is beginning to turn into an important city asset. How? Please read on.
Tobacco got going in this region because of a combination of soil and slavery. The soil in central-southern Virginia is part of a belt reaching through North Carolina and Kentucky that is exceptionally favorable for tobacco. (The same territory also favors hemp, which is becoming the basis of another new industry. Stay tuned for more on that, too.) Before the Civil War, it was the home of large tobacco plantations and correspondingly large slave populations.
A fascinating map at Danville’s Museum of Fine Arts and History correlates Virginia’s county-by-county black population in the early 1860s with levels of support by the white population for joining the Confederacy. (It’s different from the map shown above but based on similar data.) The rugged Appalachian west of the state, including what later peeled off to become West Virginia, had very few plantations, low black populations, and also less support for secession. The tobacco heartland around Danville had more plantations, with more slaves, and (among the whites) stronger secessionist views.
After the Civil War, the tobacco industry remained, having shifted from a slave basis to sharecropping and low-wage labor. Auction houses, warehouses, and processing facilities for tobacco transformed the city’s downtown. Many of them were huge brick structures on the streets near the Dan River. An academic history of the area’s economic evolution, Danville, Virginia: And the Coming of the Modern South, by Michael Swanson, details the way that the tobacco industry shaped the physical and economic contours of the region through the 1800s—and how the textile industry, drawn down from New England by the search for lower wages (and hydropower along southern rivers), shaped them after that.
The Danville area, while retaining its tobacco business, also become one of the most important textile centers in the country. An operation eventually known as the Dan River Mills was by the mid-20th century one of the largest textile mills anywhere.
A central theme of Swanson’s book is how rough life within a mill town could be, for people other than owners and managers. Swanson refers to W. J. Cash’s famous coruscation of southern mill culture in his book The Mind of the South, published just before World War II. Part of Cash’s description is so floridly overdone that I won’t quote it in full. (It’s no surprise that as a young man Cash wrote for H. L. Mencken’s usually florid The American Mercury.) Here is a comparatively restrained sample:
The working conditions in the Southern cotton mills were extremely unfavorable. Men and women and children were cooped up for most of their waking lives in the gray light of glazed windows, and in rooms which were never effectively ventilated, since cotton yarns will break in the slightest draft—in rooms which, because of the use of artificial humidification, were hardly less than perpetual steam baths.
The harvest was soon at hand. By 1900 the cotton-mill worker was a pretty distinct physical type in the South; a type in some respects perhaps inferior to even that of the old poor white, which in general had been his to begin with. A dead-white skin, a sunken chest, and stooping shoulders were the earmarks of the breed …
The women were characteristically stringy-haired and limp of breast at twenty, and shrunken hags at thirty or forty. And the incidence of tuberculosis, of insanity and epilepsy, and, above all, of pellagra, the curious vitamin-deficiency disease which is nearly peculiar to the South, was increasing.
The mills’ influence was wide-ranging and profound. Businesses in the area discouraged higher education and brought in workers straight out of public schools. They effectively separated the region’s work force by race—mainly blacks as tobacco workers, whites in the mills—which reduced possibilities for labor cooperation, while reinforcing segregation. Nonetheless, greater Danville was the scene of repeated labor-related and racial strife for half a century after the Civil War, through the Reconstruction era and the beginning of labor organization.
Then, during the civil-rights era of the 1960s, it was again a battleground. Despite the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 decreeing an end to “separate but equal” segregated schools, public education and most other aspects of Danville’s life were rigidly segregated into the 1960s. After civil-rights protests and brutal police response in the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said that three places where he would focus his efforts would be Montgomery and Birmingham, in Alabama, and Danville.
The main civil-rights confrontation in Danville, on June 10, 1963, was known as “Bloody Monday,” when police used fire hoses and billy clubs against demonstrators. A local grand jury also indicted many of the demonstrators under a pre–Civil War–era law, passed in response to the John Brown abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, that made it a crime to incite “the colored population to acts of violence or war against the white population.”
Just this past week—yes, I mean in June 2019, or 56 years after the original Bloody Monday event—Danville’s police chief, Scott Booth, offered a public “heartfelt apology” to the city’s African American community. He did so at an event honoring Apostle Lawrence G. Campbell Sr., a prominent civil-rights and religious leader, who with his wife had been beaten during the 1963 protests. Campbell has recently published a memoir, 1963: A Turning Point in Civil Rights. In it, he points out how inflexibly segregated the city was in his youth, and the aspects that have changed now: a black mayor, a black superintendent of schools, black members of the city council, and overall a city that “is totally integrated, and blacks are very much a part of its growth.” Like other parts of America, Campbell writes, Danville still exists in “two communities, black and white,” especially in religious organizations. But “it’s come a long way” from 1963, he said at this week’s event with Chief Booth.
Why go through this difficult history? On general principles, because it’s true, and because the background of 19th- and 20th-century strife has shaped the social, economic, and physical realities of the town confronting its 21st-century future. Also, I think it’s worth remembering that an imagined golden age in which households depended on big-factory jobs had its severe drawbacks, too.
But in specific, this background is significant in Danville because it helps explain a highly noticeable aspect of modern Danville’s possibilities: the abundance of historic downtown structures, legacies of the tobacco and textile age, that have outlived their original economic function but give the city new prospects today.
“We actually have more antique architecture than downtown Charlotte or downtown Atlanta”— even though those cities are vastly larger, Rick Barker, of Danville, told me last week. Barker, who is now in his 50s, grew up in the area, worked in sales and packaging design for years, but over the past decade has become one of the leading entrepreneurs behind a revival of former tobacco and textile buildings in what is now called Danville’s River District.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, it was popular in lots of places to tear down antique buildings for surface-level parking,” Barker said. “Well, in the ’70s and ’80s, Danville was still a mill town. We had a mill that was thriving, with thousands of employees.”
Then, through the 1990s and early 2000s, the rest of the state took off in a way that left Danville and Southside behind. “At one point we led the state because we had an agricultural-based economy,” Barker told me. “Now, with the booms in northern Virginia, and the Tidewater, and Richmond, we’ve been left out as a mill town in an ag region. And that mattered because [during the recent economic crisis] there was no reason to tear the buildings down. By that point, we didn’t need parking for anything.”
So during one destructive wave of downtown demolitions, Danville didn’t want to tear down buildings, because they were still profitable. And during the second wave, it couldn’t afford to, because it had so many other problems.
“What we tended to do was just cover them up—just put aluminum on top of an antique facade and say it looks ‘modern,’” Barker told me. “Now it turns out that the aluminum was a pretty good protective cover.”
Starting about 10 years ago, Barker and others in Danville began peeling back the facades. The next installment will describe what they’ve found, how they’re paying for it, where they’re aiming, and what this effort might mean for the future of the town.
Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)
Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed strangely “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.
In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.
Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.
“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”
What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.
1) How it started. “I think where things really got going was when we finally tore down the Downtowner,” Karl Stauber told me early this month.
For the past dozen years, Stauber has been head of the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF, which was founded in 2005 with the $200 million proceeds from the sale of a regional hospital to a private health-care firm and has been a major force in educational, cultural, and architectural development in the area ever since. (A year ago, Stauber announced that he would step down as the foundation’s CEO this summer; a DRF official named Clark Casteel will succeed him. For the record, we first learned about Danville, and talked with Stauber and Lori Merricks of the DRF, last year during a book-tour event and regional-development conference that their foundation sponsored. These new accounts are based on our recent return to Danville for a reporting trip. )
The Downtowner, a standard “mid-century modern” motel, had long been an eyesore and blight-generator right in the center of Danville. Ever since it went out of business in the 1980s, city renovation plans had started with proposals to knock it down. Yes, this might seem at odds with efforts to preserve the 19th-century shops and warehouses in the vicinity. But to oversimplify: most people believed that the old buildings had timeless-classic potential, and the Downtowner did not. Take a look, below, and judge for yourself.
In 2012, the city government, the regional foundation, and other organizations were finally able to act. “That really was a turning point,” Stauber told me. “The blighted structure symbolized what was holding us back. It represented the idea that nothing we tried would ever work. And we finally did away with it.” He went on to list other buildings, including a very popular downtown Y built with a view of the Dan River (described by Deb Fallows here), that, by contrast, “symbolized what was possible.”
Around the time demolition crews began taking apart the Downtowner, only about 400 people worked or lived in downtown buildings in the vicinity. This area had been informally known as the tobacco warehouse district; about the time of the demolition, the city started referring to it as the River District. “Within five years [of the renovation effort], that number went to 4,000,” Stauber told me. “It’s right around 6,000 people in the River District now.”
Rick Barker, the entrepreneur and property developer, offered a complementary measurement. “There’s about five million square feet of building inventory in the River District,” he told me. “Back when the River District project began, probably four million square feet was entirely vacant, or under-utilized. There’s less than two million feet left now. So half the work has been done.”
Hard economic and demographic indications — occupancy rates, office openings, retail and entertainment sites—obviously are crucial to judging any downtown area’s prospects. “But I keep thinking of the less-scientific measures,” Stauber told me. His foundation’s office is in a restored brick building that once housed tobacco operations, a block from a downtown plaza and fountain. “Ten years ago, you’d hear people say that they would only come downtown to pay parking tickets or get someone out of jail,” he said. But high school proms had happened on the weekend before our visit, and students by the hundreds came to the fountain to have their prom pictures taken. “That tells you something about what people perceive as the cool place to be.”
It would be obvious to any visitor that downtown Danville still has a long way to go. But it’s obvious to us how much further it has gone already than many other places we’ve seen.
2) How it is financed. This will be old news to anyone involved in commercial real estate. But for us, visits to recovering (or decaying) downtowns have been an ongoing education in the role of tax policy as a prime mover in starting or changing urban trends. (For instance, see this previous report by our colleague John Tierney on Allentown, Pennsylvania.)
Specifically in Danville, the tax policies that matter have been from two states, and the federal government. The states are Virginia, which offers builders a 25% tax credit for construction costs on historic-preservation projects like those in Danville — and neighboring North Carolina, which also had such a program but cut it back substantially five years ago. Both state credits come on top of a 20% federal tax credit for preservation projects, and in effect they dramatically reduced the capital costs for developers interested in restoring warehouses, abandoned factories, old shops, etc. (Do such tax preferences amount to “picking winners”? Sure. But in a tax regime that includes provisions like the carried-interest deduction for hedge-fund managers, I’ll defend the public benefits of this preference any time.)
The Virginia program fostered renewal efforts like those in Danville (and Roanoke and Lynchburg and Charlottesville and elsewhere). The cuts in the North Carolina program (though later partly reversed) enticed developers like those who had transformed tobacco and textile works in Durham and Winston-Salem to look out of state. Virginia was right next door.
Lower construction costs obviously mean that developers can charge tenants lower rent, which in turn lets buildings be occupied more quickly, which in turn adds customers and vitality to the downtown.
3) A test case: Craghead Street. “Coming to Danville now, it’s probably hard for you to imagine what this street used to look like,” the designer and developer Rick Barker, told me at his office in the 500 block of Craghead Street, in the River District.
“I can tell you that just five years ago, there were not two people in this city who wanted this building that we’re sitting in right now, or anything in the block.” The building we were sitting in, which Barker has turned into his office headquarters and is shown in a night shot below, now has a stylish exterior and especially interior hipness that would seem at home in any major city in North America or Europe. That office is on one end of the 500 block of Craghead Street; the shops and buildings along the entire block are part of a renovation effort, driven significantly by historic-preservation tax credits, that Barker’s company has underway.
“This street was named for Doctor Craghead, who was one of Danville’s first city council members,” Barker told me. “Five years ago we said that we wanted to make sure that people stopped calling it Crackhead Street. Our goal was to take the least desirable commercial block in the Dan River District, and make it the most desirable business address in the city. And we are on the way.”
At the other end of that block of Craghead, a restaurant called Mucho has opened up. A promotional video from the opening, which you can see below (or here), shows some of the reaction from both black and white patrons, in a city whose population is about 50-50 black and white.
How much further will the downtown renewal go? As always, it depends. But the distance traveled already is much greater than we would have guessed before we visited.
Two previous reports, first here and then here, described the bittersweet heritage of old tobacco and textile buildings in the former mill town of Danville, Virginia.
The bitter was obviously the loss of what had been the city’s economic mainstays. The potentially sweet was that Danville never got around to demolishing the old structures—and now is beginning to turn them to new use.
A reader who used to live in Omaha rues the different decision that city made:
I am a historian generally by inclination, and an architectural historian by profession, and so I heartily agree with any and nearly all efforts to adapt old, historic buildings to new purposes …. This make sense both in the place-making and the economic sense.
I thought I’d share with you, although you probably already know [JF note: I didn’t], the unfortunate case of Omaha—the opposite, in some ways, as the experience of Danville.
Omaha had a large group of buildings downtown in what they call “Jobbers Canyon.” The area was full of warehouses for the many wholesale and provision companies that were headquartered in Omaha, which (along with Council Bluffs) was a rail hub for Union Pacific Railroad.
What is perhaps most infuriating about Omaha’s case is that the Jobbers Canyon area survived the worst excesses of Omaha’s version of urban renewal, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. I wasn’t there at the time to know whether the National Register nomination was written as an independent act, or was in response to noises that the area was under threat. Possibly both.
So the district was listed in 1986, and in the meantime, the packaged foods company based in Omaha, started looking for a new location for its headquarters. They settled on the area near the Missouri River, the site of Jobbers Canyon Historic District.
The CEO of Conagra was quoted at the time as decrying the area’s “ugly, red brick buildings.” He even went so far, basically, as to blackmail the city, saying that if they weren’t allowed a free hand to build as they wished, Conagra might go elsewhere, perhaps Chicago.
So the city caved—and after the usual legal maneuvers, the district was essentially demolished (parts or it were retained), Conagra built its new headquarters (low, horizontal, suburban-style buildings on a campus with an artificial lake) and the Jobbers Canyon Historic District was de-listed from the National Register in 2002.
The upshot of all of that is that a few years ago, as I was leaving Omaha for a new job in suburban Washington, D.C., Conagra ended up leaving Omaha for—you guessed it—Chicago, and the Merchandise Mart to be specific.
A 2015 report by Christopher Burbach in the Omaha World-Herald, confirming the reader’s rueful account, is here. A sample:
Omaha made a painful sacrifice to entice ConAgra Foods to build its headquarters downtown in the late 1980s.
City and business leaders agreed to tear down more than 20 historical buildings in Jobbers Canyon—the largest demolition ever of a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
In doing so, Omaha erased six city blocks of its history as a center for distributing goods being shipped by rail to the West.
And it wiped out the potential for redeveloping a unique urban canyon of warehouse buildings into businesses and loft apartments in the manner of Omaha’s Old Market.
Omaha is obviously much bigger and more bustling than Danville. But on this particular point, the lesson for other cities would be: Learn in a positive way from Danville, and in a cautionary way from Omaha.
We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.
After breakfast, we gratefully followed one of the Rotarians to Gatewood Auto and Truck Repair to see Gary, whom we heard was very good and always fair, hoping he could fix the passenger window of our 19-year-old Audi, which was suddenly stuck open. Gary fixed the window, a repair that soon seemed minor compared with the day’s second auto surprise, when the bottom shell fell off the underside of the car, right onto the street. (I learned that the official term for this part was the “belly pan.”) Thank God for the networks of small towns, I thought, and for Gary Gatewood, and the friendly folks at Mr. Tire, who repaired that belly-pan issue.
I continued a quarter-mile down the road to see Karen Harris, the executive director of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry serving low-income people along this southernmost border where Virginia meets North Carolina. On top of their other problems, rural areas that have lost industries and suffered long-term economic decline, like this part of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina, often have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related disorders. God’s Storehouse illustrates one response. During our travels around the country, we have seen groups in many regions coming together to use strength in numbers to imagine ideas and create effective action around health, economic development, education, the arts, and many other areas.
God’s Storehouse is part of the expansive Health Collaborative of the Dan River Region. It includes some 50 member organizations and 90 individuals, who approach the health and well-being of its residents to include not only healthy eating, but also access to health care, an active lifestyle, and inviting places to live, work, and play.
God’s Storehouse opened in 1987, a collaborative effort of many faith communities around Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County. Pooling resources, they figured, would be a win for all.
It was barely 9:00 a.m. by the time of my visit, and the doors were not yet officially open. But the staff and volunteers were already busy putting out fires (figuratively) and preparing boxes of food for the day’s distribution.
Harris’s phones rang, and people popped in and out. One call was particularly time sensitive. A regular volunteer who ran the pickup routes from some of the several local grocery stores that donated to God’s Storehouse was ill and couldn’t make that day’s run. Harris was in search of a replacement—in a hurry—to transport especially the perishables to their warehouse. She scored an easy win. Her first caller would do the job, not only today but until the regular driver could return to duty.
The pantry bustles, serving well over 5,000 households, with 23,000 boxes of food a month. That translates into more than 750,000 pounds of food moved.
Recipients meet one of various criteria. Some are easy to identify, those who already receive benefits through federal or state assistance programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid, or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Others qualify by various other standards, including proof of income.
I waited a few minutes in the reception area, which was set up like most hospital or DMV spaces I had visited, with a general check-in desk, open seating, and small, semi-protected cubbies, where people can talk privately with staff.
The clients, Harris said, included each and every kind of person you might imagine: the elderly, poor, single-parent families, recently laid off, those looking for work. Danville’s statistics (from the 2017 Regional Report Card compiled with 2016 data by the Danville Regional Fund) on all of the above bear witness to the need. Some 24 percent live at poverty level, (11 percent in Virginia overall); 20 percent are older than 65, (14 percent in Virginia); 60 percent of children live in single-parent households (30 percent in Virginia); and the unemployment rate is almost 9 percent (5 percent in Virginia overall). Also from the report, the 2016 median income in Danville was $33,600, compared with $65,015 in Virginia.
Harris told me a few stories that brought some of these statistics to life: those who would drop by to say that they had found a job, and wouldn’t need to come by anymore; the numbers of working poor who worried in anticipation of possibly losing their jobs during the government shutdown of early 2017. On shifting demographics, Harris told me that during her seven years at God’s Storehouse, she had noticed an uptick in the elderly.
“One day I would like to be out of business,” Harris said, “But I don’t think that is going to happen.”
The back warehouse was buzzing as volunteers organized, sorted, and boxed the donations. Some of the contents were predictable, like the USDA allotments destined for red boxes, for those on official government assistance. I saw pallets of canned goods. According to the Emergency Food Assistance Program website, the kinds of food distributed also include boxed cereals, beans, dried and long-life milk, rice, grits, oats, canned meat and fish, and on and on.
Some of the food was in blue boxes. These, I learned, were for recipients without the official government designations.
The food at God’s Storehouse included local donations, which came from stores, farmers, markets, individuals with gardens, restaurants, and food purchased by God’s Storehouse, all of which could be more fresh, seasonal, and varied. I peered into boxes with popcorn, bread, cookies, Little Debbie snacks, chips, fruit, tomatoes, greens, peanut butter, mac and cheese, rice, beans, and so much more. Bigger households got more goods in their boxes.
I had seen a similar pantry operation, also with a faith-based origin, several years ago in western Kansas. Then I accompanied Sister Janice of the Dominican Order of Peace, on her food delivery rounds in the meat-packing community of Garden City. The scale of operation I saw in Danville was much bigger than what I had seen in Kansas. In Garden City, we went first to the small food pantry, loaded a half dozen boxes into Sister Janice’s car, and made the rounds to homes in the trailer parks and modest neighborhoods with mainly Latino residents. The deliveries were a convenience to the recipients but they came with concerns. Sister Janice worried about leaving the boxes on the steps of trailers in the blistering Kansas heat, hoping someone would arrive home to take the perishable goods inside before they spoiled.
God’s Storehouse couldn’t support a delivery system, and getting the boxes into the hands that needed them could be challenging. Lucky recipients lived in nearby affordable housing. Others lived far away—as much as a 2-hour bus ride. Some arrived with friends with cars. Others drove themselves if they had enough gas money. Some could afford gas for the trip only once a month, Harris told me. Taxies and Uber were out of the question.
God’s Storehouse collaborated with many organizations around town. The Malcolm Huckabee Backpacks Program stuffed backpacks with a weekend’s worth of food for 400 Danville elementary school children to take home on Fridays. (Nearly 75 percent of students in Danville public elementary schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Regional Report Card says 37 percent of children in Danville lived in poverty in 2016, compared with 16 percent in Virginia overall.) The Virginia Cooperative Extension was holding a cooking class on site the day I visited. Their classes covered not only cooking, but also nutrition, budgeting, and healthy eating.
God’s Storehouse also connects its clientele to information and resources related to their needs, like affordable transportation and cancer prevention and treatments.
Abutting God’s Storehouse is the new Urban Farm, staffed when I visited by a young AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer named Morgan Zulinke. Morgan was newly arrived in Danville, straight out of Appalachian State University. She had just finished a week shadowing her VISTA predecessor, who had managed to turn this hardscrabble lot into one with promise of an agricultural future. He secured the large lot with a chain link fence, built a dozen or so raised garden beds, erected a domed, plastic-covered hothouse, built a small shed, and planted a few crops.
Morgan had her hands full figuring out how to sustain what had been accomplished and how to push forward. The natural soil was poor quality, so tough that she quickly dismissed the idea of even tilling it. Her shortlist was critical: She needed more dirt, mulch, and more helping hands for more raised beds. What had us both worried, looking at the forlorn sunflowers slumping heavily in the sun and parched earth, was simply water. The big barrel built to capture runoff from the roof of the small equipment shed hadn’t been very effective. There was only this much water, she gestured, suggesting about six inches worth of water in a three- or four-foot-tall barrel. Morgan had hooked up a hose to God’s Storehouse next door before, but she felt it wasn’t fair to tax their resources with big water bills.
We peered at the skies, willing the clouds to head this direction for even a shower. I kept looking upward the rest of the day. Later, as we headed out for the evening, the skies opened up for a downpour. I didn’t mind a bit. Gary Gatewood had gotten our car window closed, and the rain would at least buy some time for Morgan and her urban garden.
Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.
In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:
First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.
The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”
In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.
You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.
In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.
Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?
I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.
“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”
Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)
2) The role of the tobacco settlement: One of our favorite places is Danville is a complex known as the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. It’s a set of modern buildings on a hill near the Danville airport, east of downtown. The title of the institute may seem overly ambitious, but the existence of this research center represents a serious effort to correct a regional weakness, and to apply unusual resources to that end.
The weakness is Danville’s distance from established, big research universities. Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, is two-plus hours away by car, and so is the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Those in North Carolina are far enough away not to have Danville within their force field for attracting students and faculty, or fostering spin-off research companies. We heard time and again that the lack of higher-ed centers reflected the wishes of mill leadership during Danville’s long run as a textile-and-tobacco town. In those days, it was more convenient for the mills if the locals lacked choices in schooling and occupation.
The institute (as I’ll call it from here on) represents a conscious attempt to bring to the region much of what a university would provide—apart, of course, from the thousands of on-scene students. It has evolved to offer many of the spin-off functions you’d associate with a serious state university: research projects, start-up spaces, training partnerships with companies, alliances with local schools and NGOs, development centers for advanced manufacturing, and a general sense of involvement with the economic future of the community. You can read in detail about its five main divisions here. It is an impressive operation.
When I talked with the institute’s director, Mark Gignac, at the headquarters, he described projects similar to those we’d seen be successful elsewhere—and also one that was unique, the Industrial Hemp Summit. Industrial hemp uses have almost nothing to do with the liberalized marijuana laws in many states and a lot to do with potential commercial and scientific uses of hemp and its components. This is a subject that companies, universities, and governments around the world are taking very seriously because of its industrial- and health-care-related possibilities. And it is one in which some of the same areas of the country that have been economically battered by tobacco’s collapse enjoy natural advantages.
“Two hundred years ago, Virginia was the leading exporter of hemp in the world,” Gignac told me. The same sort of soil that favors tobacco is also good for hemp, which was traditionally used for rope and similar applications, especially in the sailing industry. “People get it confused with marijuana, but we’re talking about something different,” he said—the different versions involving fiber, CBD oil, and other hemp products. “It is important for people to understand that hemp is not just another agricultural product. Hemp is about improving human health.”
“It’s an agricultural crop that is super profitable, I mean super,” he said. “In the good old days, people used to say you could make $4,000 per acre growing tobacco. You can’t do that any more. But in hemp—we’re just getting started, but today you can make between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre, depending on the grade. So you don’t need a lot of acres. And the region here is perfect for this kind of crop.” For more details, you can join the queue to attend the next summit.
Now the larger point about why the institute exists in the first place. This organization that is helping figure out Virginia’s post-tobacco future was set up partly through proceeds from the tobacco industry, through the historic “tobacco settlement.”
Starting with Mississippi’s lawsuit in the mid-1990s, one state government after another began suing Big Tobacco companies because of smoking’s toll on public health. In 1998, as part of a sweeping “master settlement,” the major tobacco companies agreed to pay out a total of more than $200 billion (yes, billion) to more than 40 state governments over the following 25 years.
In most states that never had cigarette or tobacco industries, the money has mainly gone toward public-health efforts or anti-smoking campaigns. But in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, some of the money went toward compensating communities where tobacco growing or cigarette making had been pillars of the economy.
Danville originally grew on the tobacco business. Thus, it received extra payments—some of which went toward creating the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
In short: The Danville region’s transition to a new economy got a significant boost from shrewd reuse of after-effects of the old economy.
It makes you wonder what a “master opioid settlement” might do for the parts of the country that have suffered most grievously from this scourge.
3) Investment in broadband: To a degree that is hard to imagine from New York or San Francisco, smaller-town and inland-America communities suffer from too-slow, too-costly internet connections. Here’s a snooty coastal way to make the point: Running a web-based business in many parts of the U.S. is like trying to do the same thing via an airline’s in-flight Wi-Fi.
Danville is an exception. A dozen years ago, it began building a municipally owned high-speed fiber-optic network, which now offers lower-cost, higher-speed connections to existing and start-up businesses than in most communities of its location and size. That network is called nDanville, and you can read about its history and effects here.
A feature in Broadband Communities, called “Danville Transforms Its Economy With Fiber,” gives the overview, including the importance of Danville’s long history with city-owned (rather than privately run) utilities. That article, by Andrew Michael Cohill, said:
Danville’s ownership of its electric utility (it has been in the electric service business since 1876) gave it a significant advantage in deploying fiber. It is the largest of 15 municipalities in Virginia that own electric power distribution services … As in other fiber communities that own electric utilities, city ownership of utility poles eliminates negotiation of pole attachment fees and minimizes the impact of make-ready costs …
As with conventional transportation roadways, the city builds and maintains Danville’s digital roads, but private businesses use the system to deliver broadband services …
The nDanville high-performance fiber network has brought other jobs and businesses to Danville and has helped drive down the cost of Internet access, telephone service and TV service in the city.
“What’s unique is that we don’t sell services direct to the customer,” Jason Gray, the director of Danville Utilities, told me. “We provide the infrastructure, and private companies can compete.” The result, he said (and outsiders confirmed), was that households, start-ups, and established businesses in the community had faster, cheaper internet connections than in most other rural towns.
“It’s an attraction [for] economic development,” Gray told the Community Broadbandpodcast in 2015. “It’s one less thing we can check off our list—that we do have broadband, and we have scalable broadband that we can offer many different tiers of services, and whatever, basically, the company needs.” This is obviously not in itself the full answer to rural development, but it’s one more step.
Health conversion foundations offer one more tool for community development.
The “master settlement” for tobacco was the basis for one community’s equivalent of many of the advantages of a local university.
Investment in high-speed internet gives smaller, distant towns a better chance to compete for modern, high-value jobs.
This summer, Deb Fallows and I visited the southern-Virginia town of Danville, and the surrounding rural areas of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and the adjoining Caswell County, North Carolina. In its heyday, Danville was a thriving textile and tobacco community. The famed Dan River Mills operated along (you guessed it) the Dan River, which flows through the center of town and from which the town draws its name.
After the textile mills closed and much of the tobacco business collapsed, Danville went through a long decline—like many other communities in this part of the Piedmont region.
Over the past few years, a fascinating recovery has been under way: in the downtown, through reuse of abandoned mill and warehouse structures as new residential and office spaces; in areas that had lost mill jobs, through agricultural, chemical, and advanced-manufacturing start-ups; through creative use of money provided through the “tobacco settlement”; through advanced broadband capacities; and in other ways. You can read the set of articles that Deb and I did on Danville and its region here.
Because so much of the reason for Deb’s and my ongoing reporting is the hope that ideas and solutions that have been tried out in one place—like Muncie or Fort Wayne, Indiana; or Brownsville, Texas; or Eastport, Maine—might apply elsewhere, we’re gratified by efforts, like TheRoanoke Times’, to consider the experiences of other communities.
Danville still has plenty of troubles, of course—the Ikea plant there recently announced its closing. But economic development everywhere has always been several steps forward and several backwards at the same time. The big picture is that Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.
Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities. National politicians can be glib about assigning blame—be it foreign competition or rapacious corporations—but local leaders need to ignore all that and get to work fixing their own communities.
The lesson for voters: If your local elected officials aren’t doing that, replace them with ones who will. Danville provides a pretty good “up-by-the-bootstraps” example of what can be done.
Worth reading and considering, beyond Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the editor of The Roanoke Times.
American culture is becoming more and more preoccupied with nature. What if all the celebrations of the wild world are actually manifestations of grief?
It started, as so many of life’s journeys do, at IKEA. We went one day a few years ago to get bookshelves. We left with some Hemnes and a leafy impulse buy: a giant Dracaena fragrans. A couple of months later, delighted that we had managed to keep it alive, we brought in a spritely little ponytail palm. And then an ivy. A visiting friend brought us a gorgeous snake plant. I bought a Monstera online because it was cheap and I was curious. It arrived in perfect condition, in a big box with several warning labels: perishable: live plants.
Where is the line between “Oh, they have some plants” and “Whoa, they are plant people”? I’m not quite sure, but I am sure that we long ago crossed it. I would read the periodic news articles about Millennials and their houseplants and feel the soft shame of being seen. But I cherished our little garden. Potted plants have a quiet poetry to them, a whirl of wildness and constraint; they make the planet personal. I loved caring for ours. I loved noticing, over time, the way they stretched and flattened and curled and changed. I still do.
A new message proves too toxic for the Republican Party.
Last week, far-right Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar distanced themselves from a proposal to create an America First Caucus, after a document bearing the group’s name made reference to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Both Greene and Gosar told the press that they hadn’t seen the document and did not endorse its sentiments, after House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the effort, saying that America “isn’t built on identity, race, or religion,” and rejecting “nativist dog whistles.”
If seeing the party of Donald Trump distance itself from nativism is strange, it helps to understand that “Anglo-Saxon” is what you say when “whites only” is simply too inclusive.
He says he’s bisexual, but I’m worried he’s actually gay.
My boyfriend of a year says he is bisexual. I knew this from the beginning because we met on a dating app and he had that clearly stated in his profile. However, what I am concerned about is that he is using me as a stepping stone to acknowledging to himself that he is gay, or that he wants to be in a heterosexual relationship in order to reap the social benefits (having kids, generally being accepted in society, etc.).
I’m worried because (a) he’s never been with a man before and being with me means he won't get that experience (assuming he doesn't cheat) and (b) he comes from an extremely religious family in the South who would likely not be able to accept his homosexuality (or even bisexuality). I once asked him when we first started dating if he was with me to appease his family, whom he's very close with, and he said "Kind of" but that he still found me attractive.
If Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin seeks reelection, the race could be a key test of Trumpism’s viability in a swing state.
Ron Johnson has brought Republicans and Democrats together: They all seem to agree that they want the senator from Wisconsin to run for a third term next year.
Former President Donald Trump has weighed in from Mar-a-Lago: “Even though he has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does, I am giving my Complete and Total Endorsement to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin … He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run!” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, “is optimistic that Senator Ron Johnson will seek a third term,” a committee spokesperson, Lizzie Litzow, told me.
The Democrats are just as eager. “Johnson is villain No. 1 on the Senate map,” Stewart Boss, the national press secretary for the Democrats’ Senate-campaign arm, told me. The Trumpy positions Johnson has taken and his attacks on Joe Biden mean that the senator “should absolutely stand for reelection,” so Democrats can have the satisfaction of beating him, a former Biden-campaign aide told me, requesting anonymity because the comment wasn’t made on behalf of the campaign.
The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on all three counts he faced—but his trial was a demonstration of how difficult efforts at accountability remain.
Updated on April 20 at 8:26 p.m.
Jurors in Minnesota took barely 10 hours to convict Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 death of George Floyd on all three charges against him, offering a quick and decisive verdict in the most-watched police-misconduct case in years.
The speedy result, announced in a Minneapolis courtroom this afternoon, is a sign of how unusual the case is. The verdict is a victory for justice and a relief to people, politicians, and police in Minnesota and beyond, who had braced for unrest if Chauvin had been found not guilty. But the trial also demonstrates why the courts will remain a challenging venue to reform law enforcement in the United States.
“It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” President Joe Biden said this evening. “For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability.”
For weeks, Americans looked on as other countries grappled with case reports of rare, sometimes fatal blood abnormalities among those who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19. That vaccine has not yet been authorized by the FDA, so restrictions on its use throughout Europe did not get that much attention in the United States. But Americans experienced a rude awakening this week when public-health officials called for a pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, after a few cases of the same, unusual blood-clotting syndrome turned up among the millions of people in the country who have received it.
The world is now engaged in a vaccination program unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, and with it, unprecedented scrutiny of ultra-rare but dangerous side effects. An estimated 852 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered across 154 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. Last week, the European Medicines Agency, which regulates medicines in the European Union, concluded that the unusual clotting events were indeed a side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine; by that point, more than 220 cases of dangerous blood abnormalities had been identified. Only half a dozen cases have been documented so far among Americans vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and a causal link has not yet been established. But the latest news suggests that the scope of this problem might be changing.
The domestic slave trade was no sideshow in our history, and slave traders were not bit players on the stage.
Isaac Franklin spent part of Christmas Day 1833 assessing his company’s operations and making plans for the future. Writing from New Orleans to one of his business partners in Virginia, Franklin took a few moments out of his holiday to report that he had rented a new showroom in the city from which he would soon start making sales, and that sales up the Mississippi River at the company’s branch in Natchez, Mississippi, were going swimmingly.
Franklin had just come from Natchez, and he was happy to relay the news that he had seen “first rate prices and profits,” realized nearly $100,000, and likely outdone all of his competitors put together. He was also collecting outstanding debts from customers to whom he had extended credit, and he promised that he would soon send along some money, though he told his partner that he ought to consider rustling up additional funds from his banking connections if he could. Franklin wanted “four hundred more slaves this season,” and keeping the supply chain steady did not come cheap.
How Biden viewed the start of America’s post-9/11 wars may inform his future decisions on the use of force.
The original sin of the war in Iraq was going to war in Iraq. And the original sin of the war in Afghanistan was going to war in Iraq.
In September 2001, when Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I was the policy adviser for the stretch of Asia that included Afghanistan. By 9 a.m. on 9/11, I felt certain that al-Qaeda (which was based in Afghanistan) was behind the attacks—but that we’d end up invading Iraq anyway.
I was a year and a half off. And that interim period was the only time the mission in Afghanistan ever stood a real chance. This week, President Biden announced that all United States forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. To understand his decision to get out, one has to understand the decision to get in—and how that choice was quickly undermined by the invasion of another country.
Inequality has seemingly caused many American parents to jettison friendships and activities in order to invest more resources in their kids.
Over the past few decades, American parents have been pressured into making a costly wager: If they sacrifice their hobbies, interests, and friendships to devote as much time and as many resources as possible to parenting, they might be able to launch their children into a stable adulthood. While this gamble sometimes pays off, parents who give themselves over to this intensive form of child-rearing may find themselves at a loss when their children are grown and don’t need them as much.
Prior generations didn’t need to be as preoccupied with their children’s well-being or future. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s, my brothers and I were as luxuriously removed from our parents’ minds as they were from ours. It was the gilded age of childhood freedom. My brothers and I consumed hours of television and ate staggering amounts of sugar—for breakfast. We vanished each summer morning, biked back for lunch, and then disappeared again ’til dusk. My parents also had a life. My mother played mah-jongg weekly with “the girls” and went out every weekend with my father without calling it “date night.” My dad played squash on weekends at the downtown YMCA and didn’t seem to worry about whether my brothers and I felt neglected.
Beards, scars, red clothes, and other secrets of attraction
Hot or not? The question of whom we’re attracted to and why has long confounded humankind’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and reality-show contestants.
Scads of studies suggest that those of us looking for Mr. or Ms. Right may actually be looking for Mr. Facial Symmetry or Ms. Ideal Waist-to-Hip Ratio (about 0.7 for women). [1, 2] But other research suggests that whether a trait is attractive depends on the type of connection you’re looking for. For example, women in one study found men with facial scars more appealing than other men for short-term relationships, but not for long-term ones.  In another study, men with beards had an edge among women seeking long-term relationships—a finding that might give clean-shaven guys with scars an idea about how to turn a one-night stand into something lasting. (If all of this sounds heteronormative, it is: Almost all research on attraction involves straight people.)