Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.
Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”
Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading
Fridays are tour days for folks who attend the Society for Industrial Archeology’s annual conferences. This year’s conference was in Portland, Me., and I signed up for the urban tour: Portland. Stops included a high-tech chicken processing plant and a manufacturer that produces specialized generated rotor (gerotor) parts for pumps. The Portland Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum located in the historic Portland Company complex in the city’s Eastern Waterfront district was another stop. The most memorable site for me wasn’t on the itinerary, though.
After a ride along the 19th-century rail corridor, I slipped away from the other SIAers who spent an hour in the railroad museum. I set out to get some photos of an urban landscape in transition via gentrification and redevelopment. On my way back to the museum, I detoured to a side area in the Portland Company complex where I saw a sign for The Portland Forge. A couple of hundred feet down a narrow alley formed by the brick Portland Company buildings on one side and Portland’s 19th-century seawall on the other I met blacksmith Sam Smith, The Portland Forge’s proprietor and a business owner facing possible displacement by encroaching gentrification.
Portland Company complex. May 16, 2016. The Portland Forge is located at the end of the alley where the car is parked.
Sam Smith (left) and an apprentice in front of his shop.