An Alaskan in Alabama (continued…)

November continued…
Examining the remains of the capitol building made me curious, once more, about the history of this town: once deemed a proper site for a capitol, but certainly not a busy metropolis today. I recently discovered a local history room in the public library and wandered around, noting the names of local authors, some familiar from their association with current university buildings and programs. One of these authors, whose name now graces a prestigious Renaissance studies program, also had an interest in the South and its long, vexed history, devoting three books to Jefferson Davis, who served as a U.S. senator and as the president of the Confederate States during the Civil War. Was he seeking a connection between those older European texts and the more recent American past? Perhaps he was exploring a connection between texts such as Shakespeare’s history plays with their complex, often-violent characters, tangled kinships, and meditations on power, ambition, and destruction and the story of Davis and the Civil War? I should look into this and do some research, but instead I move on, examining a few paintings, more books, and maps.

A map of the town around 1880 shows that today’s downtown is much the same size as it was then: two blocks plus of two-story buildings down a broad main street that now bears another name. Looking at the map and its finely drawn details and familiar/unfamiliar names, I try to imagine the sense of progress that filled the town in the 19th century when it was a seat of government and the home of a bustling river trade, with a railroad running right thorough town, and manufacturing and agriculture booming. Now, only echoes of that past remain in pieces of old docks along the river, references to factories/manufacturing on the history markers, the mansions of prominent families along a busy road, and those few sad columns of the old capitol on the top of the hill, overlooking the river and the small community on the other side, where a neon sign glows, advertising oysters and seafood. There are about three blocks of businesses in downtown, with the addition of a few streets that peel off from that main street, on which more businesses, or their remains, boarded up, can be found. People tell me there used to be a Sears downtown, and you can see where there was a hardware store: a place to buy nails, wood, home goods—I could certainly use it now. An old movie theatre, the only one of three to remain, sits on a corner, its lights still flashing at night, and there’s a stately red brick and marble city hall, proudly flying the U.S. and state flag. The town is not a political or economic hub anymore; now, it is strictly a university town, and while I like universities, the town itself feels strangely ghost-like, as if all the energy, money, history itself has flowed down that main street, now called University, toward a new, huge, and growing, boom town: numerous academic buildings, the Quad, the president’s mansion, and the stadium, rising like some vast, improbable spaceship above the small brick buildings that surround it.

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