Today I was thinking about Pine Bluff, the southern Arkansas town where I did most of my growing up, and where I lived and worked until 1985. I had Google Maps open on my laptop, so I entered “501 Main St.Pine Bluff, AR”, just for kicks. A map came up with a photographic feature called Street View, which I was expecting because I have seen Street View before. What I was not expecting was what I was able to do with it.
I’m probably the last person in the world to discover this, but if you put your cursor at a distant point down the street in Street View and click, you will be transported to that point. By doing this over and over, I was able to traverse the entire length of Pine Bluff’s Main St., from Barraque St. to Harding Avenue, and I could see photographs of what it all looks like today. We hear a lot these days about how tough things are on “Main Street”, but I was not prepared for how bad things are on the real Main St. in my old home town.
There are only a handful of retail stores still in business on Main St. between Fourth Ave. and Second Ave. Burt’s Store for Men is one of them, in fact, it looks like they have expanded into the old Cohen’s Department Store, the building next door to the store I remember. Burt’s was my favorite place to buy clothes when I was in junior high school. If Burt’s is prospering, they should be congratulated, because they are one of the few. Most of the other stores around them are either empty, or they have been converted to county offices, title companies and other businesses that don’t depend on shoppers for survival.
After touring the north end of Main St. I pointed my cursor back at Fourth Ave. and clicked. In an instant I was looking at a picture of a bare wall on the side of an empty store. Thirty years ago there was an outdoor newsstand built against that wall. I liked to walk there from my office sometimes on warm afternoons. Downtown Pine Bluff was alive and thriving then. There was traffic on the streets and people shopping in the stores. It was busy and noisy, especially when a freight train rumbled by on the tracks in the middle of Fourth St., a rolling cacophony of horn blasts and rattles and squeals.
I moved the cursor another block to the south, to the corner of Fifth Ave. and Main, where the Simmons Bank complex now dominates the block. I used to stand at the window of my seventh-floor office in the Simmons Building and look down across Main Street at the stores of Henry Marx and Billy Bell. Both of them sold men’s clothing and they were right next door to each other. I always wondered if they got along. Both of their enterprises are distant memories now, having been replaced by the St. Jude Full Gospel Church. Can I get an amen.
Across Fifth Ave., on the northwest corner of Main St., is the Hotel Pines. Long before 1985, the Pines was an abandoned, hulking relic of downtown’s better days. I have no memory of any commerce or other activity happening above the ground floor of the hotel in all my years of living in Pine Bluff. Occasionally over the years, a well-intentioned optimist would float a plan for resurrecting the old building, convinced they could turn it into a prosperous show-place, but restoration would have cost millions of dollars and none of the ideas ever came to pass. It’s probably just as well. Any chance of success was slim. The forces aligned against it were just too strong.
At Sixth Ave. and Main, Central Pharmacy, the drug store where my grandfather had worked as a pharmacist, was on the northwest corner, but it has been torn down, as have the Malco Theater and The Maru, where my wife bought her wedding dress. There is a new building there now, occupied, I believe, by the Chamber of Commerce and some other bureaucratic agencies. I don’t envy the people who work for the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce, and I am not going to insult them by trying to be funny at their expense, but going to work there every day must be the occupational equivalent of beating your head against a wall.
The building that was Dutch King’s service station is still on the southeast corner of Sixth and Main. It looked like it was vacant. I took our car there once because it was low on oil. Dutch pulled out the dipstick, studied it for a second and said, “I’m not putting my clean oil in there. When was the last time you changed this?” Is that any way to talk to a customer? Back in those days I didn’t take care of our cars like I should have. Life is an accumulation of lessons learned, and that was one of mine.
South beyond Eight Street, the Post Office, Civic Center and Sahara Temple look the same as they did in 1985, but the rest of it is very depressing. Razed lots and shuttered stores can be found on almost every block. The drive-thru liquor store I frequented when I was newly married and living in a duplex on Thirteenth Street is still there, more proof that booze is the best business for any economy, but if it weren’t for the auto parts stores, a half-dozen fast food restaurants and a couple of furniture stores, there would be no commerce at all for a stretch of at least nine blocks. Even the pawn shop is closed.
Finally, mercifully, the cursor transported me to the end of Main St. where it intersects with Harding Avenue. I could see the Sherwin-Williams paint store is still in business, but what I wanted to see most stands just to the east of Sherwin-Williams. It is perhaps Pine Bluff’s most iconic structure, and it is still there.
It says a lot about a town when an advertising billboard is widely viewed as its most notable landmark, but as before, I will not go for the easy joke. Even my daughter, who was only two-years old when we moved away, remembers the Sunbeam Bread billboard and Little Miss Sunbeam. She swings back and forth on her mechanical swing, year after year, through good times, bad times, and now the really bad times, a cartoon in perpetual motion, oblivious of the decline occurring all around her. I don’t know how long she has been there, but my own memories go back to when I was a child in the late 1950’s. Today she represents Pine Bluff’s last unblemished connection to a better time, the days when Main Street was a thriving, prosperous source of community pride. At least that’s how I see it from 475 miles and 26 years away. Some may say I have forfeited my right to judge. I would be hard-pressed to argue.