The House on Main Street

Life after the tornado is very quiet. It was three weeks ago that several devastating tornados touched down here. Coming back here has been truly heartbreaking.

The NPR station is off the air. The cable is out. The DSL doesn’t work. It’s so awfully quiet. My complaints are paltry compared to the suffering of many here.

Yesterday I drove downtown, which was blocked off for anyone but rescue workers and media people before I left. My lawyers’ (both the one that I worked for and the one that represented me on a legal matter) offices are all boarded up. I wondered where my file was, since I had heard that every thing -including furniture and office equipment – had gone flying out of the window that horrible night. “It looked like downtown Baghdad,” my lawyer was quoted in the media as having said. I wondered what kind of karma brought this to our city.

There is a section of Main Street that is a historic preservation area of once very grand homes that are, now, at least 100 years old. During the Christmas season, the handful of remaining residents go all out, decorating their homes and it is (or it was) quite an attraction.

There was a wonderful home on that street that I once dreamed of living in. But the house had been owned by, from all reports, a “crazy old lady” who’d died in the early 1990s. Before that, she had rented out rooms (each bedroom upstairs had it’s own juryrigged kitchen) and in years before that she had rented it out as a fraternity house to a college that has long since – like many other businesses and churches – moved out of the downtown area.

While she was sick and in the years since her death, the house had been abandoned and uncared for. There was a solid mahogany staircase that literally would take your breath away. Her son had been trying to sell it sporadically; he was practically giving it away just to get it off his hands. We had a contractor come out to inspect the building and give us an estimate of what it would cost to bring the place to a liveable standard. Our contractor (who has in the years since become a good friend; we trust him a lot) told us that it would cost about $250,000 to repair, after which time we’d have a $80,000 house. This was obviously out of the question.

I knew that there had to be grant money available for a project like this, but I didn’t know where to begin to try to find that money. I made numerous, perhaps hundreds, of phone calls to various city and state officials, trying to get the information I needed. My recollection of this time period is mostly a blur. Actually it was something I’d pretty much like to forget about, because it was so painful. The last antebellum house here fell to the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, because the owner couldn’t figure out how to get the funding to restore it. No bank would loan the money.

A couple of community-minded folks brought one of the old theatres, the Paramount, hoping to restore it in the way that the Fox Theatre in Atlanta or the Orpheum in Memphis, were restored. The Paramount was separated by a shared wall from the Malco theatre next door. They would have bought the Malco, if they could have, but there was some complication over a 99-year land lease that no one could seem to figure out. The theatres are long gone now, and yes, they put a parking lot where two majestic old theatres once stood.

“They are taking away all our childhood memories!” complained some lifelong residents to me. This was about the time that they scheduled a demolition implosion of one of the tallest office buildings in town. The Woolworth’s, and it’s lunch counter where brave young men sat at in the early 1960s even though they were prohibited by the “White’s Only” signs from doing so, was also long gone.

I spoke to the city manager (in one of my numerous phone calls) who had a relocated here in the late 1980s. He had a large part, in fact the only part, in restoring the Carnegie Library, which was a precious gift of Andrew Carnegie to the people of this town. Andrew Carnegie felt that knowledge was power; but the library had been left abandoned, decaying and crumbling.

What is going on here? I wondered at the time and still do. Only now I just don’t say anything. I was asking too many questions. It was like a puzzle; like some dirty little secret that this town had, that they were trying to destroy all the evidence to.

The downtown doesn’t even look anything like it was in 1996…and I’m referring to a time before this tornado.

Why would such a beautiful treasure of a house like the one on Main Street only be worth $80,000 after being restored? Well, I would venture to guess that it had a little something to do with the fact that all the surrounding streets are populated with residents who have a different color skin that I do.

The good news is that the obelisk-like monument to the Confederate dead still stands proudly before the undamaged courthouse.

Otherwise, the tornado has taken care of the situation that the son refused to deal with all these years. It sheared the entire roof off. There’s a sign posted on one of the magnificent pillars on the front porch that the house is condemned. Mother Nature is completing the job that the residents of the city started on their own, long ago.

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