I recently undertook a writing assignment for Memphis magazine which involved a trip to Helena, Arkansas. My wife and I decided it would be fun to take old Highway 61, just to get a feel for what the journey must have been like 20 years ago, before the new road's casino-influenced upgrade to a zippy four-lane. It was eye-opening.
We were amazed at the contrast. There were no billboards — and no traffic — just green fields of cotton, rice, and peanuts under a big blue sky. We had the road to ourselves.
Soon, we were working our way through the bustling casino complexes of Tunica County, marveling at the new buildings, new roads, and fresh plantings of crepe myrtle and other landscaping. We drove through downtown Tunica, also landscaped, bedecked with flags, and made over to an almost Disney-esque degree. Whatever you may think of casinos, there is no denying that the resultant tax revenues have thoroughly transformed the county.
Helena, not so much. Oh, there's a casino, all right, but it's across the river in Mississippi, and the economic benefits have evidently not found their way across the bridge.
Downtown Helena is as near to a ghost town as you'll ever see. The main street, Cherry, features blocks of boarded-up buildings and, on this Sunday, was entirely empty of people or cars. We literally pulled a U-turn to take a picture and stopped on the dividing line to get a better angle. Five minutes later, we were still clicking away and still hadn't seen another human.
After spending the night in a gorgeously restored Victorian bed and breakfast (the only guests), we decided to hit a few more backroads and ended up in Friar's Point, Mississippi.
I've seen the slums of Lima, Peru, and other third-world countries, and nothing I've seen — nothing — compares to living conditions on the south side of Friar's Point. People were living in tiny boxes on cinder blocks. Mounds of trash were everywhere, being scavenged by packs of mangy dogs. It was poverty at its most abject.
These folks are living a hellish existence in the midst of millions of acres of plenty, 60 miles from Memphis. Surely there is something we can and should do.
Foreign aid comes to mind.