The first time I saw an unfurled and flown Confederate flag in Alabama was about four years ago on my first trip to Guntersville. In a small squatter trailer camp nestled in a field off Route 431 , the main drag linking northeast Alabama to points south, was a large weather–beaten Stars and Bars draped across the front of a old single-wide trailer. But now, on a trip a few weeks ago to Guntersville, both trailer and camp had disappeared and there was nothing left but tangled brush and the whooshing sound of endless big rigs barreling down the highway.
I drove to Guntersville with someone putting in for public housing. Rumor has it that waiting lists are much shorter here than in Huntsville, where, like in most cities, public housing can take years. Guntersville itself is a postcard -picturesque small town of about ten thousand, a peninsula nestled around a hill and surrounded by the lake of the same name. The lake, in the top fifty largest in the country, was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority under the New Deal and dragged rural backwoods northern Alabama kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.
But the Wheels of Progress always have to roll over someone and in this case, it was the displaced and dispossessed tenant and small landholding farmers whose land was drowned and traditional communities forever flooded. A TVA official at the time complained in an internal report of “the all pervading pessimism and defeatist attitude of the people in the area” when confronted with Progress. The lake sits now, spectacular and silent, with few knowing the history buried in the silt at the bottom.
The Guntersville Housing Authority office lies a few hundred feet from this shoreline, surrounded by one of its managed properties that doesn’t look anything like stereotypes of “the projects.” Instead, these were modern-looking, low-rise brick buildings with small patios. You could see many tenants took great pride in where they lived; patios had make-shift outdoor lounges and hanging plants attached to rafters. The view from the HUD office was breathtaking, with the shore covered with rows of thin, gapped pine trees each about fifty feet high. Factories, with large silos attached that supply chicken feed to Alabama chicken farms, dotted the left shore. Driving later, I noticed several plants had private railways. I suspect the noise from the granaries and the truck traffic nearby made this land “undesirable” and thus fit for public housing. But seeing this lake view, I jumped in line and put in for public housing too. Nowadays, my income puts me well within the HUD annual yearly earnings guidelines and sure enough, I qualified.
What strikes an outsider as a paradox about Guntersville is that here, the poor, mostly Black section of town has the most scenic and majestic views of the lake. The wealthier white area clusters near downtown and the fume-choked highway that bisects it; a strange reversal of the usual class division of space in the U.S. We drove through this poorer section, known locally as “The Hill,” where my acquaintance had some distant cousins. Lost, because many street signs were missing or caked with rust, we pulled over to ask directions from a heavily tattooed woman with snarling Rottweilers and Pit Bulls in a fenced yard capped with barbed wire. The Hill reeked of BBQ and dog fights; the old rural South that stubbornly refuses to die.
In a raspy voice best described as nails marinated in Jack Daniels, the woman spat out that the place should be called “Rat Hill” because it’s “full of drugs” and “everyone snitches on one another.” A police car silently pulled up out of nowhere, the driver watching until satisfied we were asking directions and not buying drugs. Shortly, we found our way to my acquaintance’s cousin’s house down hill on a winding country-like road that seemed like a set off “In The Heat of The Night,” sprinkled with modest well-kept bungalows and shot gun houses, gravel roads and lush southern foliage.
We were sitting on the cousins’s porch making small talk when the most memorable experience of the day took place. A postal worker, a mid-30s white woman, stopped to chat after dropping off the mail. Someone mentioned Publisher’s Clearing House and quipped about she would do if she won.
Out of the blue, the postal worker said loudly, “You need to win Publisher’s Clearing House just to cover your health insurance costs in this country nowadays!” She then went on in her thick Alabama accent about the “rich taking more from the poor and working class.” The house owner nodded in approval and someone else said, “It’s the One Percent!” My mouth dropped; I couldn’t believe this conversation in a small town in northern Alabama written off as “backwards.” How many other hidden Eugene Debs fueled on sweet tea are down here, independently drawing their own political conclusions with no outside help? I’ve run into quite a few.
Leaving Guntersville, I didn’t see many Latinos on the streets, though someone told me earlier “they” all drive trucks and you have to watch out for their “crazy driving.” There’s also a sizeable Haitian community in town, though I didn’t see much evidence of that either. I wonder how Haitians ended up in this far-flung part of Alabama. The only connection I can think of is the presence nearby of massive chicken farms like Wayne Farms and Tyson Foods.
I went back to Guntersville again a few days later to get fingerprinted for public housing at the local police department. In true Southern time, I was told it “might take a minute” – yet took more than forty-five. But I had a chance to witness first-hand the inside workings of a small town Alabama police department. A man came in to file a report because a neighbor’s car knocked his mailbox down. A young woman sitting next to me anxiously waiting for her boyfriend to get released on bond every five minutes asked the receptionist how much longer it would take (this young woman was obviously NOT on Southern time that day). I was taken into the same lockup as prisoners and fingerprinted.
Afterward, I drove up Sand Mountain, about 15 minutes away, to the larger towns of Albertville and Boaz. The housing projects in Albertville are 5 or 6 low rise barracks-like buildings clustered together; around the corner, sits a weather-beaten, wooden clapboard African Methodist Episcopal church. Albertville used to be a lily-white “sundown” town but it’s become more multinational with loads of signs in Spanish. The town’s quaint old style downtown is strangled by the usual suburban strip mall sprawl. Albertville bleeds into Boaz and then Grant before Route 431 snakes south down the mountain towards hardscrabble Gadsden (Roy Moore’s stomping grounds and site of Goodyear Tire, one of the few unionized factories in Alabama). All the plants on Route 431 South, the sources of all those non-stop trucks on the road day and night, sport huge “Help Wanted” and “On the Spot Interviews!” signs. This is an area where people make and grow things; symbolic analysts are in short supply.
Odds are I’ll get offered public housing in Guntersville after the fingerprint check comes back and a spot opens. But unless the rent is spectacularly low or some other incentive rears its head, I’ve decided after much thought to turn it down. Guntersville public housing, reflecting local demographics, would definitely not be as integrated as where I live now. And as spectacular as the scenery is in Guntersville, the town closes up at sundown, with only the Waffle House open around the clock. This is a strictly church and family-oriented town. But more importantly, for now, I ‘m attached to my current neighbors and neighborhood in Huntsville too much, with ties and roots to people and places I just don’t want to casually shed.