By us, I mean Calhoun County.
We have seven towns, our Mayberrys: Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville, Hobson City, Weaver, Piedmont and Ohatchee. (We used to have a few more, like Blue Mountain, but who’s counting?) In no particular order, they are home to universities and community colleges, museums and music festivals, mountain biking and walking trails, and most things important for urban life — hospitals, restaurants, shops and the like.
You’d think one of them is worthy of recognition.
Hold that thought and consider Florence, the north Alabama town that, according to Garden and Gun magazine, is the state’s new flavor of the month — or so it said a few years ago. In 2011, Garden and Gun published a list of the South’s most creative small towns. In it, the magazine named Florence the South’s “best arts and design” small town.
Of that city, the magazine wrote, “One thing is for sure: Florence is a great place to be an artist.” Then, in gushing prose, Garden and Gun made Florence seem the offspring of its Italian namesake, Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury. The Lauderdale County Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have penned a more glowing script.
“Some say it’s the river that makes it easy for a wide-minded individual to live in this town. Looking out along the bluffs to where the Tennessee’s water bends, it’s hard not to feel a sense of spaciousness, and of possibility … Florence’s creative community can be startling to an outsider, not just because of the number of artists the place is nurturing but also because many of the most talented ones have not forsaken small-town life for the big city.”
Granted, Florence has a river (the Tennessee), a university (North Alabama) and is part of a region that, if anything, is nationally known for its rich musical heritage. (Think Muscle Shoals, the Stones, Aretha Franklin, W.C. Handy and the “Hit Recording Capital of the World,” as the sign said.) The Alabama Music Hall of Fame sits on U.S. 72, in Tuscumbia, just south of Florence.
So, yeah, Florence has chops.
I’m not sure if it’s demoralizing or motivating, but Garden and Gun’s top-10 list of the most creative small Southern towns shouldn’t be ignored as a journalistic time-waster. Besides arts and design, the magazine named the top towns in performing arts, food, music and literary culture. Name-value wise, the winners and runners-up weren’t impressive: Abingdon, Va.; Lewisburg, W.Va.; Breaux Bridge, La.; Highlands, N.C.; Leiper’s Fork, Tenn.; Hillsborough, N.C.; Milledgeville, Ga.; Wimberley, Texas; and Holly Springs, Miss.
Not an Asheville or Oxford, Miss., among them.
If this sounds like a tirade of civic defensiveness, so be it. Garden and Gun has also called Greenville, S.C., the “hippest little city in South Carolina,” and described Chattanooga as the “Tennessee mountain hideout” that “never misses a chance to reinvent itself.”
The point is that, at least to Garden and Gun’s editors, there are small towns across the South that have it goin’ on.
Why don’t we?
Anniston hosts the Sunny King Criterium, is home to the Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail, and is dying to become Bike City, Ala. (But it has no dedicated bicycle lanes and is still trying to extend the Chief Ladiga Trail into town. Ugh.) Cycling endurance races are held in several Calhoun County towns, including Jacksonville and Piedmont. Oxford’s Performing Arts Center and renovated Civic Center still have that new-car smell. Anniston just unveiled its Longleaf Botanical Gardens.
Now, compare that to Florence.
Point is, whether by chance or planning, Florence — and Breaux Bridge and Leiper’s Fork and the rest — has cultivated a vibe, an aura of coolness. Florence wears its reputation proudly and, from an outsider’s view, seems to know who, and what, it is.
Frankly, what do our towns hang their collective hats on? Anniston has a cycling fetish, but is that enough? (Or, is it doing enough?) Oxford knows how to court retailers. Jacksonville’s a college town with attractive public schools.
As they sit today, those traits, all worthy, don’t make top-10 lists.
There are more important aspects to our towns than creating a vibe, education and poverty reduction tops among them. But if we’re reinventing ourselves — think Anniston, in this case — creating a creative, cultural vibe that others find irresistible should be one of our goals.
In other words, Florence and your compatriots, one day you’ll have competition from these parts.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.