Goodbye Grundy! Hello, Wal-Mart

By Peter Galuszka

Hours west of Richmond by car  lies the old coal town of Grundy, lying at a confluence of the flood-prone Levisa Fork River below steep cliffs of sedimentary rock of sandstone and shale.

Grundy has been a touchstone for my various trips to the Virginia coalfields over the years. I hadn’t been that part of the woods in a while and when I drove through on Tuesday, I went into a state of shock.

Utterly gone was the pleasant old town with its rich collection of Depression-era buildings that could have been the subject of a Walker Evans photo study. Vanished was the black statute of the coal miner looking expectantly to heaven. The little movie house was gone. Everything was gone.

In its place around the dynamited sides of mountains was a multi-level Wal-Mart. I had to rub my eyes in the misty rain. An entire town had disappeared to make room for a Big Box.

To be sure, this had been a long time coming. The Levisa Fork is flood prone, in part because ruthless strip mining practices in the Southwest Virginia coalfields have ripped out vegetation that can hold back rainwater. One of the biggest floods came on April 4, 1977.

Grundy became a cause celebre among local economic development officials and U.S. bureaucrats. U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher worked out a plan in 1997 to forever change Grundy with town leaders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Transportation. Helped by $96 million in public money, VDOT bought and ripped down the old Lynwood Theater and local hardware stores and fives and dimes. The Army spent $100 million ripping out 2.4 million cubic yards of rock, enough for 68 football fields, and helped relocate rail tracks.

In all, according to a 2007 Post story, Grundy’s makeover ended up costing $196 million or $175,000 for every man, woman and child in town. But all didn’t work out according to plan. Many of the building owners, the Post reported, did not rebuild as planners hoped. They merely pocketed their money and left.

What’s left is a Wal-Mart in perhaps the most dramatic geological setting possible. The utter madness of the scene is commemorated on YouTube with a pictoral.

Even nuttier is that government officials have spent so money on Grundy when there is still so much oppressive poverty and health care needs that have infected the coalfields from the day the first coal prospector set foot on the remote and beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia.

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11 responses to “Goodbye Grundy! Hello, Wal-Mart

  1. I have to agree with you on this one, Peter. That expenditure of $196 million was *insane*. There are soooo many other ways the government could have better spent the money to benefit the people of coalfields.

  2. well…. the only difference between Grundy and a lot of other towns is the other towns just molder in place but Grundy got torn down.

    The city fathers worked hard to get WalMart to come there. They approved a couple million EDA grant for the parking deck.

    Grundy was built in the wrong place – a long time ago…. if you look at a satellite map of the town …it’s a place that is going to see it’s share of major floods… even without coal mining which a generation ago was done underground and not mountaintop.

    the army corps and VDOT did something similar to what the govt flood program does. They encourage you to move – by paying your damages – one time… so they moved Grundy.

    the interesting thing if you drive these smaller towns these days is that even without Walmart – the smaller businesses are drying up and being shuttered.

    you know why? Family dollar and Dollar General.

    and they are such potent retailers that even WalMart is thinking about small footprint versions – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walmart#Walmart_Express.

    Re-locating Grundy was expensive but cheaper than rebuilding it multiple times.

  3. Larry,
    I’m not sure Grundy was built in the wrong place. If you drive around the region and note the extreme angles of the hills, there is nowhere else to build any town. It was probably built in the ONLY place.

  4. It was Peter… and decades ago.. it was the “right” place way back when folks did not make the connection between geography and flooding…

    but now days.. with flood maps… we know that this is a “wrong place”.

    there are lots of places like Grundy that used to be “right” or “only” places that are now “wrong” places….

    heck… parts of Richmond are now “wrong” places… “officially so” because they are on the “inside” of the flood walls, eh?

    oh by the way… did anyone express outrage at the money spent on the Richmond Flood Walls?

    🙂

  5. What’s all the fuss? Grundy is the only new town in that part of the world in 100 years. They have colleges, stores, new buildings, even bus service. Just down the holler, you have…status quo poverty. I’d almost live in Grundy. It’s a heck of a lot better than a hometown that hasn’t changed since WWII. Well except for the town drunk. His great grandson just took over the family business. It’s all about hillbilly heroin and meth these days.

  6. Darrell brings up some good points, especially about the hillbilly heroin and meth.

    I’ve always found it odd that the white redneck culture would vent such hatred at the black ghetto culture. For the life of me, I don’t see much difference.

    Well, as it turns out, I am not alone in this observation. Noted economist Thomas Sowell published a series of articles titled, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”.

    The first of those articles deals with the similarities of what he describes as “black ghetto culture” and “white southern redneck culture”. In fact, he blames the black ghetto culture on the white southern redneck culture of the antebellum south. He sees the ghetto culture as an outcropping of the white culture that came to America from border areas in the UK, the so-called “cracker culture”. Here’s what he writes about the commonalities of white southern redneck culture and black ghetto culture:

    “an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship,… and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.”.

    Hmmmm …. and there are five more essays after that!

    Accepting Dr. Sowell’s thesis leads to an interesting question in Virginia – why are poor, rural white voters overwhelmingly Republican while poor inner-city voters are overwhelmingly Democratic?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Rednecks_and_White_Liberals

  7. G. Groovey,
    I have read Sowell for years and have never been impressed with him. Another point: the so-called “white redneck culture” in Southwest Virginia really has nothing to do with the ante-bellum South. It is a different cultural subset with different dynamics.

    • I don’t know if Sowell is right or wrong. However, he is interesting. His claim is that the South was originally settled, in large part, by English bond servants from the border areas, especially the border with Scotland or Northern Ireland. These Scotch – Irish and North Britons originally settled along with the nobles on the coastal plains. Many became the hired hands and foremen of the plantations where they were often the ones cracking the infamous bullwhips.

      However, as the plantations expanded many of these “crackers” were pushed into the more mountainous areas where they were often known as hillbillies.

      Thus, the white redneck southern culture was defined by the same descendants of English bond men whether they were the entire population of the hill country or the working poor on the plantations.

      In the case of those descendants of English bond men who stayed on the plantations as the working poor – they transferred their poor habits to the slaves.

      Sowell draws some of his thinking from the differences in tradition and experience of former slaves held in the north vs former slaves held in the south. He feels the slaves held in the north were indoctrinated with the piety and strong work ethic of the New Englanders, especially when teaching “free men of color” while the slaves held in the south were indoctrinated by the bad habits of the Scotch – Irish and North Britons who worked as overseers, etc on the plantations.

      Like I said – who knows if he’s right?

      But one look at the way meth and oxycontin are ripping through rural and small town America makes you think of the way crack cocaine ripped through the inner cities.

  8. I’m similarly not impressed with Sowell. And I’m even less impressed with him now that I know some of his views on race and heritage.

  9. G. Grrovey,
    There were no plantations out that way. Soil too poor and hills too steep. Many Scots Irish who immigrated despised the Brits who ran the plantations more in the coastal areas and split to the hills. The Brit-types said, fine, they’re a buffer against the Native Americans to the west. We never liked them anyway.
    These folk muddled along until the Industrial Revolution and coal came and screwed everything up.

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