NY Conversation November 2010

For all that NY Conversation hearts NY, it still makes for a pleasant change to get out of the big city every once in a while. So it is that this column finds itself in the deep south for a weekend, masquerading as a travel journalist. Specifically, I’m in Mobile, Alabama, a port city of 200,000 people sat about halfway up the west coast of a bay that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Like pretty much everyone else in New York, my knowledge of the south is limited to Harper Lee and Lynyrd Skynyrd, so I’m not sure quite what to expect when I touch down at Gulfport airport after a hellish 12-hour transit from JFK. The initial signs aren’t promising – the highway from the airport is lined with signs advertising some sort of casino that features  appearances by people like Darius Rucker and Scott Stapp.

But happily, the town itself proves a fascinating – if not always appealing – place to spend some time. There are hints of former prosperity in the grand old plantation houses that still stand in some parts of town, surrounded by dark, verdant gardens and floral splashes of colour.  The city centre, by contrast, has the soulless and impersonal feeling of a new car. Apparently by the 1970s the place was largely derelict, and today it feels like Rotterdam or something: a city that’s been built from the ground up after, in this case, an economic firestorm.

Among other things, Mobile now boasts the tallest building in Alabama, the RSA Battle House Tower, which leaves the Sears Tour with nothing to fear at 227m high and looks kinda like a baby Chrysler building. Apart from a couple of other non-descript boxy office blocks, it’s the only building anywhere more that two or three storeys high, poking incongruously out of the flat delta landscape like a rocketship that’s lost its way home.

The architect clearly also hearts NY

The Tower is part of the Battle House Hotel, a really rather slick four-star establishment in which I’m staying along with nine other actual travel writers. It was originally built in 1852, but sat derelict for the 1980s and 90s as the city foundered economically, before being redeveloped and reopened in 2003. A bit of digging reveals that interestingly enough, the re-development was financed by Alabama’s public pension funds – specifically, a body called the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which is also the majority shareholder in a series of new hotels, golf courses, convention centres and a cruise ship terminal. These combine to form a self-contained corporate wonderland developed to wow out-of-state visitors – like us – and bring money into what remains one of America’s poorest states. Alabama rates 46th out of America’s 50 states in terms of median household income, 43rd on the “Best Educated Index”, has the fourth-highest obesity rate in the country (a whopping 23%) and eighth-highest rate of poverty (with 16.1% of people living below the poverty line).

We don’t see any of this on our press tour, mind you.  Instead, we’re marched around our choice of a set of pre-determined destinations – largely tourist attractions and places to eat. It’s not until I slip away in the company of a friend who, coincidentally enough, lives in Mobile, that I start to see the other aspects of the town. The degree to which blacks and whites remain segregated here is shocking to an outsider – a legacy, no doubt, of the south’s Jim Crow past. The black areas are pretty much the poor areas – so one minute you’re driving through a stately old garden district, and the next minute it’s serious hood territory, all crumbling bungalows (decorated, curiously, in garish colours) and nothing but black faces, staring through the car window with implicit questions of quite what the fuck you’re doing in this neighbourhood.

I start to wonder the same thing about the trip in general, but as the weekend goes on the answer becomes clear: Deepwater Horizon. Our press tour seems to have been organised to demonstrate to East Coast journalistic types that oil spill or no oil spill, the Gulf Coast is a safe place to be vacationing, and the seafood’s just fine to eat, y’all. So we get to ponder the finer points of journalistic impartiality while demolishing complimentary (and undeniably delicious) three-course seafood extravaganzas. I can’t comment with any authority on the danger that the oil spill posed to Alabama’s fisheries, but at this rate, if they don’t get me back on the plane quickly, there won’t be any fisheries left to worry about.

In all seriousness, though, it’s been interesting to observe reactions to the spill here. While oil didn’t make it into Mobile Bay – it’s shielded from the Gulf proper by a series of barrier islands and also by man-made boom apparatus – the whole sorry business has definitely had an effect on the area. Just what sort of effect is an interesting question. The bull-necked president of one restaurant chain tells me it lost 40% of its business in June, while also having to pay higher prices to source seafood from out of town. Other tourist attractions, like the Exploreum Science Center (where NY Conversation spent a very enjoyable hour indulging its inner 12-year-old) have also copped a pounding in terms of attendance and revenues.

But then, there’s also the people who’ll tell you that the spill has, perversely enough, provided a shot in the arm for local business. This is largely due to the battalions of lawyers and clean-up workers and BP exec types who’ve swarmed to the Gulf region – Mobile apparently had the foresight to nominate itself as a “hub” for such people, and as such, bars and hotels are booming. The publicist at the Grand Hotel Resort – another Retirement Systems project – who speaks in exclamation marks and exudes professional good cheer, tells us that having battalions of lawyers and BP executives in town has been just great for business.

Locals’ perspectives on the spill thus range from the chest-beating (“It hasn’t affected us at all!”) through the grimly optimistic (the worst is over) and, occasionally, the genuinely deranged (the whole thing never happened, and environmentalists dipped pelicans in oil to pretend it did). On the whole, the perception of BP doesn’t appear as overwhelmingly negative as it is in, say, NYC. This perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising: the relationship between towns like Mobile and big oil – or any sort of big corporation that brings jobs to the areas, really – is a complex and symbiotic one. But still, the reminder of the potential payoff of cozying up with the wrong company is there in the stark outlines you can see when you head far enough south to see the Gulf proper: rig after rig extending like skeletal metal hands into the water. A recent AP report suggested that there are some 27,000 abandoned and deteriorating oil wells out there, with no-one, “not industry, not government, … checking to see if they are leaking”.

A local bar owner tells me that no-one even really thought about this before Deepwater Horizon, but now it’s a matter of local concern. “But,” he shrugs, “what can anyone do?” Towns like this often live or die by corporate investment (think of Ford and Geelong, for instance), and indeed, a couple of people I talk to tell me proudly about how Mobile’s in the running for several large corporate contracts. These all seem to be military-related, a subject that’s far more interesting than whether the local Mardi Gras is better than the one in New Orleans. But delving into quite how Mobile and its benefactors interact isn’t really something we can begin to do from the comfort of our carefully planned tour destinations.

I resolve to head back down here on my own at some point to spend some more time in the South. There’s plenty going on under the surface here, undercurrents that stir so subtly you barely notice them, just feel them. You feel them in the latent menace of the porcelain Southern belle who shows us around her nightclub complex; in the fact that several people tell me that your last name is important here, and that several old families wield disproportionate amounts of political power; in the fact that blacks and whites still have separate debutante balls (“It’s by choice,” we’re told); in the rows of perfectly good houses that no-one will insure after the last hurricane.

I’m fascinated to know more about the remarkably benevolent pension fund that’s plowed so many millions of dollars into Mobile, to hear from the local lawyers who suddenly all seem to specialise in BP compensation claims, to see what sort of a reception I’d have got in the big nightclub with a line of black kids outside on a Saturday night. I want to know what is going on under the surface, what these subtleties and unspoken covenants all mean.

But we’re only here for two days. And that, I get the feeling, is kinda the point. Fly them in, fly them out. Interesting business, this travel writing. Interesting times.

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