The Drive Home, Part II: The Scratch

I-68 through Cumberland is like the Interstate Highway System's equivalent to an old wooden roller coaster. Originally built during the mid-60s as an elevated solution for alleviating the city's local street grid from long-distance through traffic, it has hardly been upgraded since, even as a modern freeway filled in around it, connecting Hancock to Morgantown and points west. Now it's so woefully under-standard that it boasts one of the lowest posted speed limits on any controlled-access roadway in the country, dropping to 40 mph as you slalom through town. The narrow lanes, lack of shoulder space, and virtually non-existent merge areas, not to mention the omnipresent highlighter-bright orange cones, ungainly vehicles, and vest-clad crews unleashed by seemingly interminable construction, all leave an unsuspecting motorist suddenly nervous about how safe it really is, like those rickety amusement park thrill rides.

You might be so focused on navigating this anachronism of an expressway that you'll miss the view as I-68 swoops into the valley where Cumberland lies. The humble redbrick skyline is punctuated by a half-dozen church steeples and capped by the strikingly handsome Romanesque tower of the Allegany County Courthouse. In front of the green backdrop of Haystack Mountain, it looks like the two-dimensional set for a play, perhaps one about Cumberland's bustling and prosperous past.

Time was, a city could grow and thrive on the back of geography alone. You could be at the foot of an extensive mountain plateau, on a major river, surrounded by lush forests, near a big vein of coal, and someone would see fit to build a canal to you, followed by a plethora of railroads. Then came the factories and mills, and even the travel business; in addition to the cornucopia of manufacturing industries that sprung up, Cumberland also played its part in Westward Ho!, emerging as a prime staging ground for those attempting to migrate over the Appalachians via the National Road, into the heartland and beyond.

The halcyon years were not to last forever. America grew up and did its best to abandon its industrial childhood, preferring instead to hire other adolescent economies to do that dirty work on the cheap. Pittsburgh Plate & Glass shuttered its Cumberland plant in the early 1980s. A consolidating Goodyear yanked its Cumberland subsidiary to Akron in 1987. After peaking at a modest, but vibrant 40,000 during the war effort of the early 1940s, the city today sits half-empty, and those who have stayed face an uphill battle. Of the three hundred-plus metropolitan areas defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget, Cumberland is mired in the bottom five percentiles in household income, per the 2010 census.

On this particular late afternoon, the slanted light does an admirable job of trying to conceal the residual scars from such a dramatic turn of fortune, but in traversing the quiet streets of this once-lively burg at ground level, the clues are there to be seen. The corner bar, windowless but door ajar, the blue flicker emanating from television sets providing the strongest source of illumination inside the saloon. It's enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of the old men, clutching their Buds and Millers and staring unthinkingly into the familiar security of the glowing boxes as their country rides off into the sunset without them. Outside, there's the couple, both string bean thin, she pushing a stroller, the orange tracer of a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips. They can't be much beyond their early twenties, but their faces are lined and worn, eyes sunken, belying their youth.

It's a scene that is replicated throughout the greater Appalachian region. These mountains were once the western frontier of a rising democratic, capitalist nation where anything was possible, defeating this indomitable barrier to expansion first and foremost among those possibilities. In fact, that quest lit one of the many fuses, if only a small one, beneath the powder keg of growing discontent within the then-Colonies, whose inhabitants felt aggrieved over what they viewed as an unnecessarily constipated process, enacted by their British overlords, for the exploration and settlement of western territories.

After they were conquered, the mountains gave up what they had beneath them, fueling a nation's ascendency to its stature as an industrial juggernaut and thence, a global power. Maybe it was a deal with the devil all along, but several generations on and for most of us, these locales are yet again blank spots on the map - "here be decay" - only this time, it's by design. Where once these hills were metaphorically the country's backbone, symbolic of Made In The U.S.A. ingenuity and bravado, we'd now rather pretend we didn't rape this land and all but eradicate its indigenous peoples to give ourselves a leg up, only to bring the house of cards crashing down when it suited us, leaving millions scrambling to free themselves from the collapsed wreckage. No, it's out of sight, out of mind, except as fodder for cruel humor, ignorant jokes about inbreeding and lack of teeth, or, arguably even worse, to be used as a prop every four years by aspirational Leaders of the Free World, only to be promptly cast aside once again as the election cycle dissipates into hindsight.

But the truth persists that it's a constantly evolving, unforgiving artifice that humanity has invented, and some places just aren't going to survive. There are no jobs, the young have no reason to stay but little means to leave, while the elder cohorts whittle away the days that are left to them, scraping by on the paltry remnants of severely dented, if not outright broken promises. The odds are stacked devastatingly against those who become paralyzed in the quicksand of a moribund town - not only economically, but also mortally, on account of the pernicious python’s chokehold of substance addiction. I want to trust that there's hope, that the concept of the Great American Town isn't in its Late Cretaceous period, the Doomsday Clock ticking towards the inevitable meteor, but the question of what happens next is difficult to hand-wave. Perhaps, eventually, nature just runs its course, reclaiming the lands that once belonged solely to it.

Those places that do manage to untether from life support are the ones that can display flexibility, adapt, and squeeze into a new profitable niche. Cumberland, for one, might potentially be on a track towards some semblance of salvation, as the city toils to resuscitate its economy in part by reorienting itself outwardly. The factories and mills simply aren't coming back, at least not at a scale that would permit a significant revival for a robust middle class, and one of the few options remaining for the communities that relied so heavily on them is to figure out a way to convince people to come spend their money there. It's not a foolproof panacea by any stretch, a strategy that is loaded with its own set of drawbacks and perils, but surely it's better than just sinking into oblivion?

Fittingly enough, it's the vestiges of Cumberland's past importance that allow such a gambit to even be viable. The C&O Canal was an engineering marvel in its day, running from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland and maintaining its utility even well into the railroad era. The full length of its towpath has been converted into a National Park Service-administered bike trail, which in Cumberland hooks up with another trail, the mostly-paved Great Allegheny Passage, this occupying the former right-of-way of the Western Maryland Railroad and continuing all the way to Pittsburgh. Civic leaders have accordingly made a concentrated effort to capitalize on Cumberland's location at the nexus of 330-plus miles of unbroken bike path (the longest such route in the country). The old iron horse is in on the act, too: The Western Maryland terminal has been restored and for three decades has operated popular excursion trains to nearby Frostburg and back. There's also been a movement to lure the creative class to the area, for becoming known as a regional arts mecca can be a recipe for rejuvenation when it can be pulled off. It's a sensible idea for Cumberland given that housing is cheap and the natural setting is second-to-none.

How much effect has been yielded by these endeavors? Per the immediate eye test, it doesn't seem to be a whole lot. For every house whose upkeep visibly appears to be the product of attentive care, there are three or four in the same block that are scuzzy and ramshackle, unpleasantly playing right into the negative stereotypes of Appalachia. Commercially, a similar story is spun at first glance. During the mid-1970s, Downtown Cumberland's main shopping street, Baltimore Street, was converted into a pedestrian-only promenade, last-ditch chemotherapy aimed at a cancer that had already metastasized. It was an ill-fated maneuver that was tried all over the country, but Downtowns died anyway (a phenomenon for which pedestrian malls were unfairly scapegoated and thereupon banished to the American urban planner's manual for "What Not To Do," a black mark that has taken far too long to erode).

But as Cumberland itself crawls away from the six-foot-deep hole that's been beckoning to it for half a century, so too has a pulse begun to flutter once again through the brick paving of Baltimore Street. There are a handful of real restaurants interspersed among the junky "antique" shops and vacant storefronts, plus a coffee cafe that would not be out of place in Portland, a bona fide bakery, and the centerpiece, a renovated and refurbished 1930s theater that now hosts events of all types, from stage performances and classic film screenings to DJ sets and bachelor auctions. Former Tony Award-nominated Broadway actor and Cumberland native Mark Baker lends New York gravitas with regular appearances there. Though as of yet no one would quite mistake Cumberland for the West Village, slow motion, as they say, is better than no motion.

At the foot of Baltimore Street, a bridge crosses Wills Creek over to the hill upon which stood Fort Cumberland, once a tangible indication of the very limit of white man's control over this New World. It was the site of George Washington's first official military command, after the then-Colonel of the Virginia militia led General Braddock's troops back to the fort following their humiliating defeat to the French and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Monongahela outside present-day Pittsburgh. The arresting county courthouse and Emmanuel Episcopal Church now occupy the footprint of the fort, but the one-room cabin that served as Washington's headquarters has been preserved in its entirety and moved across the street to a creekside parklet.

Outside the cabin stands another emblem of history: a stone obelisk, demarcating the beginning of the Old National Road. Logically, when the National Road was laid out, much of its route from Cumberland into southwestern Pennsylvania followed the path blazed by Braddock's doomed expedition, itself pieced together with ample assistance from friendly Indian groups, whose hunting trails had been unlocking these mountains since time immemorial. Centuries later, we're conveyed in multi-ton metal chariots with the comfort of climate control and GPS devices to hold our hands as we hurtle along at speeds once the stuff of pure fantasy, but damned if we're not still just following in Chief Nemacolin's footsteps.

As suffering places scratch and claw to find their way in this exponentially unfolding epoch of technology that is ruthlessly doing its utmost to leave them behind, the optimistic allegory represented by this monument doesn't escape me. At mile marker zero, there is still possibility. We have to believe that opportunity can and will arise for those who are able to forge a new direction forward out of what came before. Sadly it won't happen for everyone, everywhere, but the more that goes right for hurting communities across these states, the better off we'll all be for it.