The main drag in my hometown is a six-mile stretch called Cherry Road. Running from the Catawba River in the north to the edge of downtown in the south, it’s long been the city’s primary commercial district, so long in fact that it’s starting to show its age.
The souring economy and flight of jobs overseas haven’t helped matters. Many businesses along the street have been shuttered, and those that remain tend toward fast-food establishments, half-rented strip malls, payday loan firms and dilapidated hobo havens. The city has tried to turn Cherry Road back into a Cheery Road with an ambitious redevelopment effort that includes the planting of flowers on traffic islands, but success so far has been limited.
On Saturday, I drove the road from north to south, taking pictures of some of the notable landmarks. I hope you enjoy the following portrait of America in decay.
Known locally as “Murder Motel,” Porter’s used to be one of Rock Hill’s finest lodging establishments. Though still in the top five among clientele looking for the ideal place to die of a drug overdose, Porter's has fallen on hard times in recent years. Its location as the first motel you encounter over the river used to be a big selling point, until the arrival of the interstate and travelers' increasing demands for sheets on their beds took business away. Transients still appreciate the proximity of the river, however, as the Catawba's waters run a bit more reliably (and cleanly) than what can be found coming out of Porter's shower heads. Construction of a new sewer line now underway should revitalize the area, but probably won't.
As recently as ten years ago, the county's largest employer was Celanese Fibers, a producer of both synthetic textiles and an overpowering chemical smell you could detect ten miles away. As worldwide demand for polyester ebbed with the decline of the plastic pantsuit, the workforce gradually shrunk from a high of 1,400 to the zero people that work there today. The mill itself was razed about a year ago, leaving only a deserted parking lot gradually reverting to grassland. Just beyond the water tower in the background, developers are building the new RiverWalk Village on the old industrial site. The planned community will be marketed toward seniors with a still-active lifestyle but largely inactive reproductive systems, a good thing considering the melted Fortrell in the groundwater.
Before the 2008 collapse of the nation's financial system, people would use "banks" as a place to deposit and withdraw money. Now, when they need a few bucks to buy a carton of cigarettes, Rock Hill residents can turn over their car titles for quick cash at any number of brightly painted establishments lining Cherry Road. This building actually used to be a bank, as you can tell from the deserted drive-through lanes to the right. Car title loans have taken the place of home equity instruments among that growing segment of the population who now live in their vehicles. With North American's convenient location right next to a grocery store, you can leave your car here, collect a quick $200, walk next door to do your shopping and return an hour later to pay the $50 in interest that accrued on the loan while you were gone.
Despite the dreary economy, there is still the occasional hint of happier times that come with the holiday season. This gingerbread house on wheels (or "gingerbread trailer," as some call it) is parked in front of a strip mall. Children giggle with glee as they scamper up the adjacent viewing platform and try to eat the plywood decorations. Meanwhile, their parents are checking the sturdiness of the towing hitch to see if the colorful delight could possibly be stolen and turned into an apartment for grandma.
Dilapidated storefronts have unfortunately become the norm on long stretches of Cherry Road, so customers are used to pretty low standards. Cherry Discount Tire might be mistaken for just another business in disrepair without this helpful sign. Owners of the store, which burned to the ground in a recent fire, felt compelled to tell potential patrons not to enter the premises as it is considered an active crime scene, not to mention a stinking mess. Still, they offer a great deal on used tires -- that pile to the right is hardly scorched at all and virtually free for the taking.
When government, the economy, schools and virtually every other institution has failed them, local residents can still turn to their faith for comfort during difficult times. Woodland Methodist Church uses a "tough love" approach with its congregation, reminding them that God helps only those who are willing to help themselves. This week's sermon, "Go Get Your Own Dirt," is a reminder to the faithful that if they expect to be completely buried after they die, they'd better make provisions in advance to have enough soil handy to cover their coffins fully. "Dead or alive, you shouldn't expect charity from others," preaches Rev. Parker. "I'm holding onto all my dirt for spring planting."
At the far southern end of Cherry Road, there are signs of hope in this just-opened business right across from the college. Brightly colored pennants and the 10% student discount virtually guarantee success of the latest eatery to occupy this site next door to the city's busiest McDonald's. Just because a Church's Fried Chicken, a Taco Bueno, a Panda Express, a grilled chicken place, a coffee shop, a Taco Loco, a pizza joint and a sub shop have all failed in this same location over the past three years, that's no reason to dampen an entrepreneur's dreams. "College students love the sushi, right?" asked owner Lee Tang. "How many other places did you say have failed here?"
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