Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Saturday, 3 September 2011 11:31 UK

Economic hard times in small town America

Jonny Dymond with Eddie
Eddie tells Jonny Dymond the last few years have been a hard slog

Jonny Dymond

President Obama's plan for a major jobs initiative cannot come soon enough for the 14 million Americans out of work, many of them in smaller communities such as Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Eddie sat in the shade on a warm, sunny morning and remembered what Rocky Mount's Main Street used to be like.

In his mid-60s now, his 10 years running the town's chamber of commerce are almost up.

On one side of the tracks lived the blacks who picked the tobacco - on the other the whites who owned and sold it

In his office, a stiff straw hat with a cheery motto sits atop a cardboard box of belongings that is ready to leave when he does.

The local chamber is on the first floor of the restored railway station, a place with more than a hint of museum to it.

Troubled town

The railroad first reached this town on Christmas Eve 1839. Today the lines, like most of the American network, are mainly used by freight trains, 50 or 60 a day here. Passenger trains don't make it past the single digits.

The railway in Rocky Mount
The railway runs through Rocky Mount along the length of Main Street

Before the freight trains come, a long, lonely hooter sounds that reverberates around the cities, towns and countryside of America, warning anyone foolish enough to hang around the tracks, that they had better get off some time real soon.

Then the bells ring on the crossings, and along Main Street the crossing gates come down, and great trains make their long trundle through the town - five minutes of containers or coal going south, orange juice going north.

Once the train would have picked up tobacco from the town - an early market for bright-leaf had been based here and on it the fortunes of the town had first been made.

On one side of the tracks lived the black tobacco pickers - on the other the white businessmen.

Main Street ran up the middle, divided by the railway line and the freight trains that moved up and down it.

The town is in trouble now. It started with the hurricane of 1995, Floyd, which saw so many leave and not come back.

Then the great recession of the last couple of years roared in and sucked life out, doubling the unemployment rate and more.

The textile factories closed up and went offshore, a big bank left, the headquarters of a restaurant chain found somewhere else to go.

Just four years ago, mused Eddie, a local magazine did a seven page spread on Rocky Mount. He laughed, as if to say "imagine that".

Empty shops

It had been a hard slog, these last few years, trying to boost business. Now he is stepping down from the chamber of commerce - it is time to take it easy for a bit.

"Main Street," said Eddie, waving his hand up along the railway tracks, "is nothing now, go take a look".

"Wrong Way" says the sign at the start of the street. Dust and decay sit in the otherwise empty shop displays.

A row of chairs outside a shop
The shops have things to sell but few have the money to buy

Beige paint blisters off protruding ledges that once sheltered promenading shoppers from the sun. A car's engine ticks quietly as it cools, its driver nowhere to be seen.

Block after block is like this. Out on the hot pavement, nothing stirs and nobody comes or goes.

Dry leaves lie in the entrances of many shops and on top of the fancy stone lettering marking long shut stores - Jewel Box, Marilyn's Shoes, their swirling fonts mocked by the stillness of the day.

At the end of Main Street, a man sweeps up outside an antique store.

Inside, a musty combination of furniture, curios and junk from the last century - old Coca Cola signs, Mantovani albums, a wall hanging with rusty number-plates, a bright blue table from the 1950s with a matching set of chairs, ludicrous glazed-china figurines.

And behind the counter stands Eva, having returned to the town after a migration north that so many black Americans made, now determined to get some life back into the Main Street that she too remembered.

She used to come here with her grandparents. She remembers the bustling stores, the packed streets, the cars pushing up and down.

Her grandparents were share-croppers, dirt-poor tenant farmers who worked someone else's land and paid rent with part of the harvest.

She had gone north for better jobs, for a better life than that of the fields and local factories.

Now in her mid-50s, she has sunk her retirement fund into the antique shop and the building above it.

And she sees a bright future for Rocky Mount. Soon there will be apartments up top, speciality stores below.

"That's the trend," she says, "places people can walk and work and shop and talk".

There is light in her eyes, and grit in her voice. She tells me she studied on 14th Street up in Washington, and had seen that neighbourhood turned around. "The same thing can happen here."

Inside the shop, tumbling with reminders of America's past, it seemed to make sense.

Eva's energy and determination cut through the hot weariness of the day. But outside the store, Main Street rolled empty alongside the railway tracks.

The crossing bells sounded and the few cars waited patiently in the sun for the long train to pass.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4:
A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
Listen online or Download the podcast

BBC World Service:
Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific