March 10, 2019
In ‘Moundsville’ film, Trump’s Rust Belt promises permeate
Film by Pittsburgh journalists confronts West Virginia’s industrial past, future
By Matt Stroud
Video Stills COURTESY OF JOHN W. MILLER AND DAVE BERNABO
There’s a moment in “Moundsville,” the new film from Pittsburgh-based journalist John W. Miller and artist Dave Bernabo, that summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America.
“I think Moundsville is inhabited by ghosts,” says Alexis Martinez, the son of Mexican immigrants who helps to operate his parents’ Mexican restaurant in the West Virginia town. ”People are still clinging onto wishing for the things from the past and they’re still grieving. They haven’t really accepted what has happened and what the possibilities are.”
The film helps to explain what Martinez means.
With a short run time — a little over an hour — “Moundsville” features interviews with 26 of the town’s residents. Miller and Bernabo splice residents’ stories and opinions together to tell the town’s history and where it’s going.
The history is remarkable both for Moundsville’s specific quirks, and for how it represents similar cities and towns all over the country.
“Moundsville is inhabited by ghosts”
About 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh and with a population of about 9,000, Moundsville’s name isn’t a misnomer. The town was built around a football field-sized Native American burial mound that rises 70 feet — about the height of a five-story apartment complex — above the otherwise flat downtown area. That’s not downtown Moundsville’s only unusual feature. Across the street from the mound is a 10-acre prison complex that’s been shuttered since 1995.
While residents in the film talk about their reverence for earlier times, earlier generations were less respectful of the past: A museum now pays honor to the mound’s buried history, but the film reveals that a rowdy bar once sat atop the sacred mound. Up until fairly recently, locals gathered for Christmas tree-lighting shindigs there. The prison is now host to penal tourism and seance-type conclaves to assess whether the facility hosts paranormal activity.
Where Moundsville’s quirks end, a familiar history emerges.
Moundsville’s economic narrative mirrors Postindustrial communities worldwide: In Moundsville’s case, thriving coal, steel, and glass sectors propelled its economy forward through much of the 20th century. When those sectors declined and companies such as Fostoria Glass, U.S. Stamping, and Triangle Conduit shuttered their respective glass, stamping, and coal facilities, they left locals without work. Residents fled. Between the 1960s and today, Moundsville lost half its population.
Little has replaced those sectors.
“Walmart has led to the death of the downtown area”
The film discusses a West Virginia oil and gas boom that was supposed to reinvigorate Moundsville’s economy over the last decade, and a Walmart that was supposed to make shopping cheap. Residents in the film mostly agree that the windfall from those businesses has been disappointing.
“The promised economic benefits [from oil and gas] are really short-term at best and remarkably curtailed in the present time,” West Virginia’s seventh poet laureate, Marc Harshman, says in the film.
“You see all these giant trucks with Texas plates and Utah plates, Oklahoma — just all over,” says Rosemary Tagorsky, a Moundsville bank teller. “It kind of took jobs away from people in this area. It jacked up apartment prices. If anybody wanted to rent a house or an apartment, and people in this area can’t afford those prices, but these pipeliners can.”
Walmart, meanwhile, has led to “the death of the downtown area,” Harshman says.
It’s a familiar story. Many postindustrial towns share nearly identical late 20th century histories. That history is not as flattering as some residents might think. The film underscores this by depicting — almost in passing — Moundsville’s relatively recent segregationist policies. While touring the filmmakers through the town in his car, Moundsville’s only ever African-American mayor, 70-year-old Eugene Saunders, makes it known that “I started school when it was segregated.” He goes on: “I was the first African-American to be on a basketball team here in town. The first African-American to be on a baseball team. … And it was really rough.” Later, he says, landlords “wouldn’t rent to me because of the color of my skin.”
Yet he stayed.
Moundsville — the town, as well as the film with the same name — is filled with curiosities like that one. The filmmakers address all of them with a hands-off approach. A former international business reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Miller’s journalistic method can be felt throughout the film, which chooses to let residents speak for themselves rather than push an overt message onto viewers from behind the camera. There’s no voiceover, no blatant encouragement toward one idea or another. But a message nonetheless emerges.
The phrase “make America great again” never appears in the film, and neither does the name of the 45th U.S. president. But the aura of both lingers throughout: Towns like Moundsville are filled with ghosts of a prosperous history. But when industry leaves, and the promised oil and gas boom fails to resurrect the town’s economy, people go elsewhere. (“Anyone with a college degree should leave,” Moundsville resident Joe Parriott says in the film.) And those who remain are left waiting for what comes next. Which is why any moderately appealing promise — whether it’s natural gas revenue, a super shopping center, or an appealing populist — can appear like a godsend.
But it’s debatable that any godsend has arrived in the last quarter century, and it seems unlikely that one is on its way. If “Moundsville” is any indication, its residents might’ve finally decided to settle for what they have.
And maybe that’s not so bad.
The residents in “Moundsville” don’t seem to think so anyway. One resident in particular, retired boiler operator Les Barker, thinks of settling for Moundsville’s status quo as a kind of respectable, earned maturity.
“Do you want to set the world on fire?” he asks rhetorically from his recliner, in front of closed curtains shutting him off from daylight behind him. “Or do you want enough for a weenie roast every now and then?”
In their journalistic fashion, the filmmakers don’t say whether that’s the right question. They don’t even press Barker on whether there’s a middle ground — an alternative between setting the world aflame and harnessing that flame for an occasional cookout. But the impression their film gives is a bleak one.
Towns such as Moundsville might have no choice but to settle.
Matt Stroud, an accomplished journalist and book author, is a former staff writer with Bloomberg and the Associated Press who has written for Esquire, Harper’s, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
- Row House // If you’re in Pittsburgh, “Moundsville” is screening on March 17 at Row House in Lawrenceville.
- Moundsville.org // A website and blog about “Moundsville’ and the town it’s named after.
- BuzzFeed // “The 1950s nirvana of unionized manufacturing jobs is gone forever, no matter how successful the Trump agenda may be.”
- America // “Living in Trump’s America: A West Virginia town looks for a fresh start”
- Charleston Gazette-Mail // “After Trump tariffs, WV awaits fallout from trade partners”
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