It's always been a mystery to me why downtown Gastonia hasn't economically revived like Salisbury, Mooresville, Concord and other downtowns around here. Last night I ran into a former Gastonia City Hall-type who gave me an interesting insight, as we were chatted over wine and hors d'oeuvres. Here's a paraphrase what the person said:
It's all politics. And its roots go deep into Gastonia's milltown culture.
A little history, in case you didn't live through it or know about it: That culture lured thousands of dirt-poor Carolinas farmers to towns to work at textile and cotton mills during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mill culture permeated this region, including large chunks of Charlotte. Workers made more money than at subsistence farming, but child labor was common. Whole families had to work in the mills to earn enough to live. Many of the mill owners pretty much controlled everything: They supplied workers' houses, owned stores and in some cases even told the workers where to go to church. Mill workers were despised as "mill trash." It wasn't as bad as slavery, but it was a lot closer to economic slavery than many people realize. When some workers tried to unionize or held strikes to push for better wages and conditions, mill owners in some cases brought in gunmen. Gastonia was the scene of one of the bloodiest strikes, when a police chief and a union organizer were killed. (Charlotte has its own bloody labor history, and there appears to be an unspoken civic agreement here to ignore it.)
How does this relate to Gastonia's downtown development? It's worth remembering that at one time, Gaston County boasted more spindles than any other county in America. Mill history runs deep. My City Hall-type companion opined that city government there was perceived by many Gastonians to be like the old mill owners: We know what's good for you, just do what we say. Rightly or wrongly, there's resistance and resentment among the citizenry. And there's an oblivion to that situation on the part of some city officials.
It's a shame. Gastonia has the makings of a great downtown. Maybe, by 2009, Gastonians can consciously decide to change the old patterns, put aside old resentments and biases, and focus – together – on reinvigorating downtown.