Where's the business gone to?

click to enlarge River Bill, Helena, Ark. - Jim Stawniak
Jim Stawniak
River Bill, Helena, Ark.

"Where's the business gone to?" River Bill — the only name he'll give — lives on his open boat near where the Mississippi River garbage barges dock at Helena, Ark. Left high and dry by a broken outboard motor, he just bides his time hoping for a better tomorrow. "The people are good here," he says.

And that's pretty much the story of Helena. Nice folks, but the town's economic engine has sputtered to a halt. "All life is leaving this place," says Donna Harcourt. "It's like a ghost town."

Harcourt and her friend, Larry Brown, are patrolling the town's streets looking for jobs. "I want to work," says Brown. "There just ain't nothing here."

Oh, sure, they still hold the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival — it drew about 85,000 fans three weeks ago — and that livens things up. But for the rest of the year, Helena is a dying town.

Even the blues culture is in trouble. Almost all of the town's clubs are closed.

It wasn't too many years ago that Helena had two main streets — Walnut for black businesses and, one block over, Cherry for white merchants. Each thoroughfare had theaters and restaurants, and all thrived.

Helena, which claims to be the cradle of Delta blues, even garnered a little fame. It's where the "King Biscuit Time" broadcasts from the town's KFFA-AM (1360) radio station. The 60-year-old blues show has Internet popularity far beyond the station's tiny 1,000-watt reach.

"This was a great trading town, it's where everybody came to shop," says Pat McVey, who is relaxing at a Cherry Street storefront. The building used to be McVey's livelihood, a delicatessen. Now it's his home.

The buildings on Cherry Street are mostly empty, such as Bell's Fine Dining, which still sports in its dust-caked windows seven blue ribbons for excellent cuisine.

On Walnut Street, almost all of the buildings have been torn down. One of the few remaining is Cora Bullock's cafe. "What we want to know is, where's the business gone to?" Bullock says. "We had a few industries here. They left. Rubber plants, seed plants, garment factories, lumber. All gone."

Bullock's friend, Isaac Mills, recalls: "In 1979, I worked for Mohawk Rubber Co. It was some of the highest paying jobs around. But the factory closed. I worked there too long, didn't want to believe the writing on the wall."

A half-century ago, Helena's end began with the building of a bridge across the Mississippi. The town's thriving port business ran aground as trucks edged out ferryboats. Merchants suffered, too, losing the monopoly of Helena's dominance of 120 miles of unbridged river.

At the Delta Cultural Center, civic booster Howard Newsome proudly notes that "the Delta today is rice, cotton, honeybees, fish farms and soybeans." But when asked what happened to Helena, he just shrugs.

As poverty washed up on Helena's riverfront, the poor became poorer. Carl Billis worked on local farms in the 1960s. The farmers, now mechanized, are still making money, but not the black farmhands. "I rode tractors, came home and people couldn't tell who I was the dust was so thick. Now the white farmers have air-conditioned tractors covered in glass. They don't need the black man to drive the tractors anymore."

McVey opines that a Wal-Mart "killed many of the stores. Buildings and businesses started changing hands and dying. All of the money now heads for the casinos in Mississippi."

At the east end of the bridge sits one of the gambling palaces, an oasis of neon and cash in sharp contrast to Helena's wrecked downtown only a mile away.

McVey's deli died. He couldn't compete with the cheap prices at the casino. Now he waits tables at one of the gaming emporiums.