On my way back from Birmingham last Sunday, I took an out-of-the-way route through Oneonta. This is sort of a hobby of mine, sort of a low-budget travel option I suppose. I spend a lot of time looking at maps thinking, “I wonder what’s in that town. I wander what that place looks like.” Occasionally I set aside a schedule that’s as hectic as anyone else’s and satisfy my curiosity. (Almost a year ago to the day, I posted my observations of Somerville, TN.)
So then, Oneonta is the seat of Blount County, and a sliver of Blount County lies on I-65 between Cullman and Birmingham. It’s just enough to pique my curiosity about what goes on in the county seat. Not much, at least not on a Sunday. I’m sure that’s a common theme among many similar-sized town centers.
But Oneonta feel vaguely more alive than Somerville, and more alive than some other county seats I’ve wandered through. Although the town center was pretty much asleep on Sunday, it showed a few promising signs of activity during the week. I didn’t really notice any abandoned storefronts such as I remember being all over the place in Somerville. The shops that were around were little local concerns; of course, national chains have generally abandoned the town center for spacious digs on the outskirts of town, not that I recall seeing many such stores even on the outskirts of Oneonta. But they seemed to have a certain, I dunno, artsiness?
Perhaps I’m just imposing my own preconceptions here. One of the general themes that came to mind as I walked around Oneonta is that artists and other creative people have an important role to play in making desirable places to live. You see this pattern all the time in bigger cities. For example, in Boston creative people moved to areas like Jamaica Plain or Somerville because they couldn’t afford to live in Back Bay or Cambridge. Then as migration to the metro area continued, JP and Somerville (the Massachusetts one) became cool, and too expensive for creative people. So the creatives moved to Mission Hill, Roxbury, maybe Medford (not sure what would be the Somerville-area counterpart, maybe the Davis area of Somerville itself). On and on the process goes, gentrification chasing out creative people who move to other areas, making them targets of gentrification.
The process is a little less clear for smaller towns. My New England experience is also rich to draw on here: Places like Bar Harbor, ME; Northampton, MA; Shelburne Falls, MA; and several Vermont towns have all attained a cachet in part through the presence of artists and artisans. I’m pretty sure there are a few examples in the South, too, although I don’t know where they are offhand.
I’m not exactly ready to declare Oneonta the next great arts capital of Alabama, but it did seem to have more of that vibe than a lot of places. Apparently Hammer’s is still in operation there — a discount store I recall seeing in Decatur. A Birmingham News reporter found “a huge lot of Sperry boat shoes. Clogs, sandals, wedges and other styles,” “Old Navy infant shirts,” and what everyone should have, “Festive flags featuring polka dots and monograms.” The shops around it seemed to lean toward equally eclectic collections of old stuff.
My favorite discovery was Colors on Canvas, an art studio that offers classes for children and adults as well as special events. I haven’t a clue how much demand there is for those services in a town of barely 7000 people. If the studio stays busy then perhaps Oneonta can claim to be inordinately creative-friendly for a place its size.