I hit the road early on a warm and cloudy Saturday morning, setting out east from the northern Dallas suburb of Plano. I took FM 544 through the nondescript towns of Murphy and Wylie before reaching the flat and expansive Texas countryside. Eventually, I linked onto I-30 at the town of Greenville and made my way toward Arkansas.
My first stop was Texarkana, a city with a population of just under 150,000 people located about halfway between Dallas and Little Rock. Situated along the state border of Texas and Arkansas, Texarkana served as my official gateway and entry point into the South. Exiting off of I-30, I drove south along State Line Ave, the street which forms the dividing line between the two states, with Texas signs adorning street lamps on one side of the street and Arkansas signs on the other.
I stopped for lunch at a local eatery called the Dixie Diner. The restaurant was mostly empty, with just a few patrons, a good share of them elderly. A friendly middle-aged waitress handed me a menu, which on its inside cover had an advertisement for a real estate agency that was selling properties and included photos of houses on sale in the Texarkana area. Most of the houses were marked with red ‘drastic reduction’ signs, some of them selling for under $80,000. Not a good sign of economic health, I thought. The bill for my lunch – a chicken salad sandwich and side salad, served with a complimentary basket of cornbread and yeast rolls – came out to little more than $5. This seemed unfairly cheap to me for the good quality of food and service, but if the reduced house prices from the menu were any indication, times were tough economically for Texarkana.
A bit further south, I drove past Texarkana’s courthouse building, which is actually shared by the two conjoined cities of Texarkana, TX and Texarkana, AR (with both making up the Texarkana metropolitan area). From there I swung west towards downtown Texarkana. From what I could tell as I slowly drove through the downtown area, this central part of the city had very little signs of life to it on a Saturday afternoon. Many of the shops were closed (some for good), and almost no people were out on the streets. I then came across a small brick building with a sign out front labeling it as a Museum of Regional History. Knowing next to nothing of the history of Texarkana and the surrounding area, I decided to pull over and take a look inside.
Besides a single employee manning the front desk, a heavyset young woman with a thick country accent who greeted me with “How y’all doin?”, there was no one else inside the museum. The museum had an impressive collection for its small size, with displays covering everything from the Caddo tribe, the indigenous Native Americans of the area, to the clothing of 19th century settlers, to Texarkana’s military contribution to WWII (the Red River Army Depot was opened in 1941 near the city grounds and is still in operation to this day, despite several attempts to decommission it). I learned that Texarkana was founded in 1873 as a convergence point of railway lines between Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana – hence the name Tex-Ark-Ana. The city saw impressive growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as it developed not only as a railway center, but also saw industries like lumber, paper mills, and ammunitions plants spring up. Old photos from the early-to-mid 20th century revealed a city that looked prosperous and filled with energy.
This stood in stark contrast to what I saw in present-day Texarkana. I mentioned to the museum attendant that the city’s downtown seemed really empty and quiet for a Saturday afternoon, to which she replied, “Yeah, but during the week, it’s poppin’ off.” But after chatting for a few minutes, she seemed to change her tune. She said that the downtown area was dying, and that people aren’t supporting the local businesses. She said that people in Texarkana are really racist and not open minded at all. I asked her about her thoughts on the upcoming election, and she said she hated both Trump and Hillary and wouldn’t vote for either of them. She said that a lot of people in Texarkana support Trump, but “I don’t like Trump because I’m Islamic.” This came as a bit of a surprise to me as she was white and had multiple tattoos on her arms, but it was a good reminder that appearances can be deceiving. Unprompted, she then said “I’ve been around the country. I’ve been to Europe. Texarkana is probably the worse place I’ve ever been.”
Near the museum I saw the Hotel Grim, which unfortunately was quite an appropriate name for the building. The hotel, a large brown building with broken windows and sprawling water stains running down its side, looked like it had been abandoned for years. I would read later on that the hotel used to be one of the hot spots for live music and entertainment in Texarkana after its debut in 1924. It was apparently the place to be and a premium destination for high rollers in the 1930’s, with Bonnie and Clyde even rumored to have paid it a visit in 1934. However, the hotel closed down in 1990, and looks to have been gathering dust and mold ever since.
It struck me then that in a place like Texarkana, Trump’s slogan of “Make America great again” seems like a message that would really resonate for a lot of people. Most industrial plants have closed down in the city and gone overseas, taking traditionally well-paying jobs with them. This was clearly a place whose past out-shined its present, and with the city seeing next to no growth in its population over the last five years, its future seemed no less promising. Admittedly my time in Texarkana was short and fleeting, but if my conversation with the museum attendant was any indication, the city was fertile ground for a candidate like Trump, or at least the message that he espoused.