The Pace of Change

Change, we’re told, is natural. It’s impossible to hold anything in suspension very long. Even if old things and places survive they fade from their former glory. The termites eat houses. Foundations shift. Trees we thought would never die fall down in a wind storm. The places and things we remember from our childhood are often transformed by neglect and abandonment or commerce and growth. Streets are widened. Yards and trees disappear as curbs are set. Whole neighborhoods vanish.

I’ve been thinking about how much a community can change in a lifetime since Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds were back in town last weekend to play at Hub-Bub’s Showroom.

Ira Tucker, the 82-year-old leader of the Hummingbirds, has been with the group since he left Spartanburg in 1939. Tucker went on the road with the Greenville-based Gospel group and his returns to Spartanburg have been infrequent. His fame came far from the Depression-era cotton fields and courthouse square Tucker left behind and remembers with great fondness. He’s revered in his adopted Philadelphia, and his voice will be heard as long as popular music is broadcast on the oldies stations backing up Paul Simon on “Loves Me Like a Rock,” but he still calls Spartanburg home. The old town resides within him.

Tucker is someone I admire deeply. I’d rank him first (neck and neck with The Marshall Tucker Band and Pink Anderson) among popular musicians from Spartanburg who have left a creative legacy for the larger world to treasure and pass on. Tucker’s voice is still a force of nature as he settles into his eighties. He can shake the rafters on the Hummingbirds’ Gospel sets.

The band leader has played his hometown only three times in the past 40 years but in spite of his long absences he truly loves to return. Back in town, he rides around with his younger band members and marvels at the way time can corrupt a cityscape and street grid. All the change we see around us and accept has crept up on the memories of the famous singer.

Last year the Hummingbirds were in town for a benefit concert at Barnet Park to raise money for the Music Trail. Mr. Tucker rode around with journalist Gary Henderson and looked for his old haunts, mostly gone. Gary says Ira told them to stop the van once in the middle of north Pine, up the hill from Vic Bailey’s auto dealership. “Gary, this is where I sang on the street corner,” Tucker said.  He pointed to a spot where two old  streets once intersected before Pine Street was extended north. Now the pavement was the only historic marker.

This time around Betsy gave Mr. Tucker directions to Wild Wings for dinner before the show downtown, “The restaurant’s at the corner of Main and Church.”

Tucker asked, “Is that near Short Wofford?” hoping for a landmark he could remember.

No, Betsy said, Short Wofford Street only exists now in the memories of a few thousand who remember the vibrant African-American business street off Church. Most everything is gone that would signal the world and commerce of a Spartanburg seventy years in the past. Ira Tucker would have to negotiate through the changing contemporary city, not the one in his head.

I’ve been around for over 50 years. I make the mistake often of saying to someone who asks directions, “You know, it’s just up Pine from where the old K-Mart was,” or “Oh, that’s out past Smoky Joe’s Barbecue.”

I sometimes get stuck in my own head too. Remember Woodward’s Cafe? Remember the old Krispy Kreme? The old Wade’s on South Pine Street across from the old Draper? Remember Clancy’s and Pete’s and The Breezeway? Remember Greenewald’s and Smith-Outz Drugs and Community Cash?

Remember how once there were watermelons growing where the endless tracts of houses now spread out in Boiling Springs? Remember when the west side was nothing but fields so open the Army held maneuvers there called Swift Strike?

What will this generation remember? What will they long for when they return to town after decades away? What will change and what will stay the same?

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