‘Don’t Forget the Beauty’: Appalachian Town Pushes Back Against National Narrative of Despair

The ampitheater, with a stage full of beauty queens and high school cheerleaders, sits on the banks of the Ohio River. Photo: Jack Shuler/100 Days in Appalachia

It was billed as a press conference and pep rally, a chance for community leaders to respond to negative national media coverage.

On a recent Thursday evening, high school cheerleaders and beauty queens lined the back wall of an amphitheater alongside the Ohio River. Shawnee State University’s mascot, Shawn E. Bear, bedecked in a navy-blue basketball kit, mugged for the cameras while a DJ hyped the crowd. Everywhere orange, green, blue and silver balloons, and people wearing light blue t-shirts that read: “Dream. Build. Live. In Portsmouth, Ohio.”

The crowd that gathered on the banks of the Ohio River in Portsmouth heard about some of the latest successes of the city, including the planned construction of new hotel and the return of a championship boat race. Photo: Jack Shuler/100 Days in Appalachia

The rally was billed as a response to negative national media coverage of Portsmouth, a city often referred to as the epicenter of the nation’s opioid crisis. These outlets “have sensationally concluded that ‘hope has left Portsmouth,’” as press release by the Friends of Portsmouth, the group that organized the event, said. The group invited them to return for an event focused on the positive.

And despite the gray sky and drizzle, it was, as the MC announced, “a parade of positivity,” for the hundreds of folks from Portsmouth who showed up to celebrate some recent accomplishments. We learned about the Southern Ohio Museum’s 40th Anniversary; about Plant Portsmouth, a successful effort to plant a record number of plants; about Shawnee State University’s Kricker Innovation Hub; about efforts to reinvigorate Portsmouth’s historic Bonneyfiddle Neighborhood; about a soon-to-be built 7-story hotel; and about the return of the National Powerboat Association’s National Championship.

But seats near mine reserved for invited members of the national press corps were empty. The celebration of good didn’t attract members of the media who have been focused on the history of struggle.

Beginning in the late 1990s, prescription drug abuse gripped Portsmouth as doctors dispensed prescriptions for opiates at cash-only pain clinics, so-called pill-mills. By 2010, 9.7 million doses of opiates were dispensed in Portsmouth’s Scioto County–130 doses for every man, woman and child there. The citizens of Portsmouth organized to shut them down. In 2011, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, along with local and state law enforcement, raided the pill mills. But opioid use disorder never went away. Since the pill mills were shut down, intravenous drug use soared. Heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil have led to a rise in overdose deaths as they have elsewhere.

In the spring of 2017, The Guardian ran a story that called Portsmouth “‘The Pill Mill of America’: Where Drugs Mean There Are No Good Choices, Only Less Awful Ones.” It described a community flat on its back, completely helpless. It was a problematic example of parachute journalism. It’s certainly true that Portsmouth was one of the first and hardest hit by the opioid crisis. That also means that it has spent the most time addressing it. The article inspired me to find people who were a part of Portsmouth’s response– to at least give fuller context to the opioid crisis by looking at the issue through their eyes.

I found a hidden gem in Portsmouth, Spartan Municipal Stadium, one of the oldest NFL stadiums where football is still played. The stadium, listed on the Ohio Historic Inventory but some are hoping it will one day be on the national historic register and in the process of being renovated, serves as an excellent symbol of the town itself—a proud but crumbling past, and uncertain but promising future. So, I decide to share its story.

While reporting on the stadium, I met the owners, coaches and players of the Portsmouth Stealth, a scrappy semi-pro team that plays in Spartan Municipal Stadium.  In between work, life and facing the effects of the opioid crisis, they are trying to change the story of their community. Some team members find healing, meaning, and fellowship just by being part of the team and playing a sport they love. They have become informal support system, a kind of chosen family.

The story struck a chord with Appalachians whose communities are facing similar struggles so I began working with a friend and director Doug Swift to turn my reporting in Portsmouth into a film. Doug tracked the team’s 2018 season and created a beautiful documentary.‘“Til the Wheels Fall Off,” released this spring, shows how this community has worked to address its problems head on.

But it isn’t just this football team attempting to tackle Portsmouth’s problems. I spent the day after the pep rally with Lisa Roberts, coordinator of the Portsmouth Health Department’s Drug Free Communities Support Program, and, in general, a superhero to many trying to address the overdose crisis. She started a syringe exchange program in Portsmouth and launched a statewide program called Project D.A.W.N. (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) that has brought the opioid antagonist naloxone to all corners of the Buckeye State—a program that has saved at the very least hundreds of lives. Her ongoing work in this community has made her an expert and researchers and community leaders from around the nation reach out to her for advice—she’s even spoken before Congress. Roberts’ story of success and positivity is just one of many in Portsmouth, and one of many that’s being missed by the national narrative of despair.

At some point last summer when Doug was filming for the documentary, someone reminded him, “Don’t forget the beauty.”

There’s nothing more true than that. We captured the changing seasons in this Ohio River town—the winter snow outside the football stadium, cottonwood fluff above the green hills, Queen Anne’s lace alongside the railroad tracks. We captured the moments of pure joy when the Stealth got a touchdown or when a father and son danced on the sidelines. And we captured the beauty of a team that was beaten down many times but always, every single time, came back to play another game.

In Portsmouth, and throughout the Rust Belt and Appalachian America, there are scars. Deindustrialization happened. Pill mills happened. Overdoses are happening.

But organizing is also happening. Solutions are also happening. Beauty is also happening. The point is, I think, to be honest with readers. To show the struggles, the agency, the healing.

Jack Shuler (@jackshuler) is the author of three books including The Thirteenth Turn (Public Affairs, 2014). His writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, The New Republic, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio and edits betweencoasts.org, an online magazine covering stories from Rust Belt and rural America.

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