The art of small-town values

  • Thursday, May 8, 2014

PROVIDED

A recent visit to Lake City's second annual Artfields visual arts competition and festival was intended to be a pleasant opportunity to enrich my appreciation of art. Instead, a near horrific incident and a young man's courageous act reinforced my belief in the power of the human spirit.

Like so many small towns around South Carolina, I thought of Lake City as a collection of empty storefronts and struggling local businesses. But unlike other places, Lake City is home to Wall Street financer Darla Moore.

Several years ago, Darla Moore spoke to the South Carolina General Assembly Women's Caucus and shared her bold initiative to revitalize “a tiny tobacco town's” economy by transforming her hometown onto a mecca for art. As a former small-town mayor, I can only imagine the spirited discussions at the Lake City Council and Chamber of Commerce meetings when presented this grand idea. With her support, Artfields is now empowering its citizens. And their enthusiasm is contagious.

During the festival, freshly painted clothing boutiques like Mosaic and Seven gracefully enticed out-of-towners, as only southerners can do, with sweet gestures of homemade cookies, pink lemonade and original art hanging on the shop walls.

Farther down Main Street, the Saturday regulars at Joe's Barber Shop seemed optimistic about the festival's positive impact on business. I found myself lingering at this iconic and nostalgic spot, splitting my attention between admiring an oil painting, “Old Man in a White Cap”, and clicking a mental snapshot of the real-life Norman Rockwell image. A man and a young boy sat side-by-side in worn leather barber chairs as buzzing electric razors skimmed their napes. The man and his son must have sensed my intense stare, because in unison they lifted their heads and politely welcomed this female stranger with their warm smiles and friendly waves.

The trendy restaurants, Table 118 and Downtown Bakery; the bright, colorful murals adorning dusty, deserted warehouses; bumping into Columbia acquaintances and former Clarendon County State Senator John Land, and commiserating with him about “our lives after politics” and past heated legislative budget debates over Lake City's infamous Bean Museum were enchanting. But another, more haunting experience was yet to come.

Near the end of this idyllic day, I saw a terrifying event that could have undone all of the well-intended plans for the town's future. Heading out of Lake City, I waited to turn right at the railroad crossing that intersects Main Street. Just a few hours earlier, I had stood at that same crossing, pausing to pet a cute Lab puppy. Now, blinking red lights, lowering crossbars and ringing bells warned of an oncoming train. Two cars hurried through the intersection and were followed by an older vehicle, which stopped abruptly, then began backing up as the crossbar slammed down within inches above its hood.

A teenager, slight in build, suddenly leaped from the passenger side of the car and darted towards the tracks. What he had seen from his vantage point was an elderly lady (who reminded me of my grandmother) desperately struggling to help a friend maneuver her walker over the rails. The young man grabbed the two women and the walker, helped them off the tracks, under the crossbar, and out of harm's way just as the monstrous train came barreling through the intersection. The unfazed hero returned to his car and drove off, while I remained in a state of shock having witnessed what, for him, was perhaps just another random act of kindness.

Besides the obvious need for additional safety precautions at that railroad crossing, the town leaders should make a concerted effort to identify and acknowledge the young man, who is about 16 or 17 years old, African-American, slim, handsome, and was dressed in a sleeveless white shirt, shorts and baseball cap.

Is there a correlation between Artfields' impact on Lake City and such an act of bravery? Maybe our hero's actions were inspired by seeing his community work together to create hope and opportunity for his future. Regardless, the character values he demonstrated that day were, for me, the true treasures on display in Lake City.

Joan Brady is a former state representative from Richland County. Email her at carolinacreativestrategies@gmail.com

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