Sunday, October 27, 2013

Community Lost: Mountaintop Removal and Historic Mountain Cemeteries

Posted by James Maples and Elizabeth East, LINDYTOWN WV -- A small historic mountain cemetery sits quietly in a valley below a mountaintop removal site. Like most parts of West Virginia’s wilderness, this area once belonged to the commons, a shared space tended by Appalachia’s communities and their members.  Their responsibilities included taking care of the many small historic mountain cemeteries (or HMCs) spread across Appalachia’s valleys, hillsides, and mountaintops; spaces that notably overlap with valuable coal deposits. Today, few community members (and even fewer communities) remain to tend HMCs in West Virginia’s deep forests.  Instead, HMCs share the space with mountaintop removal (or MTR) activity, a high-impact but low-cost method of coal extraction. Sadly, MTR’s use of space is antithetical with Appalachian culture and the presence of cemeteries.  

Maria Gunnoe is no stranger to the realities of MTR. Her cultural and family ties to the region go back generations before MTR’s first appearance in the 1970s.  In 2000, MTR activity began blasting on a ridge near her family home.  Subsequent blasts led to flooding that destroyed her family homestead and poisoned her well.   Maria quickly points to MTR’s many untold costs: a toxic biosphere, erosion, flooding, mountain loss, and the slow death of an entire way of life. As the commons is transformed from a cultural, shared space to a profitable, privatized space by MTR activity, Appalachian communities are forever changed, physically and culturally.

Danny Cook, a native West Virginian cemetery activist, recounts the story of how MTR nearly destroyed three of his family’s HMCs on Cook Mountain, not far from Lindytown.  In 2010, MTR activity came within a few hundred feet of the three HMCs, destabilizing the site in the process and damaging roads leading up to the space.  Community members and activists rallied to protect the cemeteries, including marking each HMC with a 100 foot no-mining perimeter (as allowed by state law) and signage visible from atop a bulldozer.  However, physically accessing the space remains difficult as mining activity has privatized and even destroyed roads leading to the site.  Visitors must also obtain permission from coal company operators before visiting, further isolating HMCs from the community and controlling the use of space. 

Other cemeteries have been less lucky than the Cook family cemeteries.  For example, MTR activity extensively damaged Stover Cemetery on Kayford Mountain when a bulldozer drove through the cemetery.  Mining activity also undercut the cemetery’s foundation, causing part of the cemetery to fall into the ravine below. Family, friends, and activists now maintain a vigil over what remains of Stover, as well as nearby Stanley Cemetery, in hopes of protecting these cultural spaces from further damage.  

Mountain Top Removal-- Photograph from an article about MTR in  the Los Angeles Times

HMCs are a historical and cultural part of Appalachian communities. Webb Cemetery holds the remains of the founders of West Virginian communities like Twilight, James Creek, and nearby Lindytown. Appalachian burial mores guided community members to bury their dead in the commons where the graves would be tended in perpetuity. They picked valley hillsides and mountain tops as cemetery locations because they are attached to the community as sacred spaces for reconnection and recollection.  For example, community members held family gatherings on cemetery grounds each year. They cleaned and decorated the site while also reconnecting with friends and loved ones both present and passed.  
But lack of employment options and life opportunities led many families to leave small communities like Lindytown to find work outside the coal mines in the 1950’s, leaving behind HMCs that had been maintained for ages to slowly blend into the wilderness.  Aging community members who remained were unable to continue tending the commons in the rough landscape; younger generations were not always willing (or even present) to take up the cause.  Still other community members have been actively removed by MTR companies, further separating the ties between community and cultural space. 

Back in Lindytown, MTR activity overlooks what remains of a once vibrant cultural space. In December 2008, Massey Energy Company (through its subsidiary, Ceres Land Company) began purchasing or leasing properties and homes in Lindytown.  Massey’s short-term plan was to separate residents from MTR activity after many complaints about frequent blasting.  However, Massey’s less-discussed long-term plan was to use Lindytown as a valley fill site: a place used to store the debris created by MTR activity.  Even while a few residents held out, Massey arranged to let local firefighters burn the purchased houses to the ground as training. In a short time, the community space was transformed into a profitable space for MTR activity. In 2012, Massey Coal bulldozed almost the entire valley, including the highly-visible HMC shown in the very first picture in this photo essay.  This HMC, containing an entire family who died in a house fire in Lindytown, is now gone. Eventually, all of Lindytown will be under the displaced mountainside, holding the remains of MTR activity. The same goes for other valley fill sites, such as Packsville, West Virginia, which holds at least two other cemeteries. As the entire community is gone, there is no one left to see what happens to HMCs and the wilderness space becomes invisible to outsiders.   

The low rumble of trains and the sharp blast of the engineer’s whistle is a constant reminder of the power of coal interests in the region. Yet, the spatially-removed nature of MTR activity allows mining activity to occur almost invisibly with very little discussion.  Few outsiders can physically visit MTR sites to understand its horror, allowing this information to remain hidden.  Historically, coal companies have utilized the remote location of coal mining activity to control information coming in and out of the coal fields, fomenting a pro-coal agenda in the region. Today, that control continues, robust and strong.  Extensive support and dependence on coal mining jobs limits discussing MTR’s many risks to the natural environment, HMCs, and communities dotted in the hollers of West Virginia. 

James N. Maples is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Elizabeth A. East is a Doctoral student in Sociology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Feel free to contact James for more information about MTR at

Sunday, October 20, 2013

No Water

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, DEKALB COUNTY, GA – I had just returned home from the gym to the news that we had no water. My first panicked thought was, “oh no, did I forget to pay the water bill!?” It turned out that it was a sewage pipe problem and a team of county workers were already out there trying to fix it. But my “phee-ew” moment never emerged. Why? Well, first, they’ve been out there now for over for five hours working hard to fix this problem. But more importantly, the workers cannot solve the bigger issue of our decaying urban water systems because it’s not theirs to solve. As a recent Washington Post article stated: “…just like roads and bridges, the vast majority of the country’s water systems are in urgent need of repair and replacement.

So what happens to individual properties and neighborhoods when aging water systems go down? Yards get dug up until the problem is found. In this case it was at least two front yards. Those yards are never put back together the way they were because there simply isn’t the county funding to do so. Dekalb's Watershed has no budget for maintenance beyond these types of emergency fixes. This means that as the entire system decays further, crews are dispatched to address the emerging problems that are the result of an aging infrastructure. The workers do their best, but the system as a whole needs to be fixed. I highly doubt the workers get paid well either – even with overtime. 

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

East Nashville Live

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, EAST NASHVILLE, TN – If you want a ‘hip’, ‘edgy’, but increasingly gentrifying and unequal neighborhood experience, visit Music City’s East Nashville. It seems like there are restaurants, bars, and movie and music venues everywhere. There is even a gourmet hot dog place called “I Dream of Weenie” and a cafe where the television show "Nashville" filmed an episode. There are nice houses – some of which are affordable -- alongside boarded up ones; public housing earmarked for redevelopment near a corner store that doesn’t take EBT debit cards (food stamps). I’ve never heard of a corner store that refuses to accept EBT. Like most gentrifying places, some residents benefit more than others. But there is some good news: the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is actually working with public housing residents groups to ensure that they will not be displaced through redevelopment. Let’s hope they keep their word.


Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pushed to the Margins

Posted by Chandra Ward – ATLANTA, GA --Where do people go when affordable housing leaves?  This is one of the two questions I pondered that inspired this post.  The second question is can people who lived under bridges prior to massive redevelopment which brings with it hip restaurants, expensive condos, lofts etc. still live there without “scaring off” the new ‘upscale’ and ‘cool’ clientele these transformations target? 

 Atlanta has been at the epicenter of the affordable housing debate the Atlanta Housing Authority's (AHA) has eliminated all of its traditional public housing.  As a result many low income families have moved to private market rental housing with the help of a Housing Choice Voucher.  Yet, many more remain on long waiting lists because there’s just not enough affordable housing to meet the demand.  This is what I was told by the leasing agent of the family housing development where I live. According to her, the Villages at East Lake are trying to find places for about 1500 qualified low income households.   She recalled an experience which I could tell caused her some pain.  A unit has finally open and she called gentlemen next on the wait list. Unfortunately, the wait had been too long -- his daughter told the leasing agent that he had passed away.  What do people do while waiting five years for affordable housing? Some die. Others just struggle to get by on their meager non-living wage jobs. And some end up on the streets, in temporary shelters, or building camps under bridges.

 Over the past few years, I have seen the development of exciting places in Atlanta – the Belt Line, the tracks for the street car that will run through town and along the Belt Line.  When I first began writing for Social Shutter I was living in an upscale live/work/play development situated across from a bridge separated by the Belt Line   Back then it was only a dirt path, and people used a bridge there for their home. 

Now the Belt Line is becoming impressive with bike paths and commissioned murals.  On recent walk I went underneath the Freedom Parkway Bridge at Highland Avenue and there was no sign of human occupation.  With police on the path, and the many pedestrians who walk, bike, run and admire the art, my guess is that anyone living under that bridge would be asked to leave. I then went downtown near Auburn Avenue where the rail line is being constructed to find out if residents living underneath bridges in that area were still around.  At the time, they were.  I took pictures, with a bit of caution, as I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of people living in dire straits.

 There is a bridge at Bell Street, only blocks away from Grady Hospital and Georgia State University, which is home to about 15 homeless individuals according one gentleman I met named Rick. Rick is a former Marine who has been living under the bridge for about a month. He pointed to a guy who was sweeping his area of the bridge who is apparently a truck driver.  Rick says he ended coming to the bridge after leaving a bad relationship. When I asked him about affordable housing in Atlanta, he said “there isn't any.”  Rick referred to Atlanta as a convention city who is concerned about its tourist image.  He believes that Mayor Kasim Reed does not care about homeless people, though he feels that many Atlantans do.  I asked him about his attempts at finding housing.  He said low-income places have long wait lists or won't take him because he is able-bodied but unable to find work and, simply not old enough for some of the affordable developments where you have to be at least 62 years of age.  I asked if he believed the people living here would be asked to leave once the infrastructural projects taken place were complete.  He did not believe so.  Rick is hoping to get a place in Oakland City for $300 a month soon. I hope his is right and I wish him the best of luck.

 Chandra Ward is the Managing Editor of Social Shutter, a Doctoral student in Sociology at Georgia State University, and a Lecturer at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at