A question of progress

Progress. What exactly is it? For some, it’s a change in attitude, an enlightenment. For others, it’s new technology. Still others look to business development. And sometimes, they all come together — roads can do that quicker than anything. And they can change how we view it as well.

Such is the case in Eufaula, Alabama, a quaint town once known as a major inland port on the Chattahoochee River. It’s still a port — although now situated on Lake Walter F George (unofficially Lake Eufaula) — but these days the town is known more for its recreational activities and the natural beauty around it, places like Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also known for North Eufaula Avenue, a quintessential southern boulevard if there ever was one. Its half-mile stretch is bordered by stately mansions, its two lanes split by a grassy median of even statelier oaks. If you’ve seen Reese Witherspoon’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” you’ve seen this stretch of road.

And it’s the only section of US 431 between Insterstate 85 and Dothan, Alabama, that isn’t a four-lane highway.

Alabama State Route 1 got that designation in the 1930s as the federal highway system spread its concrete ribbons over the country. Eufaula argued against a bypass of their city at the time and won, keeping the major route between the northern reaches of the state and the beaches of Florida through downtown. Widening the highway began soon thereafter, including South Eufaula Avenue, which suffered the shortened lawns and loss of trees that came with this version of progress.

In the 1950s, the city again opposed a move to bypass downtown, and through the years since, more widening has cost more trees and more homes, with the addition of strip malls and used car lots. But North Eufaula Avenue, that half-mile stretch of beauty north of Barbour Street (and, completely unironically, the railroad), remained untouched. Until now.

The Alabama Department of Transportation staked out the median and right-of-way in April for a widening that could begin next year. The orange flags set off a firestorm of protest from residents and city officials, although to be fair, some residents and business owners support the idea, saying widening that final piece of highway would ease a bottleneck that is particularly vexing during summer weekends when traffic to Florida is at its highest. A bypass now, the DOT says, is out of the question, too expensive.

Opponents of the expansion say they’re worried about the shallow roots of the old oaks and the state of their property values. Proponents worry that a bypass would kill business in downtown and say easing the congestion would only help traffic through the city.

I passed through here recently, bottled up in the bottleneck as four lanes became two, driving past the “Save North Eufaula Avenue” signs in nearly every lawn. It wasn’t an awful delay, but it was still quite early in the summer. I saw the ugliness of the south side of the city and the beauty of North Eufaula Avenue. And now, I just can’t help but ponder the meaning of the word “progress” in this town. This town, where schools were segregated until 1969, where high school proms were segregated until 1991, where “the remains of many of Eufaula’s early black citizens” lie in unmarked graves on the north side of town — their burial spot until 1870, when “the old negro cemetery” moved south. 

“Progress” means many things to many people, but in its simplest definition, it means moving forward, like traffic to and from Florida, like the march of time, like the attitudes of people to things like historical preservation and environmental conservation. And then there’s the question of who benefits from progress, and who suffers its inevitable collateral damage.

North Eufaula Avenue is a beautiful half-mile, the crown jewel of Eufaula’s historic district. Too many downtowns these days have too little beauty, swept away by the steady advance of progress. Progress can also sweep away the history of a place, and, in a town like Eufaula, that may be of even greater importance.

Along its 556 miles route between Owensboro, Kentucky, and Dothan, Alabama, US 431 bypasses many a small town. But not Eufaula, which, in case you’re wondering, took its name from a Muskogee Confederacy tribe that lived there until forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Eufaula, Oklahoma.

Progress is a funny thing.

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