Dave Bernabo and I made Moundsville, now on PBS, to attempt a different kind of conversation about American industrial towns. If we could tell a deeper, more human story, we thought, we could help rebuild parts of the shared narrative America needs to grieve deindustrialization, heal divisions, and move forward.
When Amanda Page, a writer living in Columbus, saw the film, she decided she wanted to create something similar about her hometown, Portsmouth, OH. We started talking last year. I’ve been informally advising Page, and Dave has agreed to co-direct the film, titled “Peerless City”, which will premiere at a literary festival Page is organizing next spring.
Page told me she wants to “highlight our resilience and ability to support people in and through recovery, therefore creating recovery in people and the place.” What she doesn’t want, she added, are “poverty tours” or “elegies for anything.” Amen.
Portsmouth is a town of 20,000, 180 miles down the Ohio River from Moundsville. Its history has had a similar arc. Once bustling with a prosperous community, it’s lost thousands of factory jobs, and now has an economy anchored around low-wage service jobs.
People who’ve stayed behind do the best they can. There’s suffering, and grief that needs to be acknowledged. But, as in Moundsville, in the empty spaces, there is opportunity and renewal. People are starting new businesses and getting after it.
A brief sketch: The Hopewell people lived in the area over 2,000 years ago, leaving behind earthworks. In the 19th century, white settlement arrived, sprinkling the seeds of industrial development. It was also an important stopping point on the Underground Railroad, for slaves fleeing the South.
In the 20th century, Portsmouth became a manufacturing hub, with over 100 factories. The Ohio River was once of the world’s mightiest manufacturing arteries. A factory for the world. Portsmouth made bricks, shoes and steel. The city hummed. Life was good. Around 1930, population peaked at over 40,000, twice its current level.
Page has obtained a grant from Ohio Humanities, and is currently raising other money. The team will shoot this May to July, and follow up with a final shoot in the fall. If you’d like to make a donation to help the project, you can do it on Facebook here.
John W. Miller