There was a time when Portsmouth, OH, a town of 20,000, south of Columbus, was the preeminent city on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. It made shoes and shoelaces for the world. It had a NFL team (that became the Detroit Lions). The downtown hopped with shoppers seven nights a week. In the world before globalization and the internet, Portsmouth, as far as anybody in the region around it could see, was peerless.
Then, like in thousands of other postindustrial towns, came the fall. The factories closed. Opiates raged in. People left. And now we seem stuck with a conversation about the future of the Rust Belt and Appalachia endlessly corrupted by clichés about opioids and hillbillies, and narratives framed in black and white from way outside. Politicians craft simplistic stories to build their brands, while journalists parachute in to report stories of pill mills, poverty and despair.
What’s almost always missing from these narratives is casts of real people from postindustrial towns, speaking in detail about their complicated lives, their real and legitimate grief, and their hopes for the future.
Yes, there are exciting and hopeful things happening in the Portsmouths of the world. Some people are moving back. Assets are cheap, and people are building something else and creating new opportunities. (Shawnee State in Portsmouth, for example, hosts one of the world’s top video game-making programs.)
Peerless City, an important new film by Portsmouth native Amanda Page and Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo about Portsmouth, adds to the canon of recent literature, film and journalism, from James and Deb Fallows’ Our Towns to Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and the podcast Appodlachia (and we hope, our PBS film, Moundsville), in dosing a shrill debate with the nuance and complexity of deep, local storytelling. (Full disclosure: Page was partly inspired by Moundsville, which Bernabo and I shot in 2018.)
The film premiered March 26 to an audience of 175 at Shawnee State. “It was important to me to have the premiere for Portsmouth in Portsmouth,” said Page. “This gives the city an opportunity to determine its own story and reputation, independent of the influence of parachute journalists and other outside storytellers.”
Page and Bernabo chose to tell their story, ingeniously, through the story of Portsmouth’s town slogans.
‘Peerless City’ was what the city was nicknamed in the first decades of the 20th century. There was no peer to Portsmouth between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, it was said.
‘Where Southern Hospitality Begins’ was coined as a commercial slogan in the early 1960s. Portsmouth is the last stop along U.S. Rte 23 before a bridge taking you in Kentucky.
Through the stories of residents, the film captures the economic, geographic and cultural detail of postwar America. For example, the main street and surrounding shopping districts were bustling “because everybody who wanted to cash their checks had to come to town,” says former mayor Frank Gerlach.
Now Portsmouth is, informally, ‘Comeback City’, with new organizations and businesses trying to rebuild, and a band of residents sticking it out and doing their best. “We have our issues just as every city does in the United States with drugs and unemployment but it’s still a wonderful place to live,” says one retiree who’s chosen to return to live in Portsmouth.
The film lovingly depicts residents taking action. There’s a new recovery center, new breweries, and new dog park named after a police dog killed in the line of duty. A series of murals painted on a flood wall alongside the Ohio River depicts the story of the town from Native American times to its postindustrial present.
The residents’ tone is fierce and classically self-reliant. “There’s no more industry, and it’s not going to save us,” says one. “Who’s going to save us? We are.”
Peerless City reminds us that what people in Portsmouth and all over Appalachia and the Rust Belt have to share with all of America, a stubborn never-say-die resilience, is what all of America needs.
‘Peerless City’ is screening in Portsmouth at the Boneyfiddle Fringe Festival June 16-18, and August 27, at Ohio History Connection in Columbus.)
John W. Miller