My HUB-BUB: Melissa Walker

Melissa Walker

Melissa Walker

This guest blog post is written by Melissa Walker, HubCulture Board member, history professor at Converse College, and writer.

My husband and I came to Spartanburg in 1996.  I boasted a brand-new Ph.D. in southern and women’s history, a credential for which there were way more experts than jobs.  Chuck was a banker and finance professional in search of a job.  We weren’t too sure about Spartanburg.  Chuck, a Jewish, Rockefeller Republican, New England native who had lived in the liberal hotbeds of Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence for his entire adult life and I, a lapsed Presbyterian and moderate Democrat, had trouble imagining ourselves living in a small town in the Bible Belt. The only context in which we’d ever heard of the town was as the home of Spartan Foods, the owner of all the Hardee’s restaurants in my Tennessee home town. What little I saw of downtown—during a quick drive-through after dark—was not impressive.  Still, college history teaching jobs were hard to come by, and the GSP metro area seemed like a place where Chuck might find a job. We also knew that housing costs in Spartanburg were far more reasonable than the overheated New England market. So when the department chair called to offer me the job, I said yes.  And Chuck agreed to move with me.

In those infant days of the internet, we subscribed to the local newspapers to learn about our new hometown, and reading the paper each week, my heart sank. The state legislature seemed mired in inefficiency and political posturing, giving more attention to legislation aimed at preventing same sex marriage than at the state’s intolerably weak public schools. Spartanburg seemed to be home to an inordinate amount of domestic violence and other serious crimes.   I counted five murders in the first 12 days of May. In May 1996, the Spartanburg County Council passed a resolution condemning the homosexual lifestyle, rescinding it only after the US Olympic Committee threatened to re-route the Olympic torch run around the county and USA Gymnastics began planning to move their training camp out of Spartanburg.  Still, there were promising things in the paper, too.  We read about an organization called Hub City Writers Project released a book called the Hub City Anthology.  According to the newspaper story, a group of local writers had decided to form something of a writers’ cooperative loosely based on the ideals of the New Deal-era WPA Writers Project.  They raised the money to compile, edit, and publish an anthology of their work, including creations by local artists.  First thing, when we arrived in Spartanburg, I insisted that we purchase the Hub City Anthology.  We found the title at Pic-A-Book, the locally-owned bookstore. I read the Hub City Anthology from cover to cover, savoring Jeff Willis’s delightful essay about exploring downtown as a child, Rosa Shand’s lyrical recounting of exploring the railroad tracks that run through Converse Heights with her grandson, and Betsy Teter’s ambivalent account of living on the West Side.  What’s more, we were happy here.  I loved my students (most of them) and my colleagues (most of them).  The Converse community welcomed us, and we began to make friends among like-minded people.  Chuck quickly found a job with Flagstar (the earlier incarnation of Denny’s.) We were able to attend concerts and plays and art openings at Converse and Wofford, so we felt like we had access to good cultural life. We realized that our community boasted lots of people who were dedicating countless hours to making this a better place. Best of all, people welcomed us and invited us to share our expertise and talents through involvement in community organizations.

We met a lot of those folks at events sponsored by Hub City Writers Project.   From the publication of its first book, the volunteers at Hub City Writers Project had organized activities and published books that celebrated this place—this special place with a rich history in the Carolina piedmont.  Hub City worked to reach a diverse group of people by publishing titles that celebrated ordinary textile workers and documented the history of a historic black neighborhood.  The Lawson’s Fork Festival, the Hub City Music Makers concert in Twichell Auditorium, and the Textile Town book release party at the newly restored Cleveland Park Pavilion brought together a diverse array of people.  Creative folks—artists and photographers and designers and folks who liked to hang out with artsy types—joined the writers who founded the organization.  Of course, Hub City Writers Project was not the only vibrant force for change in Spartanburg, of course; by the time we had been here five years, there were positive signs all over.  The city and the county were investing in revitalization, too. Young professionals were returning to town to lead fledgling non-profits, and the city’s wealthiest businessmen put their money where their mouths were, locating corporate headquarters downtown, constructing new office buildings on vacant lots, and revitalizing abandoned textile mills.

Spartanburg was on the move, so we decided not to.  We agreed that we were embedded in the community, in love with the life we had built here.  We couldn’t imagine starting over in a new place, trying to find “our place” in a new town, risking that we wouldn’t find such a lively and welcoming community.

I had the privilege of joining the Hub City Writers Project board in 2004.  And that was the moment when the city asked us to organize some kind of initiative that would help attract and retain our young people.  In 2005, thanks largely to Betsy Teter and a newcomer to town, Kerry Ferguson, was born. Within a year’s time, the initiative that began with a web site and an open mike Soapbox sessions on Thursdays at the Nu-Way evolved into a performance and gallery-space and live-work apartments that brought in talented artists for an Artists-in-Residence program.  Hundreds, probably thousands, of people have had a hand in our organization’s accomplishments.  Countless volunteers devoted innumerable hours to our programs.  Community members provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support; so has the city.  Creative staffers continually developed new ways to bring people together to experience art and culture.  But at the core of it all was the idea that animated Hub City Writers Project from the beginning—the idea that we could build and strengthen the bonds of community through dynamic arts and ideas.

HubCulture has created a complex of activities and places where people from many walks of life gather.  The activities of HUB-BUB and Hub City Writers Project have provided a place where a historian and an economist could find common ground with lawyers, social workers, poets, architects, entrepreneurs, painters, performance artists, environmentalists, and community volunteers.  HUB-BUB events draw all kinds of people—people with inherited wealth, self-made businessmen, ordinary middle class folks, and even people who are just squeaking by financially.  It doesn’t matter if you sport tattoos or a button down; you’ll feel comfortable at HUB-BUB and The Showroom.  And that’s why I love it.

-Melissa Walker

Watch Melissa’s TEDxSpartanburg talk “A New Vision for Building Community” about HubCulture.


1 Comment

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One response to “My HUB-BUB: Melissa Walker

  1. Chuck

    Melissa teaches at Converse, not at Wofford.

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