Newbern is the kind of town you might not notice as you drive by on highway 61. Located about mid-way between Uniontown and Greensboro, it is in the heart of Alabama’s “Black Belt” (so-named for the fertile prairie soils that are unlike any other part of the state).
Newbern is not much of a town by modern standards — a roadside collection of houses, the obligatory Baptist and Methodist Churches, a country store, and a post office. It is just another rural relic from a time when cotton was king and old times were not forgotten. It is also happens to be one of the most impoverished areas in the state.
At first glance, you might miss the “Rural Studio.” I did — had to turn my truck around and head back down the road a mile or so until I reached a big antebellum house with an odd collection of structures in the side yard.
Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design, and Construction has operated the Rural Studio for almost 20 years. It is a place where third and fifth-year architecture students come to live and learn “hands-on.” Here they learn to design and build small homes and other community projects out of materials that are scrounged or received through donations.
The occasion of my visit is a meeting of foresters who have come to discuss the sustainability of southern forests. The Rural Studio has been chosen for the meeting because one of the foresters has a daughter who is enrolled in the program, and because the Alabama Forestry Association has a long-running relationship with the College of Architecture. We can’t allow young architects to go on to fame and fortune without learning something about the benefits of building with a renewable resource.
It is a gorgeous Alabama fall morning, and the Studio has arranged for us to meet outside under spreading canopies of pecan trees. We conclude our business by noon and are treated to dinner on the grounds.
Andrew Freear, a soft-spoken London-educated professor and leader of the Rural Studio for the past 10 years, welcomes us and talks in general terms of the Studio’s link to forestry and the local community. He emphasizes the importance of students actually building their designs, and of the social significance of working in an impoverished area. He mentions the latest project: raised-bed gardening. It seems that the Studio cannot find locally-grown vegetables. The new project is an experiment to “see if it can be done here.”
I marvel at this. “Cannot find locally-grown vegetables” in the heart of some of the most productive agricultural land in the state — in a county with double-digit unemployment.
Afterwards most of the foresters leave, but a few of us stay for a tour of some of the Studio’s projects. Our guide is our friend’s daughter, a lovely and articulate student with an obvious passion for the work of the Studio.
Our first stop is an old store building that serves as an indoor classroom for the students. The spacious rooms are crowded with long tables littered with drawings, designs, and notes. There are flow charts and poster-boards taped to the walls, full of brain-stormed ideas and visions. This is the place where young dreams are formed that will change the world, one project at a time. Bright-eyed enthusiasm is all around — enough to make an old cynic consider that changing the world might just be possible after all.
We walk next door to the only store in town. For an instant I can’t help but imagine a tenant farmer in overhauls shuffling across the same floors 100 years earlier, buying crackers and cheese and digging around in the icy water of the dope box until he found his favorite flavor. I only buy a bottle of water. “Is that all?” the storekeeper asks. His disappointment is obvious.
When I walk out to rejoin the group, I notice two young able-bodied men sitting on a bench. Locals lounging while students work on the construction of a community center just across the street.
We drive to some of the completed and ongoing projects: a new fire station and a city hall, both built with an interesting combination of wood, steel, and glass; a community park in nearby Greensboro, with an unusual playground constructed with donated 55-gallon drums; a Boy Scout building in the early stages of construction. All are unique and creative.
The tour concludes at 3:00pm. I drive back to the little country store to buy another bottle of water before leaving town. I’m surprised to find it locked-up tight. I suspect that it may have been open earlier on our behalf — simply a part of the tour.
The same two men are sitting outside the store. They haven’t moved in three hours.
I think back to Professor Freear’s garden hypothesis.
As I leave Newbern I wonder if the idealistic young students will learn something during their tenure at the Rural Studio that I have observed in years of working in rural Alabama: sometimes society is less about the “have’s and the have nots”, and more about the “wills and will nots.”