As someone who was born and raised in Wheeling, WV, I saw a bustling steel and coal town, where good jobs were once plentiful, turn into a pretty fucking bleak place in under a decade. Downtown Wheeling had several movie theaters, upscale department stores, one of the best international magazine stores that I’ve ever been in, and even some pretty good record stores. It was always difficult to find a parking space and I have memories of my parents driving around forever looking for a spot.
By the time I left—at the age of 17 in 1983—many residents were abandoning the town for better jobs elsewhere. The population today, I think, is about exactly half of what it was thirty years ago. The folks who stayed saw their $30 an hour plus benefits union-secured livelihoods disappear to be replaced by minimum wage positions as Wal-Mart associates and in fast food chains. Within a very short time most of the stores in Downtown Wheeling were closing and their windows were boarded up.
One Christmas I returned to my hometown to visit my family and a friend drove me around to show me just how much things had changed for the worse since I’d been gone (about five years at that point). He took me to (literally) Main Street and imagine if you will, a scene of happy middle-class families, busy stores, tinsel Christmas decorations on streetlights and a general small town America holiday shopping hubbub.
Well, that’s the way it used to be. That’s what I remembered. Now transpose that over some empty sidewalks, 2x4s nailed across broken windows and a guy we both went to high school with working as a prostitute in front of what was once the store were the rich people in the town shopped.
That’s a nasty picture, isn’t it? But Wheeling had it lucky compared to most of the state where clear-cutting, fracking and mountaintop removal mining have turned parts of West Virginia into lunar surfaces, polluted the drinking water and probably accomplished much worse. Who can blame the often dirt poor rural people who sold their land to the coal and gas barons to become instant Jed Clampetts, but seriously, this is like The Lorax in real life. When they’re done depleting the state of its precious natural resources, what’s left behind ain’t gonna be pretty.
Who knows how long it will take to extract every last penny of energy out of Appalachia, but one thing is quite certain: Once this has occurred, as it inevitably will, there will be virtually nothing left. No jobs, no mountains, no communities, no clean water, fuck all. When the capitalists have finished raping West Virginia, there’s going to be a big gaping hole there, plenty of devastation, and not a lot more.
Chances are you don’t know this and probably wouldn’t care much if you did. MTV’s Buckwild aside, light is virtually never shed on what is going on in West Virginia. That’s why Sean Dunne’s new documentary Oxyana, about the state’s so-called “Hillbilly Heroin” epidemic is so important.
Oceana, West Virginia, sits squarely in one of God’s blind spots. It’s one of the old coal mining communities that feeds the nation’s insatiable appetite for energy. Set in the middle of unbelievable natural beauty, a beauty that in the last number of years has been marred by the Appalachian scourge of Oxycontin. Life persists, but it’s a living that few Americans could explain or even believe - closer in kind to the world of a medieval plague. Men and women die epidemically. The addicts — who are the vast majority and all nice enough people — sell, scramble, and steal in an economy of nigh-endtimes desperation. Worn down and out by the pills, the mines or the indignity of both, everyone looks twice their own age and is unable to imagine an existence outside of coal, subsidies and prescription narcotics. Things could hardly get darker than in this place called Oceana. Nevertheless, there it is. A little village in the valley of Death, where children are born, groceries are still purchased and festivity is expressed through firearms and poor decision-making. But is this enough to live for? Is it enough to provide anyone with any hope or deliverance? OXYANA is an unflinchingly close focus on the anguish and horrors of a community that the rest of the country would just as soon forget, a nearly Biblical narrative of American forsakenness.
That last phrase there says it all, if you ask me, “a nearly Biblical narrative of American forsakenness.” Fuck.
In 2009, interviewing Julien Nitzberg, director of the (AMAZING, must-see) documentary The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (on Netflix), I asked him about a scene in his film where one of the protagonists is seen in a hospital—only moments after delivering a baby—grinding up an Oxycontin pill and snorting it with her friend while her newborn sleeps but a few feet away! I wondered if he felt, you know, bad or exploitative to have been there shooting that and he said no because that pill would have been crushed up and snorted regardless of whether or not his camera had been recording the deed. (During the film a young redneck guy looks into the camera and asks “Ever hear a Boone Country mating call?” and then he shakes a bottle of Oxycontin pills and laughs).
Oxyana received a Special Jury Mention at the recent 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Sean Dunne is also the director of the exellent American Juggalo short, which we featured on DM back in 2011.