Copyright John Gerstner. All Rights Reserved.

Waycross, Georgia: Small Town America at a Crossroads?

Sign encouraging breastfeeding near downtown Waycross, Georgia, population 14,000.

The challenge of photographing a small town is that … it’s small. By big-city standards, it’s dead. Where are all the people?

In New York City or Chicago, you only have to walk a few blocks and you’ll be literally assaulted by sights, sounds and smells that will have you snapping away. Everything is hyper-super-sized. The challenge is to decide what not to photograph.

Small towns have to be discovered on their terms, meaning you have to move slower and look deeper. Things that you might overlook in a big city amidst the sensory overload, little details and subtleties, now attract your photographic attention. You see more things when you’re more open to seeing. The resulting images may be less dramatic and sensational, but true to the character of the place.

And so it was when I spent five days photographing Waycross, Georgia, population 14,000. I was immediately aware that I was in a town with a rich history of railroading and forestry, but one that had fallen on very hard times. The sheer amount of vacant and abandoned commercial buildings throughout the city is startling.

Statistics tell the underlying story. Household income today is less than half of the national average: $26,000 vs. $53,000. Population (more than half black) has fallen nearly eight percent from 2000 to 2014. More than a third of the population (13,780 people) live below the poverty line. This is higher than the national average of 14.7%.

The signs of poverty and struggle are everywhere. Yet, there are countervailing signs. The large Waycross Mall seems to be bustling and every fast-food chain has at least one restaurant somewhere in the city. CSX operates a huge rail yard on the outskirts of the city and train whistles seem to blast the quietness of the town at least once an hour. And God surely has his hand on the city as there also seem to be more churches per capita than any city in America, though I have no statistics to back this up.


Natural prairie surrounded by homes stands in the middle of Blackshear.

The other thing that Waycross and nearby Blackspear have in common is an abundance of natural beauty, from the giant Okefenokee Swamp and Laura Walker State Park, to lakes, gardens, horse farms, parks, fields and forests. There is an amazing field of blooming prairie in the middle of nearby Blackshear (population 3,800) owned and maintained by the First Baptist Church of Blackshear.

If you paid any attention to the 2016 Presidential election, you would quickly surmise that Waycross is Trump Country through and through. If you had to make the case that a city in disrepair and decline was the very definition of Trump Country, the signs of victory are everywhere; truly a sight for sore eyes. And indeed, Trump carried Ware County where Waycross sits by a 70 to 28 percent margin.

Is Waycross a microcosm of the thousands of other small towns across America, struggling to survive and, more importantly, have a voice in the future of the country? Perhaps that answer lies in the rest of the country, especially those in major metropolitan cities, becoming aware of the realities of life far from the madding crowds. I hope that this set of photographs offers a few insights into that reality of small-town America at a cross-roads.

Downtown Waycross, Georgia

Mural and passing train in downtown Waycross, one of many that pass through the town nearly every hour.

Sign of past times, being reclaimed by nature.

Former show room with wall to ceiling windows in downtown Waycross.

Waycross is a very church-going community. More than half the population is African-American.

A thrift store stays in business in a crumbling and all but deserted former strip mall.

 

One of the largest employers is the CSX rail yard on the outskirts of Waycross.

Youth accomplishments and Georgia pride blend in this Waycross showroom.

 

Okefenokee Heritage Center

A locomotive long retired still awes tourists to the Okefenokee Heritage Center.

Blackshear, Georgia

The history of Blackshear, population 4,000, summed up in a mural near downtown.

A bazaar of antiquity in Blackshear.

One of Blackshear’s prized historic homes.

Why some Georgians choose to live in Blackshear instead of Atlanta.

Judging by the sheer number of churches, in God Ware County residents trust.

Okefenokee Swamp Park

The Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross draws a steady flow of tourists. The Okefenokee Swamp is the most extensive blackwater swamp in North America.

Ace Pole Company just outside Waycross has been manufacturing wood poles for over 50 years.

A scenic horse farm between Waycross and Blackshear reflects a bit of old time southern charm.

This swamp in bloom lies along the highway running from Waycross to Blackshear

Far from the madding crowd, a pair of trees stands guard over an open field near Blackshear, prime real estate with an uncertain future.