On Tour: The Two Towns of Lynchburg

30 Apr

I imagine most people arrive in Lynchburg from the north or the west on bigger highways than I did. Arriving from the east, you’re greeted first by the sights and smells of a massive landfill: plows sifting garbage, birds circling, stink wafting. Then you drive practically through the waste treatment plant, another olfactory symphony. Then the road sidles up alongside freight car tracks and a smoke-billowing factory of some kind: that’s where things turn for the better. This town has a wonderful industrial ambiance to it. Through my hotel window I was serenaded during the night by the screeching wheels and mournful horn of freight trains (I love it). There are traces everywhere of the factory age and other ages as well: civil war, colonial times….the place exudes history. It might have ghosts.

A Lynchburg mansion

The first thing I had to get past is the name. I can’t think of a worse name for a town. So I was relieved to read on a plaque that it was named for one John Lynch. But wait, all is not well…. It turns out that John Lynch was the brother of one Charles Lynch, after whom the term “lynching” was in fact coined! Lynch was famous for taking matters of “justice” into his own hands — but not in regards to African Americans, rather with British loyalists during and after the Revolutionary war. I guess the term stuck when it was applied to crimes in the 19th and 20th centuries; and now the stigma is stuck to the town of Lynchburg. Though I haven’t heard evidence of a disproportionate number of lynchings in this area, the undertones of history informed the very first conversation I had in town. A young black man walked up as I was reading a historical info board near the hotel. I’ll call him Al:

Al: Whole lot of history in this town.

Me: I’ll bet.

Al: Yeah, WHOLE lotta history. Some of it not too good.

Me: I can believe that too! This must’ve been a tough place to live at times.

Al: Still is! I tell you, if you’ve got any felonies against you, you don’t wanna live in Virginia. They’ll hang you!

Me: Well hopefully they don’t do THAT anymore.

Al: Sure they do! They just do it in the courts now. They’ll string you up….

Welcome to Lynchburg! A place where the past is present, and the future seems poised to go in several different directions; a place of provocative contradictions and great potential.  There’re plenty of signs of Lynchburg’s pride in its history. A monument to the Confederacy crests the hill at the center of town. I witnessed an ironic (but heartening) juxtaposition: a weekly gathering at its base of people praying in support of our troops (the vast majority of which are people of color).

The center of town

Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University is on one side of Lynchburg. It bills itself as “the largest private non-profit university in the nation, the largest university in Virginia, and the largest Christian university in the world.” Obviously that’s a force to be reckoned with; and my host in Lynchburg, Erin Stover told me that it definitely impacts on the culture and feel of the area.

So how does Lynchburg come to partake of On Screen / In Person and invite a slate of primarily left-leaning, independent, films and filmmakers to town? And how do they expect an audience? Well, that’s the other side of Lynchburg.…

Researching Lynchburg events in the “library”

There’s a funky, artsy feel to this town that was apparent the moment I drove up to my hotel: a converted shoe factory with a 30-foot, red high heel worthy of Claes Oldenburg.

My hotel

The main street has an archetypal hippie coffee house/bookstore. There’s a cool and cheap indian-fusion diner with a yummy buffet. And there’s a large stock of old factory/loft buildings down by the tracks and the river, just begging to be converted to artistic uses. Some of this conversion has begun: my host venue, the very cool, multi-purpose Riverviews Artspace, is located here.

Riverviews Artspace

With Erin Stover

Plus the town is smack up against the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains; it’s a gorgeous area. My prediction (mark my words!) is that Lynchburg will be the next Ashville. It’s got all the necessary components for a funky/artsy/affluent mecca. But when I shared this prediction with Erin from Artspace, she reminded me of the equally strong influences from Liberty U and the area’s conservative past. This is why I have this impression of Lynchburg as two towns, or one town with two souls and its future in the balance.

I’m not sure there were any folks from Liberty University at my show in Artspace’s cute, little screening room. They were the usual smattering of environmentally-aware folks. The Q&A was excellent, as was the after-gathering of tapas and wine on main street.

The screening

Tomorrow I take off on the final leg of my OSIP tour: a show in Charleston, West Virginia. The route from here to there takes me over the Blue Ridge, and I love mountains. Ironically, the interval between tonight’s screening and tomorrow’s 5:30 show is the shortest on the circuit. Which means I’ll have scant time to supplement the 4 hours of driving with hiking or lingering. Drats.

Post by OSIP touring filmmaker, David E. Simpson

To read more posts by this filmmaker, please click here.

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