August 10, 2019 9:56:10 PM
Clayburn Driver sat at his kitchen table in Gordo, Alabama, swiping through photos on his phone.
He slid it across the table when he had found what he was looking for: a video from November 2017 of a vinyl-sided house engulfed in flames.
Back around 2001, Driver's house was slated for the same fate.
"We've been fighting this ever since we built the house," said Driver, 70.
The house in the video once sat farther up his road, atop what's now a miles-long cleared path for an incoming highway bypass, part of a larger project of the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Driver and his wife, Sandra, a retired school teacher, have lived in the town, a pit stop between the Golden Triangle and Tuscaloosa, all their lives. It used to be a busy, "quaint little town," Sandra said.
As the department slowly builds the Highway 82 bypass around north Gordo, to increase the vehicle carrying capacity on the highway and decrease heavy truck traffic through the town's center, it's unclear what's in store for the community of about 1,650, currently spliced diagonally by the existing highway. A common anxiety is that the town, which has been on the decline for a few decades, will completely dry up. Some residents, however, think the byass will improve safety and even help the town grow.
Regardless, after nearly 20 years of planning, the bypass is coming.
"I can't change what's happened," Clayburn said. "Hopefully this will save some lives."
Goal for completion in 2022
When the Drivers moved into their house near the end of Preacher Street in 1997, they quickly heard whispers and murmurs about the plan.
Their home, with about 26 others in the immediate area, was in the way.
"We hired a lawyer, and we fought that for a while," Driver said.
They thought about just giving up, taking the forced sale money from the state and moving closer to their grandchildren in Tuscaloosa.
But ALDOT sat on the project for years due to a funding issue, said John McWilliams, ALDOT public information officer for the West Central Region.
When plans resurfaced in 2016, the new path spared the Drivers' home, along with those of at least several of his neighbors first deemed "in the way." Still, a total of 44 structures in Gordo and Pickens County, including homes and businesses, were demolished for the $46.8 million roadway.
The first and current phase of construction, the grading and draining, should be complete by spring 2020, McWilliams said. By 2022, the road should be carrying traffic.
After buying scraps of land around their house that the state didn't need for the bypass, Clayburn and Sandra Driver now live at the end of their street alone, in a wooded area with some privacy and a lot of space.
"I love it up here," Clayburn said.
A town 'dead for years'
Multiple studies conducted by transportation departments and university researchers, in Kentucky, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida, found highway bypasses didn't regularly adversely impact communities with fewer than 2,000 people. Commercial development along the bypass grew. Some businesses relocated. A decrease in aggregate retail sales was sometimes found.
What could happen in Gordo is uncertain. The city council annexed the right-of-way from the state, so everything along the bypass, which breaks off at the 25.9-mile marker past Reform and west of Gordo, will be part of the town, but away from its heart.
Mayor Craig Patterson said the measure allows the town to provide utilities for anyone who sets up shop along the route.
"We can help them if they want to come into the city," Patterson said. "We're trying to look at it as a positive and another avenue for commercial development."
The town sees about 12,000 vehicles on Highway 82 every day, Patterson said, and he hopes that number will increase.
But "increase" hasn't been much of a theme in Gordo in recent decades.
When Sandra Driver was a kid, in the 1960s and '70s, Gordo was booming. She remembers the Powell family's 10-cent store, Gordo 5 and 10, with a counter in the front where people would buy candy by weight, a meat market known as "Cold Storage" with Cattlemen's Cafe attached, boutiques, beauty parlors and barbershops. She recalls trips to the big community swimming pool and selling cotton with her grandparents at the local cotton gin.
There was Housel's Hardware, the Glass-Davis Drug Store and Price Drug Store, owned by local families.
"It was a perfect world," Sandra said. "We could buy pretty much anything we needed right in our own little town."
Gordo was founded in 1898 with some of the first land grants issued to the United States around 1821. Tradition holds that a soldier returning from the Battle of Sierra Gordo during the Mexican Revolution named the town.
By the 1980s, Gordo was at the peak of an arc of growth, with a population of 2,112, up from 952 just 30 years before.
In 1987, the town held its first annual Mule Day/Chickenfest the first week of June to celebrate its agricultural roots, with music, local and out-of-town vendors and a parade of mules, horses and wagons down Main Street, a display of antique tractors and cars. The 32nd festival was this year, and Patterson said it attracted more than 10,000 people in just two days.
After the '80s, the population started to decline. By 2000, it had dwindled to about 1,600, where it has leveled off.
Now, the downtown area is dotted with dilapidated pastel buildings spanning several streets.
Sandra said the bypass can't kill Gordo. It's been gone for a while, but she hopes it can return to what it once was with increased business.
"Gordo's been dead for years," she said. "Now you've got a Piggly Wiggly and a Dollar General. That's about it."
'It's going to hurt us'
Beth and Eddie Fisher run Cheeky's, a standalone restaurant two-tenths of a mile up First Avenue West from where it intersects with Highway 82.
Around noon two Tuesdays ago, the dining room, decorated with old-timey posters on the wood-paneled walls, was almost completely quiet during what Beth Fisher called an unusually slow lunch.
Fisher said most of the restaurant's customers are out-of-towners, from surrounding cities including Columbus, Tuscaloosa and Northport. Last week, travelers made a pit stop for the specials: chicken 'n' dressing or a fried pork chop.
"You don't want the peach cobbler, do you?" she asked a regular customer, from Tuscaloosa, seated alone at a table.
"Put it in a trough," he said.
She thinks the bypass will hurt business, and she said people have suggested she advertise on billboards along the new route to maintain her customer flow.
"How can we afford that if this happens?" she asked.
About a half-mile down the road, Charlie Patel, who moved to the United States from around Mumbai, India, opened the 16-unit, red-brick Gordo Motel in 1999.
Patel said roughly a quarter of his business are travelers, so he's bracing for impact.
A "diverse community," of different races, with "very good people," would be lost if the bypass proves to be a detriment.
"I want to stay up to my last breath," Patel said, from behind a glass partition in the motel's main office.
Efi Belim, who owns the Chevron gas station, thinks the bypass won't have a resounding effect.
Locals generate 85-90 percent of his total business, he estimated. His traveling customers usually just stop to fill up their tanks and use the restroom.
Even if it does affect the town, Belim's lease for the building expires at the end of 2020. He said he's considering staying in Gordo, even opening a new business.
"Maybe an ice cream shop," he said, something Gordo doesn't have.
Fewer accidents, less noise
A couple weeks ago, after a morning rain, Kimberly Cunningham, 61, sat in a chair on her front patio of her yellow house, the first of seven in a row, on Fifth Court Northwest. She's yards up the road from the existing highway.
She's grown accustomed to the loud traffic, especially since she lived adjacent to railroad tracks near Charleston, South Carolina, before moving to Gordo about 20 years ago.
"You just kind of tune it out," Cunningham said, speaking over rising and falling of groans from trucks. "It's not so intrusive that you can't live your life."
The bypass could be more helpful to the town than hurtful, especially with regularly-occurring car accidents along Highway 82, she said.
"It won't hurt to not have all the through traffic here," she said.
Isaac Walker, a construction worker who's been handling erosion control on the bypass for seven months, views the project similarly.
Walker, 28, and his family moved, temporarily, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Gordo specifically for his work on the job.
He and his wife rented a small house facing Highway 82, next to the Chevron gas station. A plastic toy car big enough to fit a toddler sat in the yard.
"This highway here doesn't ever stop," Walker said.
Walker said safety was one of his concerns when he moved in.
"If we're not outside, we don't let the kids go out," Walker said. "We take them to the park."
Some things change, others stay the same
At Cattle on a Flame restaurant, families with members spanning three of four generations sat down for dinner at black-and-white checked tables beneath painted portraits of cows. The serve staff said the club sandwiches "do really well," but more tables were covered in baskets of steak, fried chicken, baked potatoes and Texas toast.
Jordan Jones, 18, mans the checkout counter. The restaurant mostly runs on local business, but also satisfies travelers from Mississippi and other parts of Alabama, so the bypass isn't a major concern.
Jones said "there's literally nothing to do" or see in Gordo, her sleepy hometown, characterized by everyone knowing everyone's business.
Gordo High School football is the main pastime, Jones, a former co-captain of the cheer squad, said.
The school's fall spirit night is this week, she said. Everyone in town will go out to the field behind the school to watch the Green Wave team scrimmage. The marching band and cheerleaders make an appearance, too.
"Usually our highlight here are football games," she said.
Just down the highway, Gordo resident Shannon Dyer, 43, was working on a 1973 Camaro in his personal car garage with his friend, Andy Hoggle, 52, who lives in Tuscaloosa County.
The two are making a "restomod," restoring the vintage car with new parts.
Even with the impending bypass, Hoggle said Gordo residents are in control of their town's fate.
"The only people that are keeping Gordo alive are the people in Gordo," he said.