Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

From the outside, Portsmouth, Ohio is best known as “a national symbol of the opioid crisis,” and, more recently, a hub for addiction treatment. But throughout its history Portsmouth’s residents have cycled through many different self conceptions, from the prideful “Peerless City” of the early 1900s to the northernmost source of “Southern Hospitality” in the 1960s. The new documentary “Peerless City,” by journalist Amanda Page and filmmaker David Bernabo, charts the town’s changing identity and its residents’ commitment to actively shaping it, conceptually and materially. 

The film will make its public television debut on August 21st at 10pm EDT on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Afterwards, it will be available for streaming on PBS Passport.

Enjoy our conversation about regionlessness, architectural time travel, and comebacks, below.

Early 1900s headlines often referred to the “Peerless City.” (Photo provided)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you both tell me about your connections to Portsmouth and how you ended up on this project?

Amanda Page: I was born in Portsmouth, raised in Portsmouth, and graduated from New Boston, which is a little village in between two parts of the city of Portsmouth. Throughout my adult life I’ve really had a leave-and-come-back relationship with it.

DY: Can you tell me more about the leave-and-come-back part?

AP: I think that a lot of it has to do with the common narrative throughout Appalachia that in order to succeed, you have to leave. In some regards just leaving itself as a success. I was very socialized to believe that. And, at the time, I was struggling. I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have any role models and I didn’t even really know how to articulate a lot of what I can articulate now. So I was kind of flailing and would come back home intermittently. My family is still there and it’s so beautiful and just comfortable. So I would find myself leaving, returning, leaving, returning, and finally I left for a very long period of time. But during that time I would talk about it a lot. I have a friend who says, “Within five minutes of meeting Amanda, you meet Portsmouth.” It’s always top of mind.

DY: What about you, David?

David Bernabo: I had never been to Portsmouth before Amanda asked me to collaborate on this. So I’ve only been there about three times.

DY: What do you think the outsider perspective brought to the filming process?

DB: Yeah, I think it was really helpful because Amanda had all the contacts, so it was really easy to get all the interviews we wanted.

AP: I will say, I don’t think I could have done it on my own. I’m too close to it. It’s hard for me to see it for what it is now. I really don’t have fresh eyes. I’m never not looking at it as “what was before.” A lot of times we’d drive around and pass an empty lot and I’d be like “This or that used to be there.” So I’m conscious that I have history there heaping on history. I was so grateful to have a collaborator who could bring fresh eyes to it. 

A postcard advertising Crichton’s Inn in Portsmouth, which closed in 1919. The card describes the city as “liberal minded, hospitable and alive to all.” (Photo provided)

DB: I’d add that I had an open mind to view the town aesthetically, as far as what shots to take and things along those lines, and Amanda understood the narrative and had context for the people we interviewed and the topics we covered.

DY: How would you describe the aesthetics of the town?

DB: There were a lot of elements that would have been really impressive when it was built. Some of them are more run down now, but you still have these massive civic projects that help you time travel through the town through its architecture. You see what’s still vibrant, what needs some renovation, and what’s been the focus of new builds. It’s also interesting to just see the different houses and different neighborhoods. I’m from Pittsburgh and there you go from one neighborhood to another, walk four blocks, and the vibe of the neighborhood changes dramatically. And I think Portsmouth has aspects of that too even though it’s a small town. I love that about visiting new towns. There really is a time travel aspect. You can see how a town has existed over 100 years just by driving around today.

DY: How did Portsmouth’s many slogans become the lens through which you chose to explore the city’s history?

AP: My internalization of the slogan “Where southern hospitality begins” started when I was 16. I’ve tried for 20 years to write an essay about that slogan and what it means to me and how it has weirdly shaped my life. When I went to graduate school in Alabama it was really kind of an attempt to understand what “southern” means. 

Then when I saw “Moundsville,” which is the film David made with John Miller, I got inspired. I loved the style, the quirky snapshot of a place. And I just can’t think of Portsmouth without thinking about my relationship to that slogan. What’s really interesting, though, is that because of that slogan, I was paying attention to other slogans through the years and there was a small contingent of people who started referring to it as the “comeback city.” So I had my eye on that and the people who were using it, and then my brother told me about “Peerless City” and how it was the nickname of Portsmouth in the early 1900s. The way that I have a relationship with “Where Southern Hospitality Begins,” he weirdly has a relationship with that slogan. So it was a framework I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

DY: Do you mind expanding a little bit on your relationship with the southern hospitality slogan?

AP: I first noticed that when I was 16 when I was shadowing a reporter through a high school mentorship program. We went to help her with a story of a new city limit sign and the mayor at the time, who was always known as the mayor with the sash because he always had a sash on that said “Mayor.” We took a picture of him in front of the sign wearing his sash. But on the sign it said “Where Southern Hospitality Begins” and that was my first introduction to it. And then really, for a lot of years, I was asking myself, “Why was I born here? Why am I stuck here?” You know, and then this was this, “What is this place?” kind of question. Like, “Well, is it where southern hospitality begins?” I think it’s also important to say that both my dad and my brother are amateur Civil War historians. They were Civil War reenactors so we went to battlefields a lot for vacations when I was a kid, and I also thought a lot about the North-South divide. Ohio is North so why would we even want to claim southern? There are a lot of jokes about Kentucky drivers in Ohio so I was like, “Why do we want to align ourselves with southernness?” What did it mean for me?

At the time I went to graduate school I did not have the language to say “I’m interested in regional culture,” but that’s definitely what I was pursuing. So I went to Alabama to try to understand it, kind of guided by this slogan, reading a lot of southern writers trying to understand how the place that I’m from might be similar to this whole other region.

DY: I’m from southern Illinois, so also a truly northern state but one that borders Kentucky, and I think there is something really interesting about the regionlessness of a place that feels very southern, even sounds southern, but isn’t. I noticed that when I was watching the documentary, there were a lot of accents that at least my classmates in Boston would perceive as Southern.

AP: Yeah, and I will say too, about using those three slogans, there have definitely been others: Atomic City was one for a while that people tried to get to catch on. I’ve seen “Portsmouth, Ohio Where Happiness Follows Opportunity.” I sort of picked those three because the only thing I knew about script writing was that you make three acts.

DY: I was also thinking about the way that Portsmouth was really linked to the opioid epidemic, and it does seem like there’s something powerful about rebranding on purpose for a town that’s being branded in certain ways from the outside. So can you talk a little more about “Comeback City” and where it came from?

AP: I’m not 100% sure where it originated. I saw a few different people and community events use it. I think a lot of people do think of it as a comeback from being hit so hard with the opioid epidemic, but Portsmouth has been hit hard before, especially with loss of industry. It just happened to be opioids this time, and the national media descended. Books got written about us this time. There’ve been articles in the New York Times, the Guardian, Sam Quinones‘s book “Dreamland” talks about us. I wanted to bring up “Dreamland” because the author wrote about our role in the opioid crisis and then in his new book, “The Sum of Us” he has a chapter dedicated to Portsmouth. And one of the lines of that chapter says, something like “If Portsmouth led the nation into the opioid crisis, it is now leading it out with its innovation and recovery efforts.” And I just think, you know, we had all this media around our descent into that madness, but just a little about how we have responded to it with such care and innovation.

DY: I’m curious about both of your reads on the accuracy of those national narratives. Do you think that Portsmouth actually was so unique in its experience of the opioid epidemic? And then also, do you think that it’s particularly unique in the addiction recovery space?

DB: It’s kind of difficult because I really only know things that I’ve read, which would be from the media, and then from the handful of interviews that we did on those topics, which are pretty uniformly in contrast to those larger media narratives. So I guess I’m siding with firsthand accounts from people that the town was paralleled by other places. And then the recovery effort is maybe potentially more unique in how successful it’s been and how it continues to grow.

AP: Yeah, I think to focus on the uniqueness, people said that it was unique because there was one specific doctor that started the model of the pill mill. That’s where that uniqueness comes from. And Portsmouth had already seen its share of national media. Life magazine was there in 1989 and did a piece on poverty so I think that there was a tendency to believe it was always unique. But I also think that uniqueness arose from the fact that we created it through innovation. We had a recovery center for so long, and there’s a history and a precedent. We already kind of had an infrastructure because people would come from all over the state for treatment.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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