Ghost Town and Country

The weekend edition of the Journal ran a feature about Jonestown, site of the famous massacre which occurred 30 years ago last month. Author Eric Banks uses the story as a thumbnail for Guyana itself, in part by describing unsuccessful efforts to fashion Jonestown (which has no standing structures — only rusted fragments amongst grass and jungle) into a tourist destination:

Over time there have been intermittent schemes to clear and memorialize the site. Last year, the Guyanese minister of tourism, industry and commerce, Manniram Prashad, visited it to promote his vision of “dark tourism.” A reporter from the Guyana Chronicle cheekily commented that Mr. Prashad “remarked that Jonestown, if reconstructed, can be a major tourist attraction in Guyana.” Rather than getting involved in the “blame game,” Mr. Prashad stated, “we should work to educate our people and allow others who suffered as a result of the loss of loved ones and friends to visit the site if they so wish.”

No grislier an idea than opening Dachau or Auschwitz to tourists, though in those cases I would say they are representative of something greater than what occurred there. What does Jonestown stand for? A metaphor for the excess and naivete in the decade following the Summer of Love, perhaps; of those who, like Charles Manson’s disciples, wanted so badly to drop out they were willing to turn on and tune in to just about anything else.

Jonestown, like ghost towns everywhere, owes its existence to its remoteness, which is exactly what precludes it from being a big tourist draw now:

Large parts of the interior remain virtually inaccessible, particularly in the northern regions, where Jonestown is located. Though a Chinese timber company has begun operations around Port Kaituma, the tin-shack mining town located about 10 miles from the Jonestown site, the town itself shrank by nearly half with the closing of the Barama Logging Company a decade ago and comprises a more transient population of “pork knockers,” individuals panning for gold. The lack of infrastructure has at least been a boon to the small river port — it’s the only real source of basic supplies imported for the entire region.

Such is the nature of the beast. Attempts to repurpose some of the old iron towns of the New Jersey Pine Barrens failed because they were too far away from everywhere; water, wood, and bog iron midwifed them into wilderness, and there they died when iron and coal were discovered in Pennsylvania. The same isolation preserved them into the present. Developing Jonestown would demand overcoming the seclusion that has kept it, if not intact, then at least unpaved, and just aren’t worth it. Those compelled to visit a place, like Banks, will endure the hardship of getting there.

Story here. A wonderful thing about the WSJ‘s online edition are the slideshows.

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