Living in Bluefield
Explore one of West Virginia’s southernmost cities and witness its incredible transition from booming railroad town to leading arts center.
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Bluefielders have tremendous civic pride. Bluefield’s Beautification Commission—made up of a dozen hardworking devoted residents—has spent the last six years beautifying Bluefield in every way imaginable. From spring through fall, vibrant flowers cascade from window boxes and planters—200 containers adorn the business district alone. They’ve replaced faded flags, planted thousands of flowers, built beautiful signs at each entrance to the city, planted hundreds of trees, and created a new entrance to the city park. The clean and beautiful streets astonish tourists and locals alike.
Betsey is proud of her town. She says, “We work really, really hard, not just planting flowers but raising money so that we can take on projects. Our community is very giving, and I just love that now people reroute their trip so that they can drive through downtown because it is so beautiful. It shows what a group of determined individuals can do.”
One of the most colorful spots in town is Chicory Square, where a detailed mural, painted by local artist Larry Akers, depicts the railway yard. The square is surrounded by brightly painted miniature trains, a project that came about as a partnership between the city and the Bluefield Fine Arts Commission.
A certified arts community, Bluefield is transitioning into a vibrant center for the arts. Visual, theater, and musical art venues are blossoming. One of the oldest arts organizations in the town is Summit Players, which got its start in 1967 and raised $200,000 to restore the auditorium in the Bluefield Area Arts Center from a parking garage back into a theater. This community theater group performs dinner theater, comedy, and musicals four times a year to sold-out crowds. A popular children’s program has also been added in the summer, ensuring that generations of children will be exposed to the arts. If you are in town May 12 to 15 or 19 to 21, be sure to check out the production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
In addition, 4 Pals Productions has expanded theater offerings in the area. Members write, direct, and act in plays that are performed for the community and in schools. Blue Mountain Performing Arts also travels to area venues, performing nine shows a year. Another popular destination is East River Arts—part art gallery, part restaurant, and part music venue—and it holds open mic nights on Thursday, with dinner served and Doc Greenberg’s Patient Jazz performing from 6 to 7:30 p.m. And locals aren’t stopping there; a grassroots effort is underway to save the Art Deco Granada Theater. “It may take a few years, but we will restore this grand building, giving us another venue for the arts,” Betsey says.
Bluefield is also home to the coolest gallery in the state—Gary Bowling’s House of Art. Located on the top floor of the Bluefield Area Arts Center, it draws people from all over the country. Most of the pieces are made from recycled and repurposed trash, but there’s an eclectic mix of visual art from regional artists, including paintings, pottery, and sculpture. A new stage and sound equipment join the gallery’s whimsical art collection, turning it into a venue for poets, comedians, and magicians, as well. On April 14, the gallery will host an Evening with Lady D, West Virginia’s queen of soul who sang at President Obama’s inauguration. “This place is for everyone. We are constantly adding new things and new events, like our popular First Fridays,” says artist Joe Queen, who helped build the gallery. “The House of Art makes West Virginia special. Bluefield needs this place.”
Founder and multimedia artist Gary Bowling believes the arts have an important transformative power for communities like his. “Bluefield is in transition,” he says. “You’ll run out of coal, and you’ll run out of timber, but you’ll never run out of the spirit of the people. It is reborn here every day.”
That spirit and determination is evident at every turn—from City Hall to the local businesses to all of the dynamic community organizations. “We are working so hard to bring our little town back. We care that much. We want our town to be beautiful,” Betsey says. “We want the state to know, we aren’t dead. We are very much alive. People are missing out on Bluefield. It’s a hidden treasure.”
The easiest way to travel to Bluefield is on Interstate 77. Take Exit 1, before going through the nearly 5,500-foot East River Mountain Tunnel that dumps you into Virginia. Take John F. Nash Boulevard (52 North) to 460 West. For more information, visit visitmercercounty.com or bluefieldchamber.com. Driving, walking, and Coal Trail brochures are also available at wvliving.com/vacationguides.