Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Small Town Blues

I'd like to tag-team with Tom's post from his visit to Newark, Ohio, home of the Newark Mounds, an ancient Native American site recently listed with the United Nations, and home of the Longaberger Basket headquarters which is itself a breathtaking architectural achievement and worthy of a visit all on its own. Let's take another visit to the small town.

In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature by savagely ridiculing small town America. In novels like Main Street (set in the semi-fictional town of Gopher Prairie, MN) and Babbitt Lewis skewered the small town as a place of small people with small minds. A place where the lucky escaped and the unlucky were trapped.

When he wrote, the midwestern small town was at its apex, and to visit any of them today you can see the evidence of that prosperity and pride in what remains of the architecture - an imposing court house or city hall; a town square (usually with a Civil War memorial); a block or two of fine commercial buildings facing the square; elegant residential streets just off the square.

By the 1920s the midwestern small town had also fixed itself in the American imagination as the embodiment of what was quintessentially American; indeed, by the 1920s the midwest itself had fixed itself in the American imagination as the American "heartland." It managed to balance industry and agriculture, city and country, "native" and immigrant. And it prided itself on a certain kind of progressivism - the midwest, after all, produced the American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs (Indiana), Fightin' Bob LaFollette, governor of Wisconsin, the skyscraper (born in Chicago) and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nearly one hundred years later, the midwestern small town is an endangered species. To drive across Ohio, or Indiana, or Illinois is to come through dozens of these places that are shells of their former selves. The court house is still there; the commercial district is now 1/3 vacant; what remains tends to thrift shops and social service agencies; many of the houses are ill-maintained and several are empty altogether.

In some ways, what has happened to the small town is exactly what has happened to the big rust belt cities, only in microcosm. The town's one big employer - maybe a grain elevator or a small manufacturing operation - closes and leaves; a bypass around the town gets built in the name of traffic efficiency and "progress"; then a shopping center, complete with a big box store opens at one end, the "downtown" is drained of its economic life; people move out to the "suburbs" near the bypass - often a small subdevelopment or trailer park; and voila! mini urban decay.

Historian Richard Davies has written a lovely little book about this called Main Street Blues - a history of Camden, Ohio, the town where he grew up. As it happens, it was also the home of Sherwood Anderson, the first American novelist to write about the dark side of American small-town life.

Because the small town as a living entity is disappearing, we cling to its symbolism even more tenaciously. This is what the McSame campaign is tapping into - a yearning on the part of many people who live in anonymous apartment complexes (of the sort where my daughter and I went door-to-door last weekend) or equally anonymous housing developments whose major advantage is easy access to an on-ramp. Demographically speaking, a small fraction of Americans actually live in small towns; a much larger percentage wish they did.

A final thought for now about the small town. Last year the Times published some numbers about Iraq war casualties. I don't remember them precisely, but the upshot of the piece was that a hugely disproportionate number of casualties come for towns of 10,000 and smaller. If Vietnam was fought disproportionately by African Americans from the city, then this is a small-town war. That alone is a sad commentary on the opportuntities facing 18yr olds graduating from under-funded high schools in small towns today.

But perhaps that also explains why there has been so little public outcry about it. We love the idea of the small town, but we don't really want to live there, facing a choice between the night shift at Wal-Mart and the army. The war is being fought by people from those places we invoke as part of our national mythology but whose reality we have otherwise largely forgotten. Places we barely notice as we zip by on the bypass.

UPDATE: For those architect wannabes, I've added a photo of the Longaberger HQ above. Tom S.


Anonymous said...

Steve I think you should have called this post "To Hell in a Handbasket"

Sator Arepo said...

Great post, sir.

Anonymous said...

I just want to concur that the Newark Mounds are well worth a visit. The total site is enormous. It's an amazing piece of pre-Columbian heritage scattered across an Ohio town.

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