Search Something: As I Watch My Small Town Die

It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, and as I sit here in front of my computer with a muted football game flashing by on TV, I can hear a banner in front of my house whip softly in the breeze.  The only other sound is the occasional car passing by on the highway.  Some discarded oak leaves may protest this notion as they scrape along the driveway, but they don’t seem to be putting up much of a fight now.  Silence has largely won the day.

But silence often reigns supreme in this small, midwestern town because there’s nothing to overthrow it.  There’s no congested traffic with drivers honking their horns in futile frustration.  There’s no music emanating from the park or the subway because there are no (large) parks and no subways.  And there’s no soft buzz of conversation because there’s hardly enough people living here to form a crowd, much less a buzzing crowd.  This town, like many small towns in America, is slowly dying.

The school district, although routinely well-ranked in state and national standards, sees fewer students walking the halls each year – hovering around an enrollment of 450 in Kindergarten through twelfth grade.  Classrooms that were almost overflowing during my schooldays are now uncluttered and spacious.  Teachers who’ve spent years teaching at a particular grade level are being shifted elsewhere, as the classes shrink from two sections to one.  And still more teachers are packing up their bags because the administration can’t justify the dwindling interest in their vocational subjects.

Businesses haven’t fared much better.  One of the town’s three gas stations has changed ownership at least five times in the past 15 years, spending long periods of that time completely closed.  A victim of poor location, in a town that barely has prime locations, it has struggled mightly for business…and it shows.  Its windows display old advertisements grown pale by the bright, beating sun.  The prominent structure that once displayed depressingly high gas prices is now white and barren.  And the only oil left on the premises comes from the oil stains gracing the cement slab where numerous pumps once stood.

Farther down the main drag, some restaurants show more signs of life.  The most successful establishment basks in the glow of a more modern appearance, as the surrounding buildings continue to age with little care.  This attracts people of all stripes who have tired of the greasy bar scene and sinister lighting that characterizes other eateries.  But that doesn’t make it immune to some of the same pitfalls of its competitors.  Indeed, after the summer guests have had their fill and the local residents have fallen away, it closes its doors in hibernation to stave off the financial strain of winter.

Thus, it’s no surprise that this town is less than a haven for twentysomethings.  Most of the town’s ‘next generation’ bolted after high school, (as did I), to someplace louder and larger.  They’ve gone around the state and to the coasts.  They’ve navigated through bridge tolls and bright lights to carve out a new existence.  And one that hopefully pays the bills.   But even in their disappointments, most of them don’t return because to return is an even bigger disappointment.

And yet, this is where I sit.  I sit at home after four years away and wonder about life beyond this small town.  A life beyond halted infrastructure and Friday night lights.  A life beyond sparkling lakes and fresh farmland.  A life beyond close-mindedness and monoculture.  A life beyond friendly smiles and warm conversations.  A life beyond small opportunities and small dreams.  A life beyond…

But once I reach beyond this small town, what will I find?  A place bustling with vibrant culture, like New York City?  Or a place jaded by its very existence, like New York City?  A land of opportunity, like Los Angeles? Or a place of select opportunity, like Los Angeles?  A place with midwestern comforts, like Chicago? Or a place of midwestern violence, like Chicago?  Will I be glad that I left?  Or will I long for the silence of home?

This post was inspired by an essay featured on New York Magazine’s blog, The Cut.

– l  xo

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