Saturday, April 14, 2012

Yes, You Can't go Home Again

I have just spent the last two days visiting my old home town, the place I spent the first 18 years of my life, and where I went all through elementary, middle, and high schools. I also met with two of my oldest friends from those days, one 85, the other exactly my age, that is alas, now about to be 83. I cannot say it was entirely depressing although in some ways it was. After an hour or so of conversation we agreed that not all change is “progress,” and that what has happened to “Our town” is, in fact, pretty depressing. Our town, when we were children, was a boom town. The mines, especially during WW II ran three shifts, money was flowing, gambling and prostitution flourished, much of the population consisted of unmarried miners and lumberjacks. There were bars and brothels, gambling and good times galore. It was an exciting place.

But it was also a kind of typical small town in that we had several butcher shops, bakeries, small grocery stores, a soda fountain and candy store, men’s and women’s clothing stores, local banks, and even our own brewery. You could walk everywhere, most everyone was known to everyone else, and it was a comfortable and easy place to live. The iceman delivered ice once a week, the milkman delivered milk every day, the news came from radio and from the local newspapers, life was, more or less good, even during the war years. One of my old friends blames the demise of our town on Jimmy Carter who, he says, “Declared war on mining,” the other blames environmentalists for the demise of the timber industry, both horribly gross oversimplifications, but comforting, I guess, to them. It is true, however, that our economy was far too dependent upon those two industries and when they declined the town declined along with them. As the town was built originally on a large cedar swamp, and as it is situated in a narrow canyon, there is no room for agriculture or even much in the way of gardening. The population of our town in its heyday I believe was probably about 3500, augmented on weekends by hundreds of miners and lumberjacks who came in from the hills for the weekend. The population now is fewer than 1000, augmented by no one except a few tourists during the summer months.

It is the physical condition of the town that I found most depressing. Ignoring the downtown area for the moment, what you find is that the better parts of town, where the finest houses were, and remain, is still quite attractive, well kept, nicely painted, tended, and much like always. The further removed you are from this central area the more depressing it becomes, with houses deteriorating, unpainted, unkempt, vacant, and rather forlornly for sale. Most of the houses in our town are of wooden frame construction, fairly large, and by now often close to a hundred years of age. There are a few of the finest ones constructed of brick but they are a minority. I think what has happened is that those hardy souls who elected to remain in spite of the deterioration slowly took over the finest houses they could not previously afford and take good care of them. Houses of lesser value have been abandoned or are maintained by those who cannot afford much more than food. Thus you find this sort of schizophrenic situation with the best parts of town still the best , and quite attractive, and the remainder terribly unattractive and rapidly deteriorating. I saw one fine old very large frame house, large lot, detached garage, in a kind of marginal area, coming up for auction. The starting bid a startling $10,000!

It is, however, the downtown that I found the most depressing. Interesting enough, virtually all of the older buildings are on the historical register, fine old brick buildings (built after the terrible fire of 1910), three or four stories tall (no elevators, of course), and mostly vacant and for sale, On one block, for example, there are three old hotels, all vacant and all for sale. But probably a third or more of all other buildings and storefronts are either for sale or for rent. In this relatively small downtown area there are at least six antique stores, perhaps more, and not much else besides a couple of banks, and a few not very good restaurants. Part of the problem is the town has little to offer anyone other than its lurid history. There is a very fine Mining Museum, a so-called Bordello Museum, and little else other than a pretty nondescript grocery store, a couple of remaining bars, and memories.

What I find the most depressing in all this is that my home town isn’t really basically much different than hundreds of other small towns. It is almost always the case that any old building with a second and/or third or fourth story, will find those stories completely vacant, useless. It appears that no one wants to locate their office or business above the ground level. The owners I have spoken with all agree that customers will just not walk up to do business. This means there are millions and millions of square feet of usable space being completely wasted. At the same time we are building millions and millions of storage facilities as, I gather, storing anything above ground level must be far too difficult. I don’t know what the answer is to this strange problem, but those who keep insisting Americans are the most innovative people on earth, should work their innovative magic on this unusual situation. One idea, that would no doubt be considered ridiculous, would be, how about subsidies for installing elevators in all these old buildings? I mean, if you can insist on remodeling curbs and entrances for the handicapped, why not remodeling these hundreds of thousands of old buildings for their convenience as well? All those people now too lazy or unable to get to the second floor would have easy access, millions of dollars could be saved, along with many marvelous old buildings. In Europe you do not see this same neglect. But who would want to be like Europe? Certainly not any American Congresspersons who knows we should never learn anything from Europe.

Now that most of the mining waste has been cleaned up, and the “Lead creek” now runs clear for the first time in memory, my home town is presently an unusually pretty place, but there is no apparent reason to live there unless, perhaps, you are retired and just want peace and quiet (and no amenities like even a decent bookstore or other than the most basic of foodstuffs). I thought of retiring there, but I learned that in their desperation for attention they have decided to become the snowmobile capital of the world. I absolutely detest snowmobiles. Sigh!

The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all.
Doris Lessing

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