Christmas in Flyover Land
Last year, a local guy started renovating a restaurant on Main Street that has been shuttered for at least fifteen years. He’d retired from the army and started a company that made a fortune clearing landmines in faraway lands where US nation-building plans went awry. Wasn’t that a ripe business opportunity! He’s from here and loves the village and married his high school sweetheart — and would like the place to come back to life.
He’s partnered up with another guy who intends to open a bistro with a bar, a fireplace, and supposedly a boutique distillery operation in the back. That would give some people in town a reason to leave the house at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when the day’s work is done — people like me who work alone all day. It could also give the citizens of this community a comfortable place to talk to each other about their lives and the place where we all live, and what we might do about things here. That’s called local politics.
I’ll refrain from tossing off judgments about the exterior treatment for now. Draw your own conclusions. I haven’t seen the inside and there’s butcher paper taped up on the windows while they finish in there. It looks like they’ll open early in the new year. There hasn’t been a comfortable public gathering place on Main Street in a long time. There’s a “tasting room” at a local small brewery down the block, but it’s hardly bigger than a couple of broom-closets and the New York Liquor Authority has an asinine regulation that literally forbids comfortable seating in such a designated establishment. Stools only. And only a few of those. What kind of culture does that to itself?
Ours apparently. When you get down to it, the sickness at the heart of our nation these days is the result of countless bad choices, large and small, that we’ve made collectively over decades, including the ones made by our elected officialdom. The good news is that we could potentially move in the opposite direction and start making better choices. However deficient and unappetizing you think Mr. Trump is, and how crudely unorthodox his behavior, that equation is what got enough people to vote for him. The strenuous efforts to antagonize him, disable him, and get rid of him by any means necessary — including police-state tactics, bad faith inquisitions, and outright sedition — have prevented the nation as a whole from entertaining a realistic new consensus for making better choices. In fact, it has achieved just the opposite: a near civil war, edition 2.0.
All the people of America, including the flyovers, are responsible for the sad situation we’re in: this failure to reestablish a common culture of values most people can subscribe to and use it to rebuild our towns into places worth caring about. Main Street, as it has come to be, is the physical manifestation of that failure. The businesses that used to occupy the storefronts are gone, except for second-hand stores. Nobody in 1952 would have believed this could happen. And yet, there it is: the desolation is stark and heartbreaking. Even George Bailey’s “nightmare” scene in It’s a Wonderful Life depicts the supposedly evil Pottersville as a very lively place, only programmed for old-fashioned wickedness: gin mills and streetwalkers. Watch the movie and see for yourself. Pottersville is way more appealing than 99 percent of America’s small towns today, dead as they are.
The dynamics that led to this are not hard to understand. The concentration of retail commerce in a very few gigantic corporations was a swindle that the public fell for. Enthralled like little children by the dazzle and gigantism of the big boxes, and the free parking, we allowed ourselves to be played. The excuse was “bargain shopping,” which actually meant we have sent the factories to distant lands and eliminated your jobs, and all the meaning and purpose in your lives — and cheap stuff from Asia is your consolation prize. Enjoy…
The “bones” of the village are still standing but the programming for the organism of a community is all gone: gainful employment, social roles in the life of the place, confidence in the future. For a century starting in 1850, there were at least five factories in town. They made textiles and later on, paper products and, in the end, toilet paper, ironically enough. Yes, really. They also made a lot of the sod-busting steel ploughs that opened up the Midwest, and cotton shirts, and other stuff. The people worked hard for their money, but it was pretty good money by world standards for most of those years. It allowed them to eat well, sleep in a warm house, and raise children, which is a good start for any society. The village was rich with economic and social niches, and yes, it was hierarchical, but people tended to find the niche appropriate to their abilities and aspirations — and, believe it or not, it is better to have a place in society than to have no place at all, which is the sad situation for so many today. Homelessness in America runs way deeper than just the winos and drug addicts living on the big city sidewalks.
I’ve written a ton about the bad choice of suburbanizing the USA and all its subsidiary ill-effects, and yet it’s a subject so rich that you can hardly exhaust it. It has produced an entropic wasting disease on our country so complex in symptoms that all the certified PhD economists and sociologists of the Ivy League and the land-grant diploma mills can barely diagnose the illness, or calculate the pain it has caused. Not a small part of this is the utter and abject absence of artistry expressed in the places we’ve built since 1945.
Our Main Street flaunts that boldly. The 1960-vintage post office looks like a soviet lunch-counter — or, more specifically, the box that it came in. What were they thinking? The video store looks like a muffler shop. The graceful four-story hotel that stood at the absolute center of town, and burned down in 1957, was replaced by a one-story drive-in bank. The façade re-doos of the 1970s and 80s display a mindboggling array of bad choices in claddings, colors, proportioning, and embellishment. It’s as if the entire world of aesthetics had died in the canebrakes of the Solomon Islands in 1944, and afterward nobody realized that something in America had gone missing. It’s particularly dismaying when you see the efforts that earlier generations made to instill some beauty in the things they built, with a few examples still standing for all to wonder at and dote on.
The damage done can be undone. It’s really a question of what it might take and that’s a big question because it will almost surely take a shock to the system. That shock could come as soon as the next two weeks — as not a few observers have predicted — in the form of a gross financial dislocation. The ongoing mysterious action in the “re-po” markets suggests that some kind of black hole has gaped open in the banking cosmos and is sucking literally hundreds of billions of dollars into an alternative universe. Guess we’ll have to stand by on that. The shale oil orgy is probably peaking, and the after-effects of that will be pretty harsh, but it might take a couple more years to play out. The weak leg of the stool these days seems to be our politics, the dangerous deformities of which I set forth in this blog regularly. (Some readers object to hearing about it, of course, for reasons I must regard as peevish and specious.) Most likely, the shocks will come in combinations from banking, from the rest of the actual economy, and from these deadly “gotcha” politics.
You can see the humble beginnings of change around here, or at least an end to some of the practices and behaviors I’ve described above. The K-Mart shut down last March. It left the town without a general merchandise store — besides the Dollar Store, which sells stuff that fell off a truck somewhere in China. But the chain stores will have to go down if we’re ever going to rebuild networks of local and regional commerce and bring Main Street back to life. And you must be aware that chain stores are going down by the thousands all around the country, the so-called retail apocalypse. These things have to die for a new economic ecosystem to emerge, and it looks like the process is underway. I hope the fast food joints are next. At least we’re getting a new independent bistro in town.
The landscape around here is composed of tender hills and little hollows that precede the Green Mountains of Vermont, ten miles down the pike. Apart from its stunning beauty, it’s not bad farmland, either, and the rugged topography lends itself to small scale farming which is a good thing because that’s the coming trend. I maintain that farming will eventually become the center of the next economy here as life in the USA is compelled to downsize and re-localize. We could make a few things again, too, because a river runs through town with many hydro sites — waterfalls where small factories once stood — and that river leads to the mighty Hudson four miles downstream. The Hudson can take you around the world or deep into the interior of North America via the Erie and Champlain canals that run off the Hudson.
For the moment though, the country faces that set of convulsions I call the long emergency, with politics at center stage just now. The locals, myself included, have strung up the colored lights and set out the effigies of Santa and his reindeer. I love Christmas, the trappings, the music, and the sense that we’re obliged to bring some enchantment into our lives when the days are shortest and darkest. I doubt we can Make America Great Again in the Trump sense, but we can reanimate our nation’s life, and re-enchant our daily doings in it, and learn to care about a few things again.
I’ll be putting together my usual vain and starry-eyed Forecast 2020 the following Monday, with a regular blog in between on Friday. Merry Christmas, readers! And thank you for being here!
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