Friday, February 22, 2013

Small Town Thoughts

(I actually wrote this Thursday morning, but I figured you could do without me spamming you twice daily on a Thursday two weeks in a row. So I hope it serves well enough for a Friday post.)

I think growing up in a small town makes it hard to grasp the good side of change.

Obviously this probably isn't true across the board for every single person who ever grew up in a little town. But I know it seems to hold true for me, and the people I know. It's not just Illinois, either; people I know all over the country run into this mental block when it comes to change.

Maybe growing up in cities helps you appreciate it; after all, in a city businesses come and go quickly from this building or that one. Parks are maintained, with new landscape or gazebos or dog parks, new sculptures put in where nothing but grass used to be. So many people live in apartments, things that are by their nature subject to transience and change; your neighbors come and go, the building gets new office or maintenance people, a new parking lot or the occasional remodel.

People who grew up in Greenville, for example, have watched downtown go from a somewhat disreputable neighborhood in the 1980's to the thriving shopping, dining, and hangout space it is today. They watched Reedy Falls, essentially brought back out from previously having been basically under a highway, turn into a tourist destination.

They've seen coffee shops, restaurants, and stores pop in and out as they work or they don't, but overall the trend has been one of constant change. Sometimes it's positive, sometimes there are articles in the newspaper about the way a certain area of town has gone so far downhill from where it used to be.

In the city closest to the little town I grew up in, we've watched in my lifetime one indoor mall go from the place everyone wanted to be, to an empty shell where voices echoed into nothing, to a higher-end outdoor shopping space while the other mall went from a tiny upstart to the busiest mall in town. Their downtown has also been worked on, towards an end goal of revitalization.

In the country, though? In small towns?

In the country, we feel a dull surprise years after the change occurs. When I was younger, there was a grain elevator that had always been down by the railroad tracks that was knocked down, leaving a flat concrete nothing in its place. When I walk or drive past it, I am still struck by a sense of that space being wrong. The grain elevator should be there, in my mind, even though it hasn't been there in years.

They closed my old elementary school, busing the kids to the next town over. The lack of school buses bothers me. That it was turned into a daycare has helped, because at least the kids are still outside. That has to count for something.

We still give people directions by saying, "Turn left after you get to where the Smiths used to live," and the locals asking for those directions know exactly what house we mean. New people might get confused, but then you just try to think of people they do know, maybe have them turn right after where the new Yoder house is.

I've heard people say that this is completely puzzling to them, why anyone would ever give directions this way, but you have to keep in mind that sometimes we are directing people to house on a road that has no road name, only numbers. The easiest way to tell them where it is, is to use a landmark as an example. I won't lie; I've told people to turn "after the tree that looks like an hourglass" when explaining how to get to my grandparents' house once upon a time.

When change is suggested, it is dismay that small town folk respond with, not enthusiasm. Common sense may dictate that the small fall festival that worked the same way for years and years is beginning to lose attendance, and what we've always done isn't working anymore. Nonetheless, it will take far too long before the people involved can even begin to agree to consider changing direction, let alone actually try to come up with new ideas.

Often, by that time, the festival is dying and it will take four times as much work to bring it back than it would have if people had been receptive to the change just a few years earlier.

New buildings get much the same suspicion. New parks or new public buildings or benches in those parks do, too. We small town people are masters of having two thoughts at once; we can both know perfectly well that things must change and at the same time be unhappy with the idea that they actually will.

Sure, the fact that no one visits that park in the center of town means that we need to fix it up, make it nice. At the same time, why should they change it? It was fine for us when we were there, right? It's our memories they're removing.

Well, no, that's not true. Our memories are still there. Only the terrain changes, and change is an inevitability when it comes to piquing the interest of visitors. People like to see new things; they just don't any of those new things to have to do with what they were used to. So we try to balance, when we build new things; we put in a park, but fix up an old soda shop around the edge as a new public building.

What has me thinking about this today was mostly thinking about that old grain elevator. I like to go for walks around McLean every time I visit, to see what's different. Houses change paint or siding colors, fields are soybean and then corn and now back to soybeans again, some houses get knocked down entirely and replaced with new ones. For the most part, though, it's still the same. And every single walk, every single drive by, every single time I see that flat gravel-strewn nothing, it strikes me as not right.

Because my brain still wants to see that old grain elevator, and fights against its absence.

I bet I'm not the only one, either.

Maybe it's something city people fall prey to, as well? But I don't think so. The people I know and meet from cities (or even just larger towns) just accept new stores where old ones used to be so much more easily, with a shrug and an understanding that that's just the way the world is.

I feel like when you grow up in a small town, it takes some effort to see that staying the same can so easily become stagnating. It's slowly removing carbon dioxide from a room until none is left; once it all leaks out, the plants in the corner will die.

We spend so much time leaning on the way we remember things used to be, that it's hard to see what good can come out of starting over with something new. I moved halfway across the country to a new town, and spent my time full of terror that it wouldn't work, because it was too different. I didn't really think we would fail at what we were about to do; I just had no frame of reference for the life I was preparing to live. Sure, it's not like I was moving to New York City or anything, but this is still wildly different for me.

Listen to me rhapsodize about the wonder of delivery food sometime, and you'll understand.

I'd never lived in a city before. I had spent my entire life in the same house.  We drove half an hour to get groceries.

I had been proud of myself for moving four hours away for college, and even then the landscape was still really the same.I still had my flatlands and my cornfields.

I had no friends of my own in Greenville before the move, and thanks to my constant certainty that I'm not good enough, I had a hard time believing I could find friendships to maintain, that anyone would like me enough to want to spend time with me voluntarily. I had a hard time seeing the change I was about to undertake as something I could handle; and then we were there, and I had to figure it out anyway.

This fear of change is something that I often have to work through, because my instinctive reaction is to be nonplussed or worried at even the smaller things, like when a store leaves one location and moves somewhere else. Is it because the store is in trouble? Are they failing? Is the new store moving in going to be something awful? But I liked that store where it was! Why are they changing that park? It was a good park! Should we really buy a house? We just figured out apartment living! What if the change isn't good? What if it goes wrong?

The question really is, what if it's not the same as what I know?

Well, it might not be. It almost certainly won't be, in many cases. Change is good, or it's bad, or it's neither. It's just... change, and it has to happen, or our towns, our cities, our worldviews stagnate. You get trapped in a cocoon of "what I already know" and find it harder to open up and see "what I don't know" as "what I don't know, yet."

I have found the choices that were "what I don't know, yet" to be the most important things I've ever done.

So... yeah.

In retrospect, though, the grain elevator is a really bad example, since what's been left since it was removed is nothing. A couple of rocks, maybe. So that's not really in any remote way an improvement.

... maybe we should forget the grain elevator. Even though that's the entire reason I wrote the whole post, just because I was thinking about that elevator.


Can I start over?

With... a coffee shop, or something? I'm better if the subject is in some way related to coffee.

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