All Gone to Look for America

A friend of mine posted this video about the town where I grew up, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Reactions seem to be mixed between people defending the area and those saying how glad they are to have left.

My hometown frequently ranks near the bottom of the rankings in crime and unemployment. Once a General Motors town, it has been difficult to find a job here ever since the auto makers started to close up shop here in the 1980s. The area has never substantially recovered economically, and the jobs that remain often pay less than in other parts of the country. Opportunities are often limited and many people with degrees are lingering in jobs well below their educational level, including my spouse. Areas surrounding the city, such as where I live, don’t have the high crime rate, but are still subject to the same job market.

We used to live in a big city in Texas, which I alternately loved and hated. I loved the faster pace of a big city and I loved the climate – both weather and economic – but I hated the social atmosphere. Everyone was caught up on shopping as recreation and almost nobody made a hobby of doing things for themselves. I missed having four seasons and having a sense of family and roots, so we moved back home. We regretted it almost immediately and have never regained our standard of living, and I spent many years desperately unhappy with being here. There’s a trait that seems unique to the area, which entails a sense of snobbery by the people who have “gotten out” toward the people still here. I bought into it too, so I felt embarrassed to be back here.

In the years that I spent unhappy here and trying to get jobs in other places, I developed and nurtured some new skills and interests that I never pursued in Texas. I’ve learned how to sew, knit, make soap, cook, bake and grow my own food. I can the vegetables that I grow and make them into pickles. Although I still enjoy shopping, my life doesn’t revolve around it like it did in Texas. Making stuff is both my hobby and uses skills of which I have become very proud.

Although I would still move for better opportunities, I’ve made peace with being here. I enjoy living in a place where I don’t have to spend an hour driving 10 miles in rush hour traffic. I enjoy having down-to-earth friends. I enjoy that I know my neighbors and can drive to see my in-laws in 20 minutes. I enjoy the traditions of taking the kids for caramel apples at the orchard in fall and to the beach in the summer. Land in an economically depressed area is cheap enough, especially compared to bigger cities, that I can have a beautiful house in a good neighborhood with enough space to grow a sizable garden and for my kids to wander away from the house.

My city is not unique. Dozens, if not hundreds, of small and medium-sized cities were dependent on one industry and are now struggling to reinvent themselves after their main industry closed. Not everyone can or should move to bigger cities instead. Those of us staying behind in the small slow towns are adapting and making the best of it. The things I’ve learned to do for myself have given me a sense of competence and security that is lacking in having the ability to pay someone else to do everything for you. Anyone relying on money to pay others is dependent, which is scary if you’re ever in a situation of having no choice. I’d even say that in my own way, I’m thriving.

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