Sleepy, little towns with a small main street, railroad tracks, a school, and church always appear just so picturesquely American. The pace of life is slower and people don’t have to lock their doors, kids run around barefoot in the summertime, and people just have a good time. That is the general romanticized notion, isn’t it? Is that the reality? Not having lived in a sleepy, small town, I cannot say for sure; however, I would guess that no, romanticized notions are never the reality. They are what they are: romanticized with a mixture of nostalgia and Norman Rockwell.
As a preservationist, sleepy little towns bring mixed feelings, about five stages of emotion every time I drive through a small town.
1. Heartache. My heart aches for this town that has clearly past its heyday. Main street stores are closed and sprawl encroaches or it’s just smack in the middle of nowhere. Either way, its future does not look bright.
2. Imagining. I imagine what revitalization could do for this particular town and everyone near it. Imagine a bustling morning with all of those utopian elements that we love: hardware store, bakery, coffee shop, a few professional businesses, restaurants, everything! I always figure that there must be a way.
3. Wonder. Once the aching and imagining passes, I have to wonder: who lives here? Where do people shop? Where do they work? Truthfully, the answers to these questions will affect any chance of revitalization. The people who live in a town have to want to change things; but, just because preservationists may want to change things, maybe not everyone else does. Preservation is not about creating utopia, but allowing people to love where they live while appreciating the past and respecting the future.
4. Scheming. This is where advocacy comes into play. From here, I scheme about collecting all of my fellow preservationists to develop a plan that would show citizens of a community just how great preservation can be and how much it would help their quality of life.
5. Realization. My thought process has likely extended far beyond the length of time it took to pass through this sleepy town, but the thoughts keep coming. I have to admit that I love sleepy little towns. In an odd paradox, what would we do without them? What sort of a town could get me to ponder new plans with fellow preservationists and reinvigorate my soul? These towns allow my imagination to create stories of their heydays, filling in the present gap. Never short of images in front of our faces in the modern world, don’t you think that it is important to create our own images once in a while?
Part of the draw of Americana and nostalgia, is the fact that they are decaying and of some bygone era. Abandoned buildings and lackluster towns serve to remind us what could happen to everything if we’re not careful. In the same fashion, new developments on top of old farms and demolished-now-shiny-sparking-new city block stand as stark reminders of what we are trying to avoid.
Maybe very few of us could live in one of those sleepy towns, but that’s the point. We need to protect them, but, of course, revitalize some as well. Not every town needs to become a tourist destination, but it should be efficient for the residents. When that is the case, people passing by on a road trip just might stop in one of the restaurants or stores. And then only some of these towns will cause the fives stages of small town emotional preservation induced grief.
(*Disclaimer/Clarification: ideas in this post refer not to the thriving small towns, but rather those experience severe economic decline.)