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Being the Best Wichita in Wichita

There’s a mean but useful expression to describe something that’s the best of its not very good kind: “the best ballerina in Galveston.” The idea is that the pool of Galveston ballerinas is so small that it’s not hard to rise to the top of that tiny pot of cream.

It came to mind reading Russell Arben Fox’s smart reflection on the travails facing Wichita [1], where he lives, a challenge that most mid-sized American cities face. Russell says that the billboard ad for a never-quite-launched city weekly newspaper there captures the attitude cities like his need to adopt: “Face It. You’re in Wichita.” He explains:

That billboard advertisement was wiser than it knew, because it captures an essential truth for cities like Wichita, cities far larger than the hundreds of “micropolitan” urban clusters across the county with a populations of 50,000 or less, but also cities that are not part of an extended metropolitan agglomeration. I mean cities that form their own relatively isolated geographic centers, perhaps topping out at a half-million residents or so. The truth that such cities must face, basically, is that a great many of their residents are regularly tempted to believe that their home isn’t what it is, but rather is, or should remain, or is almost ready to become, one of the other two options mentioned above. The truth, of course, is that Wichita and cities like it are not oversized rural towns, supposedly similar in culture and practice to so many of their surrounding and supporting communities. Neither are they, though, on the cusp of a great metropolitan explosion, primed to start networking and contributing to–in terms of jobs, the arts, and more–those flows of information and investment which characterize the great global cities of the world. Wichita, like so many other cities of middling size, is not likely to become a major node in the globalized flow of information, culture, and wealth anytime in the foreseeable future, and it is cannot pretend that its political culture is that of a quaint homogeneous farming village at heart. It is, put simply, a big city–but not all that big; a space of concentrated resources, both human and commercial–but not an ever-expanding supply of such. That’s what it is stuck with.

To make a case for sticking with mid-sized cities–for investing in it and improving them–means, first and foremost, facing up to what they are. The odds of being able to quickly create in the context of Wichita’s undeniable yet also limited urban character some kind of progressive fantasy of diversity and development are small to nonexistent. With much of the social and economic innovation and opportunity in our country and world invariably gravitating to megapolises wherein the promise of anonymity is entwined with the chance of being able to elide obstacles and break through and do something productive in one new niche or another, leaving older and anxious workers behind, it isn’t surprising that Wichita’s political culture and economic landscape increasingly reflects, as Chung mentioned regarding Wichita, a “closed” environment. That environment will not suddenly change, and expressing frustration at the lack of diversity or socially oriented initiatives in such cities simply drains energy from what will have to be–as the effort to push Wichita in the direction of reasonable reform in the matter of marijuana possession shows–a long and slow effort.

At the same time, Russell continues, the idea that cities like Wichita should just give up on trying to improve anything and settle into being insular small towns on a bigger scale is even more problematic. The answer, he says, is to reject the aspirational extremes of the boosters who are forever cooking up a scheme to make a mid-sized city “world class,” as well as reject the resentful, why-try-harder attitude of temperamental conservatives who never want anything to change for the better. Here’s the third way, according to Russell Arben Fox:

Look around our city, as in so many smaller and middling cities, and you can see a great many informal and quasi-formal networks forming: small-scale businesses and volunteer operations and church groups, hosting festivals and art shows and local markets and devotionals, crossing the conceptual boundaries between urban and rural (so much easier to do in a smaller urban space than in a sprawling urban agglomeration!). Of course, few of them present themselves in terms of a “growth plan” to attract venture capital and rent floor space downtown, and neither do they generally start out rejecting all city council seed money on ideological principle. Which means, they get ignored by the fantasists on both sides of the divide.

Read the whole thing. [1] It’s very good, and I would love to read in the comments thread here the reactions of you readers who live in such places.

I think one place to start thinking about living in such places is by thinking about what it means to live a Good Life in a place — that is, how does one measure quality of life? When I was 22, I had a very different idea about that than when I was 42 (and, as you know, that got radically altered when I was 44 [2]). You could have a higher quality of life in a place where there were a lot fewer restaurants, less diversity, and fewer things to do, as conventionally measured. I mean, you could be a lot happier in relatively boring Wichita than in, say, Dallas, though it’s hard to see that when you are young.

Let’s not forget that Wichita has at least one amazing thing that no other city in the world does [3] — oh, and that related amazing thing too [4] — the existence of which makes it a wonderful place to live. If you live in Wichita and you aren’t involved with them, oh boy, are you ever missing out.

A mid-sized city that had a couple of special places like Eighth Day Books and the Eighth Day Institute (with its Hall of Men) would do wonders for itself. I’m looking at you Brian Daigle and your Baton Rouge mafia! [5]

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44 Comments To "Being the Best Wichita in Wichita"

#1 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On October 23, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

Wichita is actually where I’d go if I could go anywhere–for the reasons you cite (8th Day and St. George and such) and because it’s just manageable and interesting and I love the wind rolling down the plains.

I was so happy the year I lived there.

#2 Comment By Casey Voce On October 23, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

In Abilene, TX(pop. 105,000) we’re trying that sorta thing. We were one of the first cities to use the arts to revitalize a barren downtown. We got the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. (NCCIL). Our downtown park has statues inspired by kids books. We’re aiming to be The Capital of Children’s Literature. It’s a small dream, but ours.

#3 Comment By Jen On October 23, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

In the midsize cities I’m familiar with (Boise and Spokane), the big draw is the outdoors. Those places lacking spectacular scenery and recreational opportunities probably have a hard time luring people.

#4 Comment By grumpy realist On October 23, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

Japan is full of small to medium towns which are very happy about themselves and which really do feel like a community. Each of them has at least one thing that they are very proud of–one place I stopped by had a plum tree that bloomed out of season. There was a lovingly-cherished white picket fence carefully protecting it and a wooden sign explaining how famous the tree was and why.

Other places are known for the excellence of a particular sweetmeat, or the fact that the local soup uses a particularly dark miso special to that region.

We need to create our roots again, as well as local specialities. And why not start trying to create local foods found nowhere else? How about lovingly recreate a 1940s diner, complete with food from that era? Do something to be different that a collection of the same bloody chain restaurants and bloody chain stores you go 100 miles down the freeway and meet all over again.

#5 Comment By Chris403 On October 23, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

I’m a little bit surprised by his piece. I live in Kansas City, which is quite a bit bigger than Wichita, but it’s still hardly New York or London. I get the feeling that everyone here knows it and is pretty ok with being a smaller city. Nobody expects to become Chicago.

Some people who grew up here left because of inferiority complexes, but I notice they still dress their kids in Royals or KU gear. I’ve lived in Boston and DC before moving back home, and I’d argue with anyone that smaller cities have a much higher standard of living and a more pleasant life than our big cities. Unless you are very rich, and then anywhere is pretty nice.

Sadly, I’m not a big fan of Wichita, although the drive from KC to there on I-35 is quite pretty. The Flint Hills have a haunting beauty.

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 23, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

I grew up in a metropolitan area that was growing from under 100,000 to no more than 200,000, divided among perhaps seven interconnected small cities and few towns and villages, fading out into really rural countryside. I never felt I was missing out on life — we didn’t have a professional ballet but we had some good amateur theater productions and several colleges that produced good plays, concerts, and brought in movies that might otherwise never have made it. There was a post-WW II Greek immigrant who figured the midwest was no place for a fancy Greek restaurant, so he opened a meat-and-potatoes lunch counter and later, when he thought there would be demand, did open a fancy Greek restaurant.

Now I live 100 miles away in a city that used to be the 24th largest in the US, but hasn’t been for a long time. In itself, the city has just a few more people than Fox cites for the Wichita area, but when you throw in the iron ring of Republican suburbs, its somewhat over a million. Not New York, LA, or Chicago by any means.

Lets be real. People live in these places, because they have reason to live there. Homes, family, jobs. There is something or other to do. EVERYONE wouldn’t fit into Manhattan — although Kansas does have a Manhattan, and also a Liberal.

So what’s the big deal? Live your life. Do little things to make it better. You can order on line anything that a local store doesn’t carry. I remember when being in New York meant picking up half an ounce of saffron for my mother, because you couldn’t get it in most smaller cities. No more. You can get almost anything almost anywhere.

So the angst is kind of misplaced anyway. If you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in. There’s no adultery when it comes to place.

#7 Comment By Michelle On October 23, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

I’m in Greensboro, NC, where the population is about 280,000. We are, however, sandwiched between two large metropolitan areas, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, in a state where the population has been growing rapidly for the past couple of decades. The greater Greensboro metropolitan area itself is probably close to a million people, so I’m not sure how comparable it is to Witchita.

To us, it seems pleasingly small, but the other cities in which we lived in the ten years before moving here were among those sprawling metropolitan agglomerations mentioned above: Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia. I’d rather be here. It’s beautiful, afforable, and there’s a lot to be said to be able to get to most places that you want to go within five or ten minutes rather than spending large swatches of your life sitting in traffic.

The local Chamber of Commerce and other booster groups are pushing for more growth and economic development. There’s been a push for more housing downtown, which seems to be taking off, and a large performance arts center and new, upscale hotel are slated to be built within the next two or three years. A bunch of new shops and restaurants have opened up along the main drag, including an awesome independent bookstore. Plus, there seem to be quite a few new housing developments springing up both within city limits and in the surrounding suburbs. So, I think our city is more likely to grow than Witchita, but it’s not going to become a giant metroplex, especially given the proximity of Charlotte and Raleigh.

We love it here. My husband thinks he’d have found it too stifling and dull when he was in his 20s and 30s as opposed to his mid-50s, but I’m small city girl at heart. I lived in Rochester, NY for 15 years before I met him, a city which lost its major industries when Xerox and Kodak tanked in the 1990s and found it quite hospitable despite the frigid winters. I think you can actually enjoy a higher quality of life when you aren’t stressed out by traffic and a high cost of living and living around a bunch of other stressed out people.

#8 Comment By OkieDokie On October 23, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

Knowing that “mission control for the Benedict Option” is just two hours north of where I am in OKC, it’s tempting to think about moving up there. Jobs, family etc are just hard to leave.
Being from a rural area, my perspective is permanently skewed I suppose, but I’ll never understand how some will write off a town based solely on it’s population.

#9 Comment By MikeCA On October 23, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

I’m not sure the size of the city is as relevant as the prevailing culture- is it a place where you will feel at home? Are your values reflected in the community? Atlanta is a big metro with lots of amenities but it is still heavily influenced by the political culture of Georgia- not my cup of tea. Burlington,VT is a small university city with lots of culture,lovely scenery, near a major metro ( Montréal) but is very manageable. Or if you prefer somewhere warmer there are a number of smaller cities where your niece Hannah is living in Northern California that offer a great quality of life- some are expensive, others less so. But I understand that culturally that these might not be a good fit for you or many other readers. We all have different ideas of what constitutes “quality of life” and fortunately we have a large nation that accommodates most tastes.

#10 Comment By Mark Hamann On October 23, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

how does one measure quality of life?When I was 22, I had a very different idea about that than when I was 42.

How much of that is being single at 22? The way I use the offerings of a city changes when I’m encumbered vs. unencumbered by female companionship. I suspect it changes even more once married and with kids.

Madison, WI is roughly that size and it has everything one needs for a high quality of life no matter what stage of life you’re in. I choose to live in a dense Seattle neighborhood because of my industry, the fact that I’m single, and because I think snow and mosquitos belong in the mountains, not in my neighborhood. Were I to get married, I might move to a less hip neighborhood as what I need to maximize my quality of life would be different.

#11 Comment By La Lubu On October 23, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

I dunno….it’s pretty bleak out here in the rust belt for medium-sized cities. We’re draining jobs, wages, and decent benefits and working conditions. When people retire here, they aren’t replaced—the remaining workers just double- and triple-up on duties. While politicians of various stripes crow about “job creation”, on-the-ground those “jobs” are low-wage, no-benefit, just-in-time scheduling….not the kind of jobs that will sustain a community. There aren’t enough living-wage, family-supporting jobs to keep young people here. As one of the “upper working class”, I feel like one of the last passenger pigeons.

I’ve spent my life living in several mid-sized, downwardly-mobile rust-belt cities (and working in many, many more), and the problem with them isn’t the lack of culture (most of them do have a vibrant arts scene, decent restaurants, a college or two, indy stores, ethnic grocers, all the amenities found in a bigger city—just on a smaller scale)…it’s the dwindling economy.

The one’s that will survive the economic contraction and the ones that (a) invest in their infrastructure, including technology, (b) have a good relationship with local institutions of higher education and work with them at providing good job opportunities for graduates, and (c) as Jen said above, have public recreational places with natural beauty (think: rivers, mountains, hiking/biking trails, lakes). Mid-sized cities that are basically planted in the middle of nowhere, with no public lands for easily-accessible recreation are going to lose out to ones that do.

Are young people settling there? That’s a place that has some hope. If the young folks are leaving in droves, because there isn’t any future there for them (the “musical chairs” of the economy are filled), well, the answer to the “face it” campaign is going to be “not for long.”

#12 Comment By Andrew Beck On October 23, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

I live in Galveston, and have been to the ballet. It wasn’t that bad 🙂

#13 Comment By WillW On October 23, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

My speck on the map is to the nearest metro area (the one where you recently spoke, where Hunter Baker didn’t spring for an adult beverage) as Starhill is to Baton Rouge. I’m as content as can be. I live rurally in peace and quiet and have an unbelievably low cost of living. Also, a large metro area which once in a blue moon I get a hankering to visit is only 1.5 hours away. For me, I’m in the perfect setting.

#14 Comment By Zorro On October 23, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

By contrast we’re in a big metropolis – SF Bay Area – because that’s where the work was, and it was smaller when we settled here. My husband grew up in San Jose. I wouldn’t recommend that a young person start out here today. Too expensive, especially housing.

But I was reflecting on this last statement to my old high school boyfriend, a guy from India whose ancestors have lived in Pune (where he lives) since the earth cooled, and he said, “How lightly you talk of moving here and moving there!” For himself he cannot imagine leaving Pune. Place is not something you choose. Place is what you are born with.

But that is Old India. Of his three children, one is in Pune, one in the far south of India, and one in Portland, Oregon. So even in the old culture, as it arrives in 2015, people are moving targets. Most of the people posting on this thread, and our host as well, have lived in a number of different places.

This will be problematic for the Ben Opt, since it seems to suppose geographical stability over several or many generations. But I may not be understanding it well.

#15 Comment By Tim G On October 23, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

In May/June we spent time both in Boise and NYC, a few weeks apart. It struck me that our friends in Boise, though making much, much less driving school buses than our friends in NYC, had much more “stuff”: a house with a yard, two cars, etc (& all sorts of outdoor recreation a stone’s throw away). Typical American stuff.

At the same time, our friends in NYC have less space, but Central Park, no car but good public transportation, a simple but nice (& expensive!) apartment and oodles more culture at their fingertips.

And both sets of friends are in their element living out their calling.

At the end of the day a city has to be true to its “calling” and not overreach OR let itself go. Appreciate your assets (Go Abeline with children’s books! Go Japanese town with a plum tree blooming out of season!) and manage them well.

#16 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On October 23, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

Rod, thanks very much for giving this discussion I’m involved in some additional attention! It’s not the Benedict Option, obviously, but I think there are distant parallels. For example, to the extent that making sense of how to sustain a community of faith in the context of liberal modernity requires us to think about the structures and shape of such a community, so do people who want to preserve the kind (I think genuinely valuable, if not for everyone) possibilities which mid-sized cities provide need to address exactly why the reigning structural models in the way we talk about the places we live–the big, transformative, anonymous, busy city, and the small, conservative, intimate, slow-paced village–don’t fit, and search for better models that fit better.

A couple of notes in reply to some of the comments:

Jen,

In the midsize cities I’m familiar with (Boise and Spokane), the big draw is the outdoors.

I’m a Spokane native, and I’ve kept several parallels between Spokane and Wichita in my mind as I’ve developed my ideas. You’re obviously correct that, as our national economy has moved from production and industry and service and recreation, cities that–exactly because they aren’t part of extensive urban agglomerations–have certain types of natural resources nearby have been able to leverage those quite well. Wichita doesn’t have that (no skiing in Kansas, and not many lakes either). But nonetheless we do have natural resources around us–namely, farmland. And it may be that, in the long run, one of the most important things smaller and mid-sized cities may have to offer is a proximity to a local food economy.

Chris403,

I live in Kansas City, which is quite a bit bigger than Wichita, but it’s still hardly New York or London. I get the feeling that everyone here knows it and is pretty ok with being a smaller city.

It is true that a large amount of the dynamic that I see mid-sized cities struggling with is perspectival: Wichita isn’t Kansas City, Kansas City isn’t Chicago, Chicago isn’t New York City. But I really do feel–and some of my studies support this–that there is a kind of “plateau effect” which hits cities of a particular size, one which leads, I believe, to a significant identity struggle between the poles that I mention in the post. Kansas City, I assure you, is beyond that particular debate (though, as a genuinely large urban area, it obviously has its own particular struggles).

Siarlys,

So what’s the big deal? Live your life. Do little things to make it better. You can order on line anything that a local store doesn’t carry. I remember when being in New York meant picking up half an ounce of saffron for my mother, because you couldn’t get it in most smaller cities. No more. You can get almost anything almost anywhere. So the angst is kind of misplaced anyway.

Wise words, perhaps, but they presume a level of content with an outsourced, online, mass-produced and instantly-delivered economy that can be, and usually is, scaled up to an near-infinite degree. Yes, you’re right, you can find just about everything just about everywhere these days…but does that satisfy? On the contrary, all this technology is not, in fact, resulting in people leaving the huge global cities of the world; they’re not growing they way they used to be, but their not shrinking either, because with every extension of global commerce comes demands for more and more positional goods, and it’s the hubs of those global economies which lure the people (and the arts, and the business investment) which provide those. So, yes, I want people to be content with Wichita. But I can understand why addressing that angst is going to require thinking about how cities can be structured as well as just encouraging people to count their blessings.

La Luba,

The one’s that will survive the economic contraction are the ones that (a) invest in their infrastructure, including technology, (b) have a good relationship with local institutions of higher education and work with them at providing good job opportunities for graduates, and (c) as Jen said above, have public recreational places with natural beauty (think: rivers, mountains, hiking/biking trails, lakes). Mid-sized cities that are basically planted in the middle of nowhere, with no public lands for easily-accessible recreation are going to lose out to ones that do.

Well, that’s depressing. But of course, you’re correct–certain types of mid-sized cities are going to have a much harder row to hoe that others, for a variety of geographic and historical reasons. In terms of generating economic activity, I suspect that density is essential. You’ve got to get people in these small to mid-sized cities to actually interact with each, sparking conversations and ideas and economic possibilities, which means you’ve got to fight against one of the dominant narratives of the small city: you move their because of low property values, you can, on your limited means, build your beautiful secluded estate on a quiet rural cul-de-sac…which means, you never go downtown, you never interact with others, your kids grow up and leave to someplace busier and exciting, etc. Public transportation and zoning have to be part of this conversation, but they don’t exhaust it.

#17 Comment By Christopher Laughlin On October 23, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

What a wonderful article. I am from Wichita, and apart of the Eighthday Community. (Hall of Men was last night, and Sisters of Sophia the night before.) I worked at the book store some as I prepare for medical school. I also am a member of St. George Cathedral. I went to grad school at Emory University in Atlanta. Wichita is great! These mid level communities have all the benifits of large communities with little of the negatives. We do not feel as pushed or pressured to be “progressive.” Both the Roman and Orthodox Bishops are solid. It may be that the Ben Option works best in these mid level communities.

#18 Comment By Leena On October 23, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

I am not young and I’d hate to live in Wichita. What surprises me about much of small towns of midwest it lack available fresh fruits and vegetables. You are living in endless farms, you’d think you could get a decent variety of vegetables and fruits. It’s easier to find them in New York and Los Angles than in Wichita. Go figure.

#19 Comment By Johan On October 23, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

I’ll bet they have some really good bowling alleys in Wichita.

#20 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 23, 2015 @ 10:45 pm

I am always curious about what the phrase, “World class” is supposed to mean. Of course now that we are moving next week from Waukesha to West Allis, I’m not particularly concerned. There is an Indian restaurant right around the corner from where we are going to be living.

#21 Comment By Console On October 23, 2015 @ 11:26 pm

Depends on the town. Asheville, Santa Fe (although it’s sort of in ABQ’s orbit), Charleston, Myrtle Beach etc. are all great destinations in and of themselves.

I currently live in Lubbock though, which is probably the definition of an isolated mid-sized city. The nearest other “metropolitan” cities are Midland and Amarillo and those are both an hour away. Two and a half hours to Abilene (yet we share the same Congressman… they’re pretty brazen with their gerrymandering here in Texas). At least 5 hours to any major city like Ft. Worth, Albuquerque, or Oklahoma City.

The problem with small cities like Lubbock is that there is no draw for people with no connections there. It’s usually going to be a pain for you or family to visit due to remoteness and a lack of mass transit variety (not as bad as living in a small town but still). The glass ceiling is going to be very obvious as far as opportunities go. And while some people might like the community aspect, I dislike being in a place where I’m 2 degrees removed from everybody. Your mileage may vary though. It’s really hard to generalize about these things. But to me, small cities are really just your typical city with less resources and less opportunity. For them to be interesting, they have to have something else going on for them, and I don’t mean that old man “there’s no traffic and it’s quiet” nonsense. I mean an energy or a culture or just an overall vibe that overrules the small citiness. Maybe you’d come to Lubbock and fall in love with the West Texas sunset. But there has to be something.

#22 Comment By HL On October 24, 2015 @ 12:51 am

As someone who grew up in Wichita and has been eternally grateful that I got out, I think one of the biggest challenges facing that city is the worsening close-mindedness of its inhabitants. I’m not at all surprised by the quote from Chung, in Fox’s article, noting his observance of increasing racism over the years.

Cities like Des Moines, Greensboro, and Omaha are not time capsules hearkening back to decades ago. Wichita, on the other hand, is and always has been: it’s full of people who are content with the general status quo of the 1950s. Add to that a particularly nasty strain of Brownback-style cruel conservatism, and no wonder young people and educated people don’t stay (and don’t come either).

I wish I could remember the exact source: I think the New York Times did a long series on immigration last year, and traveled up I-35 interviewing people (white and of color) about the changes in their communities. Of all the stops along the way (from Texas to Minnesota), Wichita easily came across as the most racist and most unwilling to see immigrants as fellow humans deserving of neighborliness. I was completely unsurprised.

#23 Comment By jaybird On October 24, 2015 @ 7:06 am

I’m not sure the size of the city is as relevant as the prevailing culture

This. Wichita is actually larger, population-wise than cities like New Orleans, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Honolulu, and just behind Cleveland. Wichita’s main problem is probably that it is smack dab in the middle of some of the flatest, most boring terrain in the country, as anyone who has spent 8 or so hours driving past endless fields of corn and wheat can attest. that’s not to say it’s a horrible place to live, but unless you were born in that part of the country, it’s probably a hard sell for most people.

#24 Comment By John Presnall On October 24, 2015 @ 9:30 am

Consider this statement–“Boxing and ballet, there’s a similarity. Balance is everything”–regarding the “Galveston Giant,” Jack Johnson.

[6]

#25 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On October 24, 2015 @ 9:59 am

You are living in endless farms, you’d think you could get a decent variety of vegetables and fruits

You do realize that not every piece of farmland is suitable for growing every kind of plant, right?

Having said that, I refuse to believe that the supermarkets in Wichita don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ve lived since 2008 in various small cities in two Midwestern states and never had any difficulty finding the exact same variety of fruits and vegetables at the supermarket (a fair amount of which were grown in Michigan) as I would if I lived in Chicago.

#26 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On October 24, 2015 @ 10:08 am

More comments…

Christopher,

I am from Wichita, and a part of the Eighth Day Community.

Cool! Have we met? Sorry if we have and I’m not remembering; my memory is terrible. It’s people like you that are contributing to the particular “vibe” of Wichita, I think (see below).

Leena,

I am not young and I’d hate to live in Wichita. What surprises me about much of small towns of midwest it lack available fresh fruits and vegetables.

That is changing, but it is still mostly true. Keep in mind that this is a result of an economy which prioritized corporate agriculture and–again–the consumer drive of large-scale urban environments where there was no possibility of economically competing to provide food systems locally. You turn back the calendar to the 1940s and 1950s, and south-central Kansas still had plenty of home-grown carrots, peaches, potatoes. The soil can sustain it, if we’re willing to listen to Wendell Berry and actually inhabit our physical environment, instead of insisting that all urban spaces must offer the same things at the same cost (again, see below).

Console,

It’s really hard to generalize about these things. But to me, small cities are really just your typical city with less resources and less opportunity. For them to be interesting, they have to have something else going on for them, and I don’t mean that old man “there’s no traffic and it’s quiet” nonsense. I mean an energy or a culture or just an overall vibe that overrules the small citiness.

I really your line about “typical cities”–because the fact is, thanks to the globalization of our economy, our media, and hence our general expectations, what so many of us think of when think of cities is these globalized, extensive urban arenas of opportunity, danger, excitement, and transformation. In other words, the opposite of your quaint little village, like Rod’s Starhill. So you have cities that obviously are not the latter, and yet they don’t have, and can’t possibly have, all the resources of the former. So what is there to say on their behalf? Part of my question is how to “face up” to what it means to not be one thing and not the other thing either, to figure out what the “something else,” that vibe or culture, particular to mid-sized cities may be.

HL,

As someone who grew up in Wichita and has been eternally grateful that I got out, I think one of the biggest challenges facing that city is the worsening close-mindedness of its inhabitants….I wish I could remember the exact source: I think the New York Times did a long series on immigration last year, and traveled up I-35 interviewing people (white and of color) about the changes in their communities. Of all the stops along the way (from Texas to Minnesota), Wichita easily came across as the most racist and most unwilling to see immigrants as fellow humans deserving of neighborliness.

The New York Times articles you’re remembering are [7] and [8]. I wish I could say they were inaccurate, but they aren’t–though I also think you may be remembering the upshot of these pieces a little more negatively than what they actually show. But in any case, yes, Wichita has a problem–and old pseudo-Marxist that I am, I tend to see the problem as at least as much structural and economic as I do cultural and historical. Basically, Wichita is in a state where the stereotypically “urban” forces which we associate with, among other things, being accepting (even supportive) of demographic transition and immigration have failed to come together on the state-level as a consistently potent political force. This is in contrast to Nebraska or South Carolina, for example. So Wichita’s problem is not just a problem particular to the city; it is also a problem with the political order that it is subject to, one that urban factions within Wichita can often (but not always!) do little about.

Thanks for the comments, everyone; I’m learning a lot of this thread.

#27 Comment By andrew On October 24, 2015 @ 10:39 am

Concerning HL’s comment on racism, I’m curious why black racism against white people never enters the picture. For example, the so-called “Wichita Massacre” or “Wichita Horror.” See [9]

HL, are you including this in your perspective regarding racism in Wichita? And is it possible that the provincial racism among the white inhabitants might be a response to this type of observable criminal behavior?

#28 Comment By Megan On October 24, 2015 @ 11:03 am

I’m originally from Kansas, about an hour and a half north of Wichita. When I went home to visit my family last summer, I stopped at Eighth Day Books at your recommendation. I spent nearly $100 on books but found a few new favourite authors, Wendell Berry and David Rhodes among them. Eighth Day Books is a treasure.

#29 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On October 24, 2015 @ 11:34 am

Hector,

I’ve lived since 2008 in various small cities in two Midwestern states and never had any difficulty finding the exact same variety of fruits and vegetables at the supermarket (a fair amount of which were grown in Michigan) as I would if I lived in Chicago.

To be fair, Illinois and Michigan both have somewhat different contexts (because of the relative historical strength of their urban centers, because their climates lent themselves to one type of corporate agriculture rather than another, etc.) when comes to developing local food systems than is the case in the Great Plains states. Still, thanks for standing up for mid-sized cities!

Andrew,

I’m curious why black racism against white people never enters the picture. For example, the so-called “Wichita Massacre” or “Wichita Horror.”

While obviously no one should ignore the complicated arguably unique ways in which racism and reverse-racism have plagued cities in non-Confederate agricultural states (Oklahoma, Kansas, etc.), I think I can say as someone who has watched the argument over the Carr brothers’ murderous crime spree develop here in Wichita over the past 10 years that it really doesn’t play in any significant way into perceptions of race here in Wichita. Perhaps in some very marginal way, but really not much. If anything, I think that tragedy is a lightning rod in regards to political and class, not racial, divides, since the only reason the Carr brothers haven’t been executed yet (which is something large majorities of Wichitans, both white and black, have shown support for) is because of a Kansas Supreme Court which, for a variety of elite progressive and liberal Christian reasons, has kept finding reasons to keep them off death row. Racism in Wichita really isn’t primarily a white-black thing any longer, I think; it is, instead, very tied up with anxiousness over illegal immigration and a paranoia arising from the Hispanic transformation of big parts of both Kansas’s cities and its rural counties.

#30 Comment By John On October 24, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

@andrew:

I can’t speak for HL, but Kansas is 87% white and 6% black, as opposed to the national average of 77% white and 13% black per the last census. A rule of thumb for systematic racial oppression is that it’s much easier when you outnumber your despised minority ten to one, instead of the other way around.

#31 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On October 24, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

This discussion makes me think of Fort Wayne, IN, where I spent my teenage years in the late 80s/early 90s. Its population in those days was somewhere in the 200,000 range, I think. In some respects it was a rust belt city, but it was still small enough that there were farms within a short drive from our house.

It seemed to me that there were two types of Fort Wayne residents — the lifers, who had been born there and would likely live their whole lives there, and who often seemed as though they could not even imagine moving somewhere else (I had a friend who had barely ever left the state, even for vacations), and people like my family, who had moved there because “dad got a job offer.”

There were “brain drain” discussions from time to time in those days, but I don’t recall it being a major issue in people’s minds; the letters to the editor in the local paper usually concerned abortion and evolution vs. creationism.

Looking at Fort Wayne now, to me the major advantage of a place like that is that
real estate is just SO CHEAP, especially compared with Los Angeles, where I live now. But for those of us who were determined to get out of Fort Wayne after high school, I don’t think that cheap land would have seemed like much of a draw — we just wanted to get out of there, even if living there was a relative bargain.

#32 Comment By Mr Gravy On October 24, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

I’ve lived in Oklahoma City for 8 years now, after growing up in Washington D.C. Although OKC’s on the larger side of the described phenomenon, it’s still facing a similar identity crisis: are we a big bustling city, or a friendly small-town? The article makes the point excellently that this question is a false dichotomy, one mainly asked by idealists on one side or the other. The question has been increasingly related to the arrival, and unexpected success, of an NBA franchise. There seems to be this unspoken assumption that if a national audience is tuning into an event in your city, you must have “made it big”.

I appreciated this post, because I’m particularly concerned about the future of my city that I’ve come to love. OKC spent most of the 2000s rocketing economically to a very comfortable level today, but the cracks are starting to show. The desire to become an ‘global city’ has given birth to a number of civic/economic programs with mixed results; such that taken individually they make some strategic sense, but taken together resemble shooting in the dark, aiming for the elusive target of being a ‘destination city’. Three rounds of ‘MAPS’ (a civic improvement tax) has made-over downtown, making it significantly more palatable and aesthetically pleasing to corporate offices, but has neglected the south side of the city; a crumbling wasteland of crime, poverty and social entrapment. Mayor Cornett’s “Million Pounds Lost” campaign has undeniably made the metro healthier and happier. Relatively low taxes (and artificially low housing prices) keep the middle class growing a comfortable rate, although that’s beginning to show signs of stalling. Investment in a huge casino on the south side of the city and a race track on the north side merited mixed economic results: permanent jobs and commercial opportunities, while attracting more gambling addicts and the accompanying tangential and less-savory industries (pay-day loans, pockets of strip clubs, liquor warehouses). The city’s mixed results are probably best embodied in the eternally almost-done American Indian Cultural Center, sitting just south of the river. Construction having been halted several years ago, the city and state governments annually struggle between desire to add another cultural attraction to the city’s repertoire while being unwilling to pony up the huge sums of cash needed to finish it. The city is left with a huge, beautiful, empty building languishing in plain view for years on end.

The scariest part of the city’s uncomfortable straddling of small/big town status are the huge out-of-state employers that buoy the city’s economy. Vast portions of the city’s middle class are employed by corporations and entities headquartered in far-off metropolises, such as Boeing, GE, Haliburton, and the Department of Defense. Colin Woodard has an excellent diagnosis of this in his description of The Far West’s dilemma in ‘American Nations’. So much of the local economy is precipitously dependent on located thousands of miles away, with no concern at all for OKC’s people or ‘resurgence’. City and state governments seem to have no concern for this, annually passing huge tax cuts to incentivize more large corporations/federal branches to move additional operations here (typically mindlessly uprooting the transplant jobs from some other ‘flyover’ state).

This city DOES have a distinctive character, one that welcomed me and my family and that I’ve come love. People have a genuine kindness and there’s a definite unique culture that crosses racial, economic and geographic lines. Coming from the NE Corridor megalopolis, I’ve developed a real affection for this ‘family’ on the plains. But I’m increasingly concerned that in our striving for more external recognition, we’ll leave behind the thing we do best: cooperation, moderation and work-ethic.

#33 Comment By Will Harrington On October 24, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

Jaybird

As far as Witchita being smack dab in the middle of flat boring land. For Pete’s sake, get off the interstate that is designed to go through flat boring land. Go east and check out the Flint Hills. Take 400 until you hit Severy, then drive south for 12 miles. Stop at Toots in Howard for ridiculously huge burgers and a fudge monkey. You will feel like you are in a burger joint in the fifties. Its not fast food so take the time to wait for it. Good inexpensive Mexican food is just a few blocks further and a little west, on Wabash, is Poplar Pizza owned and run by transplanted New Yorkers and one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. That’s just one small town around there. Go fast, there is a whole world disappearing because it is increasingly difficult to make a go of it in rural areas. Ge out of your mid size or big cities every now and then and learn that those rural areas aren’t just flat and boring. On your way, spend some money in their businesses. It will be worth it.

#34 Comment By B.E. Ward On October 24, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

I grew up rather peripatetically, but my dad’s side of the family was deeply rooted in southcentral Kansas for years. Much of my youth meant returning to that area, whether to Hutchinson, Wichita, or the tiny town my grandparents lived in. I learned to appreciate the area for what it was. I both loved and loathed being ‘stuck’ in the tiny town. I was able to wander around the whole place by myself as a kid, but I was often straight-up bored, and the highlight of my day became going to the gas station to rent a movie or seeing how fast I could complete Super Mario Brothers. I loved watching the giant storms roll towards us in the spring and summer, but feared the fact that we felt so alone in them in such a small place. I loved the smell of the fields, but had no interest in farming beyond being able to drive a really cool combine with air conditioning.

In short, that area helped me become more well-rounded by showing me just how good a ‘simpler’ life can be, by allowing me to see contrasts in life, but by also forcing me to face things I didn’t like, rather than allowing me to engage in constant distraction. Not that I didn’t try, but there’s only so much Super Mario Brothers one can play.

Wichita was such a big part of that, because it was the bright light on the horizon.. it had the airport with its exciting jets.. it offered the ‘real’ grocery store. I always felt it existed on a human scale. Big enough for the essentials and some luxuries, small enough be a community. It was a blessing.

Now that I’m older and have a family, I often wish I could move back there (either to Wichita or a small town), despite that most of my relations there are now deceased. Alas, the small towns are dying and my job skills are only really applicable in a few places around the country.

But the BenOp would work so well there.. small towns built on local industry, craftsmanship, and diversified small-scale agriculture/horticulture/permaculture. Towns that trade with each other and have a commercial and intellectual hub in Wichita.

#35 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 24, 2015 @ 9:17 pm

I’m curious why black racism against white people never enters the picture.

Possibly because it has never been enshrined by law or enforced by court order? Possibly because the perps are more likely than not to be arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced, rather than released without trial or found not guilty after five minutes of deliberation? Perhaps because it simply hasn’t obtained a cultural grip on the vast majority of people who could be classified as “black”?

#36 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 24, 2015 @ 9:32 pm

smack dab in the middle of some of the flatest, most boring terrain in the country, as anyone who has spent 8 or so hours driving past endless fields of corn and wheat can attest.

One of my more pleasant memories is of spending the day riding a Greyhound across Kansas, looking out the window at the passing landscape. When people in California objected to wind generators being built on their precious ocean scape and coastal hills (where the wind blows strong), someone said to build them in Kansas. Prairie preservationists rightly objected. (I embraced socialism coming of age in the midwest, and I’ve always had a disdain for California elites, even if I did grow up on Ramparts magazine, when David Horowitz knew how to write).

Wichita, on the other hand, is and always has been: it’s full of people who are content with the general status quo of the 1950s.

You mean the city is a bit too sprawling and MODERN, lacking roots in the traditions of the place where it sprawled. Some education in the proud legacy of the Jayhawkers may be in order.

I dunno….it’s pretty bleak out here in the rust belt for medium-sized cities. We’re draining jobs, wages, and decent benefits and working conditions.

Don’t generalize about the entire rust belt. Milwaukee is crawling back, had an excellent Repertory Theater (albeit those prosperous trolls from the outer suburbs are bankrolling it), and a lot of neighborhoods starting to look up a bit. A spike in the number of deaths by gunshots this year, but it hasn’t chased everyone out of town.

#37 Comment By jaybird On October 25, 2015 @ 8:55 am

Will: As far as Witchita being smack dab in the middle of flat boring land. For Pete’s sake, get off the interstate that is designed to go through flat boring land.

I realize that little rural farming towns have a charm all their own. But the thread is about the perception of Wichita and other similar mid-sized cities. As great as the burgers at Toot’s may be, I doubt very many people would take that into consideration as a reason to visit, move to, or stay in cities like Wichita.

#38 Comment By La Lubu On October 25, 2015 @ 9:37 am

Don’t generalize about the entire rust belt.

But Siarlys, for the purposes of this conversation, at over half a million people, Milwaukee doesn’t qualify (the half-million figure cited above was for an entire region; yours tops out at over two million). That your city is ‘holding steady’ is precisely a function of its larger size and the fact that it hasn’t lost its manufacturing base. I’m perfectly comfortable asserting that rust-belt (and other midwestern) cities of the size spoken of in the original post are draining jobs and people because of the loss of a manufacturing base (and sometimes transportation hub). I can’t think of a single example of a city that has bounced back from those (major!) losses. Can you?

Here’s the thing: those mid-sized midwestern cities got to be mid-sized because there was a manufacturing and/or transportation base there that provided a considerable number of jobs for non-farmers. Those jobs in turn supported a number of other jobs providing goods and services. Now, those cities struggle with a population base outsized for the number of jobs available.

So, this idea that turnaround can happen by focusing on small-scale truck farming and small-scale craftsmanship is…let’s say highly unlikely. Highly unlikely because the conditions under which small “boutique” businesses thrive (critical mass of higher-income customers) don’t exist in those cities. Those cities are the ones hardest-hit by the chasm of income inequality.

Also: yes, real estate is “cheap” out here in flyover country, but wages are also low. You know what isn’t cheap? Rent. The rent-to-wages ratio of mid-sized flyover cities is just as bad as the rent-to-wages ratio in big cities for people without a college education. That’s three-quarters of the population—the ones left out of the “localism” conversations (unless they are farmers). “Localism” doesn’t yet have a place for the surplus-labor descendants of industrial workers.

#39 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 26, 2015 @ 12:22 am

La Lubu, you are being awfully nonspecific. Which rust belt cities ARE you talking about? At least specify your own. I’ve heard good things from people who live in Akron and Ft. Wayne. Youngstown, not so much. East St. Louis is a poster child for M_Young and Noah. Milwaukee still has some manufacturing base, as does a good deal of the rest of Wisconsin, above the national average anyway, but if you think we didn’t lose a big chunk… I have a long list of stories to tell you. I originally moved here for the cheap rent, among other things, and while its risen some, it still beats most big cities by a long shot — particularly Chicago and DC, and even Madison. I don’t know many people with a college education. Its just not who I hang out with.

#40 Comment By La Lubu On October 26, 2015 @ 10:36 am

Which rust belt cities ARE you talking about?

In Illinois? Danville and Decatur have been hammered pretty hard economically, and are highly unlikely to recover (like East St. Louis). Springfield would be the same way if it wasn’t the state capitol. Peoria and Bloomington are holding steady because of their larger size (though Bloomington will suffer because of the loss of Mitsubishi). What’s really visible to me as I work or travel on the road is the harsh hammering of “micropolitan” cities—ones that used to thrive in my parent’s era but are now pretty bleak.

The places that are holding steady either still have a sizeable manufacturing base (Peoria), have a sizeable college (Bloomington, Champaign-Urbana), or benefit from close proximity to a large city (Alton and the whole riverbend area).

I mean, I’ve been watching medium-sized cities in my state try to follow some strategy of hanging on, but the only strategies that seem to work are “bigger is better” (have a city population of at least 200,000 and/or metro-area of half a million) and “have a large college”. The smaller places aren’t supporting the critical mass of middle-income earners needed to hold steady. They’re declining in population, household income, and property values, while increasing in age.

Many medium-sized midwestern cities currently have a population larger than they can sustain with the new, contracted economy—a population that is the legacy of the formerly-plentiful industrial jobs that originally created those cities from small-towns, from dots on a map.

Localism doesn’t seem (thus far) to have an answer to that—there’s too many local people left out of the “localism” game plan.

#41 Comment By JonF On October 26, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

rE: You know what isn’t cheap? Rent.

Why? I remember Akron as a cheap place to live, when I lived there 2000-2003 (and in comparison to Ann Arbor where I had lived previously, and to Florida where I moved after). If people are packing up and leaving that should put downward pressure on rents.

#42 Comment By La Lubu On October 26, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

If people are packing up and leaving that should put downward pressure on rents.

Mid-sized and smaller cities didn’t build a lot of apartments during their heyday. The demand was for single-family houses. A lot of the older-stock (pre-WWII) apartment housing has already met the wrecking ball. That’s why so many motels have become “welfare motels” (a misnomer, since most of the people in them are the working poor)—the rent is cheaper than the available apartments. Yeah, rent is cheaper in downstate Illinois compared to Chicago, but relative to downstate’s lower wages, the ratio is about the same—low-income folks are spending 50-60 percent of their income on rent down here, just like they do in Chicago.

Rent is more expensive in college towns like Ann Arbor, because it can be—there’s a captive marketplace of students. Landlords can charge damn near what they want and someone will pay it. That’s not the issue here—it’s not that rents are higher-priced for their value, but that wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.

#43 Comment By Alan On October 26, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

@ C Laughlin, thanks, I loved your comments. If I had thousand lives to live and in each one of them, I could live in Wichita or anywhere in the great state of CA (LOL), I’d pick Wichita 1,000 times. Different strokes for different folks. Oh, BTW, the best Thai food I’ve ever had in my life was in Wichita.

#44 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 26, 2015 @ 9:16 pm

OK, La Lubu, now we’re into territory where we can have an informed conversation. Yes, there are places that are suffering, places that are doing fairly well, and places that are teetering. Those that are doing well have some kind of economic engine keeping them going, and those doing really badly have none.

I think it is probably true that those areas which have high demand (because there is something to move there for) have high rent, and this is hard on the lower income people who live there. It has worked out rather well for my family that when my parents were selling in Evanston, the market was up, and when I was buying in Milwaukee, the market was down (although that, too, is changing now).

A certain degree of economic planning would be helpful. I don’t want a nomenklatura dreaming up vast industrial projects, then situating them on unsuitable soils and demanding that the project be supported as some litmus of party loyalty. But, it wouldn’t hurt to have policies that deflected new investment away from areas that have a hot economy and rapidly rising property values, toward places with a restless and even educated unemployed population. Better to move investment around than move population around.

The latter is a “liberal” solution, as I learned from reading The Economist for as long as they were willing to give me the special price of $12 per quarter. It wasn’t worth paying more.