Loyalty to Place Can Renew American Towns
Editor’s Note: This article is based on an address delivered by Bill Kauffman at “Revitalizing Jackson’s Main Street,” an event held by The American Conservative at Grand River Brewery in Jackson, Michigan, on September 28.
I am delighted to be in Jackson, where in 1902 Hughie Cannon wrote “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” at Conrad Diedrich’s saloon on Main Street.
According to a 1973 interview with his 100-year-old widow, Bill Bailey was a charming two-timing musician who lit out for Los Angeles and never came back to Jackson. Hughie Cannon, the song’s composer, skipped town, too, drinking himself to death in Toledo. (Despairing over the Mud Hens, perhaps.)
My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.
In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.
To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.
I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.
Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.
In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.
Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)
Batavia’s urban renewal was an act of parricide, really, unequalled this side of Rumania, where the vampiric Ceausescu once waged war on pre-communist architecture with all the decorum of Vlad the Impaler. Our city fathers rushed headlong into this mad program whereby the federal government paid Batavia to knock down its past: the mansions of the founders, sandstone churches, the brick shops of Main Street—the whole damned—or, rather, blessed—thing.
Batavia tore out its five-block heart and filled the cavity with a ghastly mall, a colossal failure built in the aptly named Brutalist style. We are used today in urban-planning texts as a case study in disaster.
The economist Martin Anderson had published The Federal Bulldozer, his scholarly demolition of urban renewal, in 1964, when so much of our city might still have been saved, but we never got around to reading that book.
Apart from the noble Landmark Society of Genesee County, organized opposition to this destruction—this wholesale vandalism—was meager. For this was “progress,” the American religion, the true and only god of the Greatest Generation, to borrow a phrase from Tom Brokaw’s ghostwriter.
I was young then—or maybe I should say I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now—but I recall my family grousing about urban renewal. They understood that every building carries within a fund of meaning and memory that can never be duplicated or replaced, and I think they sensed that when these buildings were gone, the memories might remain but the corporeal evidence of a life lived disappears, and we would become as ghosts, strangers flitting through a strange land. The children would leave, because their anchorage was no longer visible. When the signposts of your life vanish, it doesn’t make much difference where you live. Or work. Or shop. One place is pretty much the same as the next—not hostile to our residence therein, but merely indifferent.
And if we are disloyal to our place, to the place our ancestors made, then why should our children show any loyalty to us? If the city in which they grow up is stripped clean of its landmarks—and I don’t mean just the homes of great men, of presidents and thieves—I mean the corner groceries and baseball fields and the front-porched homes that make a neighborhood—well, why should young people choose to stay in such a self-disrespecting place? Why not just move to a manicured suburb with high average SAT scores—say, Columbine, Colorado, where all your dreams can come true?
I was blessed in that I grew up with a sense that my place had a history, a culture, an accent, all its own. It was ravaged, it had often been mistreated, outsiders might think it a flavorless dump, but to me it had pith and soul and was a source of endless fascination. My dad used to tell us the stories, some probably apocryphal or libelous, behind the houses: we’d drive around and he’d say “that’s where the town whore lived”—the fact that it was my great aunt complicated matters; or “Father Kelly’s fife and drum corps played in that field”; or “that’s the joint of Vinny the bookie, a guy who never did a day’s work in his life.” Parenthetically, a friend of mine who’s a musician, also a repatriated native son, he and I say that’s our ambition: that when we’re old men we’ll be walking down the street and fathers will point us out to their sons and say, “Those two guys never did a day’s work in their lives.”
Ah, dare to dream.
I grew up with the knowledge that Batavia contained the stuff of myth and drama and tragedy and farce. I knew that where I was from mattered, even if the corporate media relentlessly pound into the skulls of every kid who doesn’t live in LA or Manhattan or DC the message that your life is risible, it’s trivial, why even bother to live if you’re not partying with Kendall Jenner or talking Dianetics with Tom Cruise? As a girl band from Los Angeles sang many years ago, “This town is our town/it is so glamorous/bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.”
Or maybe not.
I always felt an intense homesickness no matter where I was. So in 1988, I persuaded my wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, that we should come home to my own not-so-glamorous town for what I said would be a one-year experiment. That year, it turns out, is measured in Old Testament terms, a la Methuselah.
I had worked prior to that as a legislative assistant to the legendary Senator Pat Moynihan and as a magazine editor in DC and Southern California before a vague suspicion that I had nursed since college concretized into a massive and unshakeable conviction: that a live lived anywhere but in my natal place would be fugitive, evanescent, meaningless. So we went back.
According to the popular culture definition of success, going home—doing what I did—is the act of a loser. Home may be where the heart is, but the body is usually long gone. In the typical American success story, the heart is the only organ that is not transplanted. These poisonous assumptions are even embedded in our language. Consider a pair of colloquialisms: “He’ll go far,” approving elders say of promising youngsters, the assumption being that success can be measured in terms of the distance one has traveled from home. If, on the other hand, we say of a boy, “He’s not going anywhere,” we are not praising him for his steadfast loyalty but damning him as an ambition-less sluggard. Those who stay loyal to their little postage stamps of ground are said to be losers; to abandon it, to trash it, to forget it—that’s the freeway to American success. We are expected to look away, to prize the distant over the near-at-hand, to care more about Hollywood than Hanover, or Baghdad more than our own backyards.
Well, absence may make the heart grow fonder, but love’s truest, greatest expression, I have come to believe, is immobility. Fixity. Staying put.
We now live five miles north of Batavia in Elba, an apt address for an exile. Lucine, my wife, I note with pride, served two terms as our town supervisor—and since the fade to black of Governor George Deukmejian she may be the highest ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, or at least she will be until the voters of California elect Kim Kardashian to the U.S. Senate. I should add that as first husband, my role model was Mamie Eisenhower. My special project was staying out of the way.
(In the U.S. Senate of the 19th century, Daniel Webster debated John C. Calhoun; in our enlightened 21st century, Senator Kim Kardashian will match wits with Senator Kid Rock.)
So what do you do when your small city has been leveled by well-meaning but fatuous city fathers who can’t resist the lure of “free” federal money?
There are many ways of going, as a poet who lived in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, once said. In the new issue of The American Conservative, which you are sitting on, I write about my friend Tim Tielman, the charismatic urban geographer who has done so much to revitalize Buffalo. (Charismatic urban geographer: is that like “Ohio State scholar”?)
Joseph Ellicott, who at the beginning of the 19th century founded both Buffalo and Batavia, remarked, “God made Buffalo; I will try and make Batavia.” I’m not sure who won that contest; I wish God had been with Scott Norwood when he tried that 47-yard field goal at the end of the 1991 Super Bowl. In any event, Tim and many others are now doing God’s work in Buffalo.
As for Batavia….I am of the old Thoreauvian school that distrusts big political solutions. It was the federal government that demolished our little city, so I don’t turn first to the federal government to rebuild it.
DIY, as the old punk rock ethos went. Do it yourself. And across America, from Grand River Brewery to Front Porch Republic Books, people are doing it themselves.
For instance: Batavia’s not-so-favorite literary son was the 1970s novelist John Gardner, among the last American writers to grow up on a farm. Gardner had something of an ambivalent relationship with his hometown. When asked by an interviewer what function Batavia served in his fiction, he replied that it was “a good symbol…of the decline of western civilization.”
It’s kinda hard for the chamber of commerce to put that on a brochure.
Nevertheless, Gardner was ours. As another Upstate New York writer, the drunken scamp Frederick Exley, once said of his birthplace, “Watertown is not in my marrow—it is my marrow.” So, too, with Gardner. And so every October we have an evening of Gardner readings in his favorite diner, the unselfconsciously funky Pokadot, outside which now sits our purple and yellow John Gardner bench, upon which you all are invited to sit your literate selves when next you’re in our fair town. (Because Gardner’s novel The Sunlight Dialogues begins with a wild man being arrested for painting Love at Batavia’s Thruway exit, we were going to emblazon Love on the bench, but we feared that the passionate and randy youths of our amorous town might take it a bit too literally.)
(How about a “Come Home, Bill Bailey” day in Jackson?)
I also wrote and played a role in our county’s bicentennial play several years ago, a furtively didactic farce. As an actor I have all the emotional range of The Rock, but few things have ever given me as much satisfaction as doing that play to packed houses, honoring our forbears, making myth of their lives at the same time we tried to celebrate the everyday moments of holiness in their—and our—lives.
These are small, person-to-person acts, I know. But I don’t see how anything larger is practically possible, or should I say desirable.
If you wanna change the world you’ve gotta do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander—more far-reaching—and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as abstractions, as faceless numbers on a bottom line. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into housing projects—always for their own good, of course. I’m not saying shun politics, but from my angle of vision, the healthy imperative is to decentralize, to devolve power to the most human scale levels: to the small community, the urban neighborhood, the family business, the individual. That will be the source of our renewal.
I was very much struck by an incident a dozen or so years ago, when we spent a day in Columbus, Mississippi, hometown of Tennessee Williams, a city of beautiful antebellum homes untouched by the Civil War. First place we stopped was a little restaurant. I am a hopeful romantic and expected to find vatic old men, white and black, whittling on benches, and laconic loafers playing checkers and drawling wittily on courthouse steps, and tomboyish Nell Harper Lee hiding in the bushes, taking it all down. Eh, not quite.
We entered the eatery and were seated behind four ladies with lovely and mellifluous Mississippi accents. They spent the next half hour recounting the plot of the previous night’s episode of Friends, that smuttily witless show by which archeologists of the 23rd century will condemn our civilization. I wanted to confront them, to plead with them: “Look, here you are, daughters of a poor reviled state which is nevertheless one of the culturally richest states in the union; your home gave us the Delta blues, Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, William Faulkner, Muddy Waters, and yet you consume the commercial products of cocaine-addled greedheads in Manhattan and Los Angeles, people who hate your guts, who despise you as ignorant crackers and stupid rednecks. Get off your knees, Mississippi! There are new Robert Johnsons and Eudora Weltys in your midst. Support them. Look inward; look homeward. With a little help, the flowers in your own backyard will bloom a thousand times more brilliantly than anything on your high-definition TV set.”
Well I didn’t say this, being a polite Upstate New Yorker. but I wanted to. The tools of our revivification are at our feet, if we’d just look down. Look around. Every Main Street and Oak Street and Elm Street deserves its own record, its own poem, its own lively and vital and enriching street life. So where are they?
Maybe one problem is that so many of those who might create them leave for greener pastures, or, more often, leave just for the green.
There is green and there is green. There is the green of Goldman Sachs and there is the green of the ballfield.
In my town that greensward is home to the Batavia Muckdogs.
Batavia is a charter member of baseball’s New York-Penn League, founded in 1939, one of the oldest minor leagues in the country. My dad was a batboy in the ’40s. I grew up one block from Dwyer Stadium, named for the kindly Irish Catholic shoestore owner whose labors of love kept baseball alive in Batavia—and boy could Mr. Dwyer lacerate an umpire when he disagreed with a call. I spent much of a book writing about what baseball means to our town. It’s been a gathering place across the generations, a place of fellowship and good cheer, and as vice president today of a club perennially on the financial ledge I’m trying to keep it alive now for those who’ll follow, so that my daughter, with whom I have shared so many soft summer nights in the third-base bleachers, may one day do the same with her children. It’s those dreams of continuity that sustain one. Or sustain me, anyway. When I look out over the crowd I see the dead as well as the living. (Alas, the dead sometimes play third base for our team.)
The presence of those who’ve gone before—it’s not an annoyance, or a grimly obligatory pull—it hallows the places we live.
This is not to say they’re Edenic. In fact, when you’re living in a place rather than idealizing it at a distance—which is easy to do, and I’ve done it; as Lord Acton said, exile is the nursery of nationalism—when you’re actually living in a place you see, you even embrace, the imperfections. I’m sure even Jackson has imperfections.
A decade or so ago, we misconceived the idea of baseball poetry night, or what I like to call shoving culture down fans’ throats night. I detest the constant noise at modern sporting events: the walkup songs, the between-innings excerpts from moronic pop and rap songs—such a plummet from the sublime music of my youth: the Velvet Underground and the Captain and Tennille.
Anyway, on baseball poetry night, the team president, the local museum director, our daughter and I filled the between-innings air of a contest between the Batavia Muckdogs and the Auburn Doubledays with recited odes to the American game by Charles Bukowski, Grantland Rice, Tom Clark, and other bards of the ballfield. My favorite was Bukowski’s “Betting on the muse,” which begins, “Jimmie Foxx died an alcoholic in a skidrow hotel room.” I thought of it as a cautionary tale for the boys.
The whole thing went over as disastrously as you’d expect. My Batavia, God bless her, is poetical enough in my imagination, but as for poetry appreciation…let’s just say that when the p.a. announcer asked the fans, “Do you want another poem or a song?” the shouts of “song!” rivaled the New Testament crowd’s cry of “Free Barabbas!”
You can’t always get what you want. But I’ve gotten what I need.
Or I think of a recent season when the team unwisely scheduled “Bill Kauffman Day.” I thought every day was Bill Kauffman Day….I had to throw out the first pitch that night. I shambled out to the mound, told the crowd over the mike that my brother had promised to buy everyone in the stands a beer if I threw a strike, and I threw a fastball right down the pipe. I think the radar gun clocked it in the low 80s—others estimated the mid-40s.
That night my daughter and her friend sang the national anthem, melodiously. During the seventh-inning stretch, now unfortunately scored in so many ballparks by that empty cloud of bombast “God Bless America,” the girls ignored post-9-11 protocol and instead sang my favorite, “America the Beautiful.”
They weren’t past “Oh beautiful…” when a heckler started in from the beer deck: “Wrong song! Wrong song!” The girls got a huge kick out of it. How many singers have ever been jeered during “America the Beautiful”?
The revival of our towns, our neighborhoods, our America the Beautifuls, our Jacksons and Batavias, has to start with individual revolutions of the soul. Or, less grandiosely, with the choices we make each day. We can watch Friends reruns or we can make friends. We can shop at Wal-mart, we can buy our kids the most expensive electronic gadgetry, further alienating them from their families and their surroundings, or we can buy our produce at the farm market from our neighbors; we can listen to local bands at the corner bar; we can sing “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?” from a stool at the Grand River Brewery; we can support the local sports teams; we can buy the works of local writers and painters and crafters and musicians.
It’s up to us.
Our hometowns—or the places we make our hometowns—deserve our love. We can treat them with love and care and solicitude, or we can treat them as carelessly as we would a used Big Mac wrapper.
Batavia, Jackson, all the Batavias and Jacksons, reveal to us at the most unexpected moments the alternative to the insanity that’s going on out there, in TV land, in the unreal America. In Batavia it’s the heavenly grease at the Pokadot diner, the chestnut trees on the campus of the New York State School for the Blind; it’s the novels of John Gardner and a crowd chanting “BHS! BHS!” at a Batavia High basketball game. That’s what’s real. That’s what keeps our town alive. Jackson has its own analogues of these things. Protect them. Preserve them. Sing them. Enhance them. Share them.
Thanks for listening. Long live Jackson.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.