Over the past weekend I was at our family’s lake cottage in Northeast Indiana. During the drive home, I had an eerie feeling that many of the small towns along my route would soon be faded memories. Even some of the more substantial towns had a perceptible air of despair to them. Perhaps the drought was contributing to this feeling, but I think it goes much deeper than that. It is like these places have been tossed aside and forgotten like a toy.
Each of these small dots on the map represents a collection of legacies that are disappearing now at an observable rate in the Midwest. Abandoned storefronts, fallen shutters, rusty farm implements, derelict farmhouses, and a general air of despair hovers over these small towns – places that home state hero and rock legend John Mellencamp sang about so eloquently almost three decades ago.
It is quite sad to see these legacy of your home state’s roots slowly turn to dust; just another “ghost town lullaby” dancing upon a hot summer breeze. Here were a few of my observations:
- Family farms that fed the world so often are becoming simply another cog in the mechanized, homogenized, industrialized, and unrecognized face of 21st century agriculture.
- White frame churches turn gray with time, as their flocks flee to lands of opportunity or wither away in solemn pioneer graveyards buffeted by the forces of Mother Nature.
- Small retail businesses are boarded up and/or replaced by the nearest big box or dollar store some half-dozen to dozen miles down the two-lane strip of asphalt.
- Former school yards have become weedy wastelands with lone strands of tattered rope dangling from the rusted rims of basketball goals.
- A dilapidated and abandoned old post office slowly disappears, left to the elements and to time – the only evidence of its prior existence is a lone blue sentinel waiting for a post card or bill yet to be mailed.
- Former car dealerships, their names still faintly legible on the exterior sit empty as if waiting for the new model year that will never come.
- Small one or two block main streets with nary a soul to be found wait in silent desolation as a freight train passes through at breakneck speed towards someplace…anyplace else.
- A slightly hunched-over, elderly pedestrian carries a small bag of groceries down a virtually empty street to their forlorn home down the lane.
- Colorful for sale and lease signs decorate the facade of obsolete and decaying structures unlikely to ever be used for their intended purpose again.
- Family restaurants, once a beehive of social activity sit unattended and unloved.
- Old gas stations, long ago replaced by modern million-lumen marvels of glare, never die, they just run out of gas and deteriorate.
- Roadside signs announcing forgotten communities that hardly exist anymore other than a few ramshackle buildings and a home here and there.
Each of these unfortunate images sorrows my heart as a planner, as a citizen, and as a human being. Why must we toss aside perfectly good people, places, and things like spoiled children. After 236 years, when exactly do we in the United States finally decide to start respecting and caring for these once vibrant places and not just seek greener pastures all the time? Sooner or later, we are bound to run out of green pastures. I wish I had the answer. Guess, only time will tell.