Mark A. Signorelli has an interesting piece up over at Front Porch Republic on the theme of going home.
Several writers associated with FPR (Rod Dreher, Bill Kauffman, among others) have written extensively about their journeys from small town to big city and back again, where they had to convince smug townsfolk that, no, they were not slinking back home having failed to make it in the big city. Rather, they had chosen to trade wealth and status for the pleasures of small town life.
Going home, however, is a luxury not everyone can afford. One must have a hometown worth returning to, one that hasn’t been changed for the worse by time and circumstance. Certainly, if one has managed to escape the ghetto, the trailer park, even Signorelli’s sprawling soulless suburbia, it unwise to go home again. Not all of us hail from Kauffman’s beloved Batavia or Dreher’s quaint St. Francisville.
As the wife and I continue house shopping, we have had many of the same thoughts as Signorelli. I am unlikely to move back home, even though home is but a short drive away. As Signorelli notes, going home narratives “underestimate the extent of the cultural wreckage wrought upon our communities… they overestimate the amount of genuine civil society remaining in our local communities…”
Home, in other words, ain’t what it used to be. My hometown certainly isn’t. The Belleville, Illinois of my youth was far from idyllic; rather it was an ordinary working class town, with very little charm, but a good deal of local industry. The nearby Stag Brewery employed several generations of my neighbors. The schools worked. Families were largely intact. Serious crime was a rarity. My parents had no problem letting their preteen children sleep on the front porch or in a backyard tent. We walked ourselves to school and rode our bikes to baseball practice.
All that changed in the 1980s. The brewery was sold and shuttered. The mall in a neighboring town doomed our downtown. Soon, we were no more than a bedroom community serving nearby St. Louis. Then the prosperous commuters began to drift away to new housing tracts in the surrounding countryside. Housing prices plummeted. As ethnic diversity increased (and economic diversity decreased) racial tensions rose. The schools suffered from the cultural gap, including the loss of competent teachers and the loss of a strong tax base. The Catholic schools and churches began consolidating and closing.
This is how towns die.
ALL OF WHICH BEGS the question: when is one’s hometown no longer one’s hometown? Writes Signorelli:
The town where I grew up has been utterly transformed over the years into a place embodying all of the destructive and inhuman tendencies of modern American life…the atomization of our neighborhoods; the crassness and destructiveness of our greed; our lack of stewardship towards the natural world; our obliviousness towards our intellectual heritage; the rancid divisiveness of our politics; the frivolity of modern American religion. My hometown is an absolute epitome of everything a Porcher loathes about contemporary America, a veritable minor kingdom of economic, cultural, and theological individualism. So as someone who loathes these things as much as the next Porcher, I must simply say that I have no place to return to. To return to my hometown, to settle down there and raise a family, would represent, to my mind, an act of surrender; it would subject me and my family to all of the malign forces in our culture I wish to defy.
Signorelli is perhaps too gloomy about our present situation. “We are unlikely to find a real home at this time, perhaps even in our lifetimes,” he writes. Well, the author is a playwright and used to ramping up the melodrama, so he is forgiven. But he lost me completely when he avers that we are only at home when we live and work among people who are our mirror image, who possess the same world-view, same tastes, same affections, same ambitions, same goals. Isn’t he describing the dull suburban conformity he longed to escape?
I, too, am one who feels that Americans are too placeless, too hypermobile, and that if we genuinely believe community and family are fundamental we need to become more rooted. I am, however, more optimistic about the future. I believe it is still possible to “find a real home.” Especially if one is not seeking perfection. Just a place with a strong sense of community, of law and order, of walkable neighborhoods, good schools, some greenspace. If my hometown no longer affords that then it is no longer home. And it’s time to find a new one.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons