Into Old Americana

Cruise down long stretches of US Route 301 through Maryland and Virginia, interrupted by the periodic lurch of stop-light riddled commercial plazas and the crumbling, somewhat terrifying span over the Potomac known as the Governor Nice Bridge, and you’ll gain an appreciation for the rural decay that has hollowed out so much of America in the past several decades.  You can take the same amount of time driving both interstate and old US highway routes through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Carolinas, and especially throughout the backwoods of Florida and see all of the same things: vine-snaked windows on crumbling houses, shops long-since boarded up with nothing having taken their places, and whole towns emptied of business, people, and any semblance of community save for a handful of old retirees too old to pack up and move on.

So it was with Baldwin, Florida, a nearly microscopic crossroads of a town where US Routes 90 and 301 intersect, where the train tracks to Jacksonville hit the north/south line that 301 follows.  If you’re headed south on Route 95 and trying to make your way toward Tampa, Route 301 cuts diagonally across the state where no other major route does—but if you’re among the urbane sophisticates looking for a good diner to stop in for lunch, you’ll probably come up pretty dry throughout most of 301’s route.  Baldwin, up until about two years ago, was practically an economic ghost town.

Some fourteen or fifteen hundred people live there, but you wouldn’t know it.  The houses that you can see are largely decrepit, abandoned, or falling apart.  The ones that you can’t are far enough from the center of town that you’ll never glimpse them unless you know a resident or two, and while friendly, they’re not the most welcoming bunch and the median age seems to be around 60.  301 takes you right through the center of town, past a few buildings that once held a shop, a dollar store, or a restaurant.  Eventually, like the rest of the street, those doors all got locked up tight some fifteen years ago and the insides left to vacancy and dust, save for a couple of cheap odds and ends left in the display windows.

It is, I think, a matter of national pride to have seen the country of your birth.  Interstate systems across the US have certainly helped many Americans in this endeavor, expediting the trips from Chicago to Santa Fe, Boston to Miami, and New York to Sacramento.  They served other purposes, too, expanding commerce as well as drugs and crime from the country’s southern border.  As the country’s geography was brought closer together by the roadway system, the roadway system made a few executive decisions out of necessity.  If your town was under a few hundred thousand people or you had no significant industry or port to speak of, then sorry guys!  You might have been part of the American experiment, but you aren’t part of the global commercial market.

And that’s the issue: the interstates show you only a very limited segment of the country: there are no stops, no towns, and once you’re out of the cities—especially out west—very little to see.  By any speedy route, Nebraska and Kansas are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and the same can be said for most of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

This isn’t to suggest that the only way to travel is some completely impractical and at times tedious fights against stoplights, local roads, and low speed limits that necessitated the construction of the interstate system in the first place.  What’s important, however, is to recognize that the interstates exist to connect the urban centers with each other, usually with a tourist attraction or two thrown in to preserve a simulacrum of the American road trip experience.  The Brooklyn Bubble-dwelling liberal seeking Trump’s America outside the borough boundaries isn’t likely to be clued in to the anxieties that plague White America if all they’re willing to stop at is the Arby’s next to the gas station off of Route 95 or the rest stop welcome centers where all the bathrooms are nearly spotless and smell like air fresheners.  Your small mom & pop diners by the side of the road have all been turned into franchises in order to remain competitive, because that’s all interstaters are looking for now.  And rest areas?  Back when gas was a quarter a gallon, rest areas were just spots that you picked for your boxed lunch on the side of the road, but that was also back when the top speed of your car was only about fifty miles an hour and the seats were only marginally more comfortable than church pews.  Those of us flying down the interstates these days aren’t looking for the American experience, anyway.  We’re going places and doing things—America isn’t an ethos; it’s just a place we happened to have been born.  You see a lot of people on 95, but you don’t see a lot of locals.

Which brings us back to Baldwin.  Things are actually looking up for the town of Baldwin.  Shops that were closed are now open.  Two different dollar stores within a block of each other now both have lit signs and cars in their parking lots.  The antique store looks like it actually sees travelers now.  The completion of construction on the nearby Interstate 10 interchange has certainly helped, as have the improvements done to 301 from Yulee, but I think there’s something bigger at work.  People are optimistic again.  Even up north, real estate is beginning to make its bounce back after the last eight years of the overregulated abyssal recession that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end.  Things are being built again.

This plague of recovery isn’t entirely Trump’s fault.  The economy was returning at the tail end of Obama’s regime, but that was more in spite of his executive regulations rather than because of any of them.  Everything he’d tried to actively stimulate the economy had failed—the stimulus package at the beginning destroyed more than it helped, his green energy incentives resulted in fraud and bankruptcy cases, and his healthcare reform has damaged small business to the point of breaking.  But Trump’s first weeks in office resulted in Obama’s precious regulations being almost unilaterally erased.  And six months later, we’re starting to see the tangible results, not just the stock market ticks.

Not all small towns are going to make it.  Waldo, another miniscule settlement just down the road south from Baldwin, isn’t so lucky.  It still looks like it’s in a state of decline that may, perhaps, never recover.  Some industries will not return.  Coal and steel—the bedrock of Midwestern economics—are the ones everyone is waiting for, and with modern technology there’s little reason not to expect those jobs to come back.  But manufacturing?  Automotive?  Textiles?  Railroads?  The ways of life in these smaller regions of the world are going away as the rural areas dwindle into old age and then into graveyards.  Even if small communities end up popping up and thriving once more, the people around to carry on the American ethos—the old timers, the shop owners, the storytellers—will all be dead and replaced, probably by people whose family and ethnic histories are completely different.

But hey, in the meantime, something survives.  The old generation is certainly sinking, and the fundamental transformation of America that the Left so vehemently fought for is seeing its completion with the Millennial generation.  Modernization, commercialization, and globalization all certainly contributed their fair share, too.  The destruction of the small town has come with the destruction of the very idea of the community, and that’s a hard thing to get back.  How do you make appeals to the smartphone-addicted, secularized youth who can’t even be convinced to do their own dishes, much else help out with their roommate’s?  How do you make the case to a promiscuous college student that marriage leads to a better, more fulfilling life than the hookup culture that she’s too short-sighted to realize isn’t going to last her past the age of thirty-five?  How do you convince the recent graduate that his grandparents really do have worthwhile wisdom to pass on down and that they aren’t just a pair of dementia-riddled old kooks living on the fringes of the concrete jungle?

Well, maybe encouraging them to actually take a first-hand look at their own country is a start.

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