Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Trouble In The Heartland 6/3/09

Driving out to Bonge’s in Perkinsville in the summer is a treat. The road between Strawtown and there winds and turns, rises and falls, following White River that flows beyond a line of trees to the north. Oceans of corn spread out in all directions rolling like waves on a gentle breeze. As I pass the picturesque farms, I’m often moved to comment, “It still looks like Indiana out here.”
Of course, my comment is as much a reference to that bucolic landscape as it is about the endless miles of asphalt lined with strip malls and subdivisions in Hamilton and Marion Counties where I spend most of my time.
But in reality, the parts of the state that still look like Indiana, beyond the relatively wealthy confines of Hamilton County are not fairing so well.
After publishing a book in the early 2000s, I drove all over the state in my GM pick-up truck with a case a books and slide projector in the back, doing my little dog and pony show in small towns and dying industrial cities like Anderson, Muncie, and New Castle. I spoke in libraries, bookstores, churches, museums, private residences, and yes, a time or two, county highway garage conference rooms. I got a good look at Indiana’s dying rural, small town and industrial fabric. A lot of those places look like a war was fought in their old downtowns and residents took up safer ground in little plastic and asphalt enclaves by the Interstate.
Growing up in Tipton in the ‘60s and ‘70s, everybody’s folks were either family farmers or worked in the auto industry. Tipton had FMC, a firetruck manufacturer, and Perfect Circle, a piston ring maker. My dad, uncle, and eventually my older brother worked at Chrysler in Kokomo and an aunt worked at Delco.
The auto industry got caught with its pants down in the mid-’70 when gas prices spiked and they had little to offer suddenly energy-conscience car buyers. You’d think they would have learned, but last year it happened all over again. And the family farms started dying out and going corporate when I was in college.
The heartland’s fall from grace has been coming a long time.
My dad told me over the weekend that an acquaintance of his had bought that old, long empty FMC property in my hometown for a song, in fact, for less money than my last car cost.
Yesterday I drove out of Hamilton County up 213, through Tipton and into Howard County to meet with clients, driving through places I knew well in my youth. I came upon the cemetery south of Hobbs and thought of old high school buddies who rented a place near there after graduation. They tore the racks out of an old refrigerator and plumbed it for a beer keg. One of them, Donny, hired me to build an oak stereo cabinet. I remember taking it to him out there when it was done.
Cornfields pass my window. Some little seedlings are springing up in obedient rows. Others fields lay fallow with their low ends under water and the remnants of last year’s stalks rotting atop some of the richest soil in America.
Pulling through Hobbs I recalled going to Kent’s wedding at the little church down the road in the early ‘80s. Corporate farms forced his family’s small farm out of the hog business a long time ago.
I pass a well tended home with a gleaming pole barn and extravagant landscaping. Then appears a 1920s bungalow with boarded up windows and a driveway littered with rusting cars. In the side yard a long forgotten grape arbor tilts disastrously close to the ground.
Along the way I pass two old depression-era WPA rest stops.
Driving into Windfall, I remember picking up a pizza with my high school friend, Max at a little pizza place there. To my surprise it’s still in business. After graduation, Max went to work for Firestone, now just a few blocks down the street from the Noblesville home where Greta and I have raised our kids. I haven’t seen Max in 30 years, but know the jobs there are few and set to disappear entirely this year.
I pass a Wilmoth Group real estate sign. Non-real estate folks don’t know Wilmoth primarily represents banks selling repossessed houses.
In Europe you often come upon castle ruins as you travel. Half of a stone archway will rise out of a hillside, hinting at long-gone glory. In Greentown I pass a sad old Victorian home covered in fading aluminum siding. Its porch and sidewalk are gone, but the two concrete steps that once served the porch still rest alone and useless in the middle of the yard, leading to and from nowhere. In America’s compressed historical cycles, these are our ancient ruins.
In Kokomo, ten miles west of Greentown, the news is glum. Chrysler has merged with Italy’s Fiat. Who would think that a member of Italy’s rickety, union-controlled industry could buy an American giant. Delphi is on the ropes, and the radio tells me GM has just filed for bankruptcy.
There are cries of socialism about the GM bailout. In fact, one client told me recently he was so mad at Obama about the bailout he’d never buy a GM car again. But the corporate farms I’ve been passing all afternoon have been taking federal subsidies – essentially corporate welfare, for years, a practice as socialistic as any GM bailout could be. Guess my client better boycott American food, too.
Things in the heartland haven’t been right for a long time.

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