Gap-Toothed Small Towns

Two days ago, the old Ross-Benson building next to the Clinton Kitchen/Fitness Center (Old Masonic Hall) in downtown Clinton was demolished. It was a long road to this point–the building was owned by people who bought it cheap, didn’t live here, and didn’t fix it up or care for it.

When the city finally gained possession, the big brick edifice was a hazard–holes in the roof, collapsed second floor, loose bricks occasionally dropping off the outside walls. Not a pretty sight.

It’s expensive for small towns (or large ones) to take down buildings, and it’s also a little sad. One more Main Street memory has bitten the dust, and Clinton has had to extract more than a few loose “teeth” in its downtown smile. There are few of the original buildings left, and plenty of gaps. Eventually, the old grain elevator in the background of the above image will also disappear from the city’s skyline.

What to do to keep the faith? What to do when the heart of a town is still beating strong, despite the amputations?

On Facebook tonight, a friend shared some images from Maroney Commons in downtown Howard, South Dakota. Howard dropped from a population of 1071 in the 2000 census to 858 in 2010 (thanks, Wikipedia!), but in the last few years, a real change in thinking–a real hope–has emerged in Howard for the future of rural and how we live in the way-out-yonder.

Sink your teeth into the video below:

Now, I’m not saying that Clinton or any other community in Big Stone County should attempt the very same thing Howard has done. But I admire how a coalition of creative individuals have come together to do something very concrete about their community’s future–looking the realities squarely in the face and deciding on a course of action. Does a town of this size have to get radical in its approach to surviving–and thriving?

I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. For many small communities, attempting to maintain the status quo with a shrinking (and yes, aging) population is getting more and more difficult. The situation–if it is to be remedied–calls for energy, action, local investment.

It also calls for a absolute blockheaded faith and force of will to create resilience–a willingness, even, to change a little. A decision that if a town is to survive, then population losses have to be made up in gains–sometimes from outsiders–maybe even people from a different culture entirely.

It calls for the people of a community to decide what the community is, what it stands for, what makes it special, and what could make it even more special–even more a reflection of its core ideals that (hopefully) include a reaching out and broadcasting of those ideals to the world.

I haven’t lived in Clinton very long–less than a year. But I moved here because I sensed its positive character, and I wanted to be a part of the community that makes it such a great place. My gut reaction has been proven correct in the warm welcome I’ve received and the genuine compassion shown in the wake of my house fire this past summer.

Still, it saddens me when I hear the sighs. Nostalgia for the good old days isn’t an affliction, but when it is accompanied by a loss of hope for the future, it’s troubling. I want to pound my fist on the table and shout–damn it! If it was so good–if it is still good–then let’s fight for it!  I didn’t locate here to be a vulture on a soon-to-be corpse; I located here because here is good.

Community groups abound here, and volunteerism is high. I wonder what could be accomplished if we put our heads together on filling in those empty downtown spaces. Maybe it’s not new buildings (yet!)–maybe it’s trees, parks, patios, community gardens, sculpture. I wonder how many local gardeners would donate a cutting or division from their perennial beds or pick up a shovel to keep the cost down?

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a shady place to sit and visit–an outdoor stage, gazebo, or shelter for musicians to perform, plays to be enacted, or community events to take place? Maybe a mural or two could grace the sides of the buildings we do have–adding some local color and advertising to passers-through that this is a beautiful place to settle. A small town with a will to thrive.

As of this afternoon, the only traces of the old Ross-Benson building are those still attached to the Kitchen (they shared a wall)–the cellar hole is filled in and packed down, and anyone can just stroll right through where a building stood for five generations. It’s a little surreal–a little shocking to see nothing where something was for so long.

Instead of mourning the loss and focusing on the lack, I hope there lights a sense of opportunity–excitement about what that space could hold, what community functions it could fulfill. Instead of a gaping hole, let’s see it as a vessel.

I’ll grab my shovel.

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