Thursday, September 06, 2007

Going Home Pt 2

One sad fact of life is that you don't get to choose where you are born and are raised. If so, I doubt I would have chosen my home, Decatur, IL., a blue collar berg smack in the middle the Illinois corn and soybean fields. Do give me some points; I got out as soon as I could. If my sister was not there, I doubt I would go back at all.

Decatur has about 81,860 people according to the 2000 census. When I lived there the population was always listed as around 78,000. 1990 it was 83,000 some people. So, since the statistics rarely lie, it is clear that Decatur is far from a boom town.

Shabby. That was my impression this time around. Shabby and declining. Sad really. Even my son Daniel noted it was getting a bit ragged. “Decatur was never all that exciting, but I remember at least the buildings were kept up and were open, there were stores and restaurants and things looked nice”, he opined as I met with him in St Louis on my way home. He observed well.

The yards and neighborhoods are beginning to look unkempt. Even my old neighborhood is getting frayed around the edges. A dry summer didn’t help, but it seemed lawn care was not high on anyone’s priority.

So many businesses that had been there forever were gone. I wrote about the two car dealerships that had passed on, both buildings were empty and deteriorating. The old shopping center near our home had tenants, but some shops that had closed last year were still empty. An old grocery store sat empty, as did many businesses along Pershing Rd, the old main shopping drag to the north. Some of the businesses still there looked shabby and barely hanging on. They used to shine.

Downtown used to have some department stores, a Carson Pirie Scott, K's Merchandise Mart, Myers Brothers that became a Bergner's and lots of small shops and busy streets. Now a lot of it is a big empty lot. It used to be a big hole, but the mosquitoes took over and they finally got the big idea to fill it in. Only a few diehards and a one block area of small boutiques hang on for dear life.

One of Decatur’s big problems is that the town has an inferiority complex, some say rightly so. Springfield to the west has a steady base as the state capitol. Springfield always gets the new stores and services before Decatur. The twin cities of Champaign-Urbana boast the University of Illinois campus and a much more active and vibrant community. Bloomington-Normal, also a pair of cities, have Illinois State University and the base of State Farm Insurance to keep them afloat. Their growth in the last decade has made them a power house in the area. Decatur just never seems to measure up, like a small kid being compared to his genius or athletic siblings. Bragging about the city strikes me as empty rah rah, cheering loudly and foolishly for the losing team.

Decatur was built on blue collar industry. Much of it struggling or gone. Firestone tires, GE, Borg Warner, Essex Wire, all left. The two big factories devoted to soybean processing and agribusiness, ADM and Tate and Lyle (nee A. E. Staley) are doing well but not enough to make up for other losses. Caterpillar tractor has seen some hard times but still hangs on. Nothing big ever seems to come in and absorb the losses.

Decatur has also tried hard to kill itself with a long history of political blunders. The most famous locally and the one that has enduring effects to this day was the blunder involving the annexation of the Hickory Point Mall. Like the surrounding cities, Decatur was ripe for an enclosed shopping mall. But the city powers that be at the time wanted to preserve downtown. Admirable in intention, but the developer had the land, was going to do it no matter what and wanted the city to annex the property for services. After a long debate, they said no to annexation. So the small village of Forsyth said sure, and they got the land... and the tax revenue, and more development. Decatur saw the downtown stores move out anyway, businesses move to the bustling new area and saw tax revenue plummet. They tried to starve it by not having bus service to the mall and faced an uproar. Decatur has made a lot of decisions like that; a failed water park never built even after street and light improvements were made, buying the Holiday Inn and watching it die, again a victim of bad location. Guess what? A new one is planned for Forsyth.

So, home gets more shabby, poorer and older. My generation moved out and many of the later ones did too. There are some who like it there, boosters to the end. Maybe they have more loyalty than I, maybe something is there I do not see.

Decatur has a motto: “Decatur, We Like it Here”. (I think the alternative was “Decatur: Better Here Than Nowhere”

My Motto: Kansas City, I love it here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man, I second that emotion. Since WWII ended, there's been very little planning in American cities. Most were built around the car. So you see lots of parking lots, line malls, drive-thrus, Leavittown suburbs, etc. The only option is to continuouly spread out and expand the city limits. Kansas City metro is a good example, being one of the second largest metro area in the US. That sprawl promotes abandonment of older parts of town. Decatur is a good example of city leaders without vision. The proverb was right: Where there is no vision, the people perish.

My hometown, Texarkana, Arkansas, is so depressing and rundown that I can't even visit it anymore, even though my mom and family lives there. The last time I was there in 2003, it had been overtaken by Mexicans and blacks. Now before you judge, the problem is not the Mexicans and blacks, but the fact that they moved into all the old houses that the old folks left and abandoned, and then instead of fixing things up, they're only making it worse. What's there to take pride in if no one makes an effort?

Formerly good neighborhoods are shocking in their decline. Decent neighborhoods look like Chernobyl. The only thing that opened new in the last 15 years was Wal-Mart. That's it, other than a couple of dozen new liquor stores. Meth overwhelms the courts, and despite taxes being raised every year, no new schools have been built and the ones still there are the ones I went to and my grandfather's generation attended. I'd never live there again, ever.