Wondering if the places that "still look like Indiana" can survive.
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 the 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.”
This 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 are not faring 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 of books and slide projector, 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 homes, and yes, a time or two, in county highway garage conference rooms. I got a good feel for the fabric of Indiana’s dying rural and small towns. A lot of those places looked like a war was fought in their old downtowns, with residents moving to safer ground in little plastic and asphalt enclaves by the Interstate.
I grew up in Tipton, Indiana, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and everybody’s folks were either family farmers or worked in the auto industry. Tipton had an FMC plant, a fire engine 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-‘70s when gas prices spiked and the car companies had little to offer suddenly energy-conscious car buyers. You’d think they would have learned, but last year it happened again. The family farms had 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 what I paid for my last car.
Yesterday I drove out of Hamilton County up State Road 213, through Tipton and into Howard County to meet with clients. These were all 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 there when it was done.
Cornfields passed my window. Some little seedlings were springing up in obedient rows. Other 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 agriculture forced his family’s small farm out of the hog business a long time ago.
I passed 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, set to disappear entirely this year.
I pass a Wilmoth Group real estate sign. Non-real estate folks may not know, but 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 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.