025: In praise of Small-Town America (post-Covid)

After 6 months hunkering down in our winter quarters in Desert Hot Springs, CA, we eagerly departed bright and early on April 1, 2021.  Some 12 states later, across 3,963 miles (6,194 km), we’ve finally reached Maine on May 24th, our early summer stop. 

We made sure to be fully vaccinated before we left California. There is still a of lot of confusion out there. Each state has its own rules, each store its own policy, each citizen his/her opinion! But happy to report that, by and large, plain common sense seems to have prevailed everywhere we’ve been, and it seems to be getter better as more states are opening up.

We had to be in Nappanee, Indiana at a specific date for a service appointment on Mr. Bond. This dictated somewhat of a strict schedule, more amenable to urban explorations (our preferred style anyway) than searching for natural landscapes (though we found many!). As Chief Scheduler in the family, I did make sure to insert some 3-day stops at places like Yuma and Tucson, AZ to connect with friends (just this gesture alone felt amazing in this early post-Covid climate!); to Houston TX, to catch an art exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts; to Cajun Country in Louisiana, a bucket list item for me (see my previous blog “36 hours in Cajun Louisiana”) and to Cleveland, OH to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame! Overall however, of the 21 stops, most were small towns. 

Whether driving through or stopping for a couple of days, America’s small towns share common sights with each other and it’s not always pretty: roads in terrible state of disrepair and empty retail space made more acute and hollow-looking by the pandemic. Poverty is made more visible, more palpable—often physically delineated along race lines.  Short glimpses from our very prosaic viewpoint but nonetheless a reminder in ‘real time’ of the enraging inequalities of American life. So, rather than describe a litany of places visited with its usual pluses and minuses, I thought it would be more interesting to write about two small American towns etched in my mind—one in Michigan, the other in New York—that represent these ever present themes. Benton Harbor, MI and Utica, NY are almost 700 miles apart; both cities have that common let-down look with ‘something’ underneath…

I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Benton Harbor, MI

In many ways, Benton Harbor is a miniature version of Detroit, albeit one improbably located along a corridor of bucolic and generally much more affluent lakefront towns in Southwest Michigan, such as its twin resort-town sister of St. Joseph, located right across the river.

The contrast as you leave Benton Harbor to cross the short bridge to St. Joseph is striking… it’s really like going from monochrome to a vivid coloured world!

With its grim grid of housing projects, shuttered storefronts and abandoned junkyards, Benton Harbor has had a long history of crime and is still today one of the poorest towns in the state with an average household income of barely over $20,000, a poverty rate greater than 45% and a racial makeup of 85% African American and 12% White. Like so many of American towns, Benton Harbor has enjoyed an economic boom in the 1950-60’s only to see it go away offshore.

An exception to the rule, Whirlpool Corporation, still maintains its headquarters (Riverview Campus) in Benton Harbor. Whirlpool is a global appliance manufacturer founded here in 1911 that still employs 4000 employees and contractors today. But the relatively new head office buildings were empty when we drove by—due to Covid of course—thereby squashing any sort of dynamic presence in the city. 

Contrast this with neighbouring St. Joseph, where the average household income is $88,400 with a poverty rate of 6.98%; not surprisingly, St. Joseph is 90% White and 5% African American. Even on the tail end of Covid-19 restrictions, the downtown area had a vibrant feel to it.  Old St. Joseph, a neighbourhood located close to its downtown, has been recognized as a state historic district with over 100 homes from the late 19th and 20th centuries, originally built and owned by local river captains, mill owners, merchants and other professionals. Beautiful old and new homes dot the sandy dune beaches of southern Michigan Lake. 

I don’t know if the fate of Benton Harbor will ever get better. Stranger things have happened… Look at how Detroit has slowly come out of its dire situation in the last several years. There has been some efforts by city officials and business leaders (notably led by Whirlpool) to find ways to reinvent Benton Harbor. Something to keep our eyes on…

Utica, New York (Oneida County)

Just like in Benton Harbor, entire streets in Utica are flanked by empty, dilapidated grand old buildings with names of long departed manufacturing businesses still etched on the brick walls.

However, a routine Google search for a local coffee shop led us to Florentine Pastry Shop, a small, oh-so traditional bakeshop located in a thriving neighbourhood in the Italian district of Utica.  After feasting on a cappucino and a lemon pasticciotto, (a cream filled pastry…to die for!), we decided to explore some of the other shops. 

O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, serving pizzas since 1914, still owned & operated by the same family who founded it. Its claim to fame: it is the second oldest pizzeria in the country!

Whether it is or not, the pizza didn’t disappoint! It actually tasted like a Montreal “all-dressed’ pie!

Next door was a Vietnamese grocery store replete with products we usually have a hard time finding outside of large urban centres. A block from there was a huge church that had been repurposed to a Bosnian mosque. Not too far away is a Caribbean bar-restaurant, a Spanish bar-deli serving tapas and Spa and Serrano ham… Not bad for an at-first-sight dilapidated town!

Utica’s Farmer’s Market is located behind Union Station, a train station built in 1914 in a Beaux-Arts architectural style—beautifully renovated and still served by Amtrak today.

Union Station in Utica, NY is on the National Register of Historic Places. Simply a gorgeous building inside & out.

So what’s the sorry story in Utica? During the 19th and 20th centuries, Utica was a successful manufacturing centre and defined its role as a worldwide hub for the textile industry. When these industries disappeared offshore, Utica, like several of its Rust Belt sister cities met with an exodus of industry and a plummeting population. 

However, Utica’s low cost of living attracted an influx of immigrants in the 1970’s and 1980’s—first from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, then from Poland and other Soviet eastern block countries, followed in the 1990’s and 2000’s by war-torn refugees from Bosnia, Burma, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan—a veritable melting pot of refugees from countries around the world putting Utica right in the center of a refugee and immigrant revival. All of these late 20th century immigrants have joined already established residents of primarily Italian origin – still making 20% of the city population – Irish, African-Americans, German, and many others. In addition, residents of Utica frequently interact with the nearby territories of the Oneida Nation. The ubiquitous “America is a nation of immigrants” seems to be alive and well in Utica.

Some closing thoughts

There are hundreds of Benton Harbor’s and Utica’s in the United States where a long economic downturn followed a manufacturing exodus of what was once well-to-do ‘company towns’. While these manufacturing days are long gone, there is palpable determination and energy under the ‘ruins’. Financial investment from the public and private sectors is needed to develop communities in these small and medium-sized cities in order to attract a younger generation of workers that, thanks to the pandemic, are free to live outside of big expensive cities and who are eager to raise their families in a more caring community.  

As for us travelers aboard Mr. Bond… If there is one thing we have learned over the past 2 ½ years of living on-the-road is to hold judgments, go beyond first impressions when given the opportunity, and take time to dig a little deeper about where we are, what we see and who we meet in the process. In the midst of much division and unacceptable inequalities, these small towns struggling to survive offer signs of hope.

Since late May, we’ve been exploring the coast of New England. Leaving you with Mark and a taste of things to come!

2 Comments

  1. I live small towns in the NE. Consider: Lake Placid, New York, Saratoga Springs, New York, Boothbay Harbor, Maine, Newburyport, Massachusetts, Saranac Lake, New York to name a few!!

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  2. Sobering thoughts. As you say, there are hundreds (I would say thousands) of these towns across the US. It will be interesting to see any future shifting trends with more people working for home moving to areas that are more depressed. I guess time will tell.

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