The modern world loves to erase distinctions. We want access to the same burger wherever we go, to the same shopping centers, to the same gas stations. Both producers and consumers want the same TV and the same music and the same video games available in every region. A middle class black girl from the Atlanta suburbs and a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in Chicago and a white chick from rural New Hampshire should all be able to wear the same jeans.
I grew up in the same county, around the same town my entire life. It wasn’t a terribly small one, but my circles were small enough that I might as well have grown up in one of those farm towns that only has a school district because the nearest real town is too far to drive. A significant of that circle consisted of people whose families have been in the area longer than some countries have existed. The point being, I came from something of a bubble.
I stepped out of that bubble to go to college. It was strange. My town has a fairly large poor-as-dirt population, and a fairly large champagne-and-caviar population, and the middle is usually pretty fluid, and generally consists of young families. We’re also several hours from several different major cities, with ties to one being no stronger than ties to the other. We have a strong local identity, both because we’re a part of Texas that doesn’t exist in pop culture, and because we are the oldest town. That’s not to say everyone who lives here loves it, but they certainly know they live here.
In college, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that America has a large, distinct middle class, and that there really is a place called “suburbia.” Bits and pieces of TV’s portrait of that world applied to how I grew up, but I always thought the overall picture was some wildly distorted caricature that existed mostly in the heads of people from LA. Not so, apparently.
The suburban middle class grew up, more or less, in planned neighborhoods of houses that looked the same. They ate, shopped, and spent their weekends in nationwide, or at least coast-wide, chains of restaurants, shopping outlets, and movie theaters. The world where everybody, everywhere has access to the same thing was the world they grew up in.
In the midst of that world is a lot of music, a lot of literature, and not a few movies dedicated to a world they’ve never experienced. Whether that’s the rural, small town America half their grandparents or great-grandparents migrated from, or the crowded cities with immigrant neighborhoods the other half came from, it’s not something they’ve experienced. They have no connection to the old country or the old way of life. For them, that’s in the past, and all that remains is an idealized portrait of a world that no longer exists.
Part of coming to grips with the world is recognizing which of your ideals are just fantasies that will never and could never come to pass. There is true wisdom in taking the world as it actually is, and learning to live with that. For the children of the world I just described, the children of chain stores and suburban sprawl, part of growing up may be getting over the fact that they aren’t in a cozy small town or an exciting big city, and learning instead to be content with suburbia.
This is all my way of rationalizing a behavior I don’t understand, and one that fills me with deep sadness and exhaustion.
From this point of view, it’s reasonable to say that there are no longer real differences between one city and another, one town and another, or even between rural podunkville and the grand cities of the coasts. America has been homogenized. We live the same everywhere.
Part of me wants to respond to this as if it were a fight between one interpretation of the facts and another. America is only really homogenized for people of a certain class. But this isn’t really a class question. I’ve known rich and poor who love their place, and rich and poor who pay it no mind.
And that’s what it’s really about: love.
The town I attended college in is not terribly different in terms of certain raw facts than the one I grew up in. College town in a rural area, twenty to thirty thousand people. Across the county line is another town, slightly bigger, but without the claim to the same antiquity or artsiness. Nearest major cities are several hours away. Both have McDonald’s, both have Walmart, both have Redbox and Autozone.
But a town is far more than that. You can’t go to the Sterne-Hoya Soccer Complex, named after the old families that played host to Davy Crockett, and now renamed the Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex in honor of our hometown hero, just anywhere. You can’t walk the Lanana Creek Trail, past the place where Father Margil is said to have called up sacred springs to save the Caddos from a drought and keep the Mission alive a little longer. If you go to the downtown square, there’s no Old Time String Shop, and there’s no narrow, dangerous North Street heading up from there, past huge brick Baptist churches, past the library and rec center named for a leader of the black community in town. In many small towns, there is no black community.
You certainly can’t eat at Clear Springs in New York or Boston, and Mike’s BBQ doesn’t exist outside of this town. You also can’t take 225 west out of town, past the lake, and then curve around north to Henderson, passing Flower Mountain and catching the view of the hilly horizon from the road north of Cushing. You don’t get East Texas rain just anywhere, and you don’t get to see how folks around here react to a snow day. Not every place has cattle barns by the highway, or a reservoir that shares the name of a former Speaker of the House with a congressional office building in DC. He took the lectern when he left.
This is not naïve praise of Nacogdoches. Every town has things like this. Every place has things that make it unique. And these roads, trails, buildings, parks, lakes–all of that didn’t just pop up one day. It was people that built it, and people make a place what it is. This town is full of people, of families, that left their mark on it, and more are doing the same every day. There are unique things about this town because there are people here, and people make memories.
My problem with “all America is the same” isn’t that it points out some uncomfortable but true facts about how we live in the 21st century in a high-tech, highly mobile, capitalist society. It’s that it turns a blind eye to the beauty that exists in the world, to the agency people still have, to the world they make around themselves. It looks at the beautiful things all over America and shrugs.
I’m not trying to preserve an ideal of rural, small-town America here, either. New York is nothing like Boston is nothing like Chicago is nothing like LA is nothing like Portland is nothing like Houston is nothing like San Francisco. For that matter, some parts of New York are pretty different from other parts of New York. I also know that, whatever they have in common, suburban Atlanta and suburban Dallas and suburban Seattle can all produce some very different kinds of people.
We all tend to paper over our own era with imaginary worlds from some departed golden age, and criticize our times in light of that. The solution, though, is not to replace that image with one of a vast and endless wasteland of identical places. Every place is unique. That’s how the universe is wired. Neither capitalism nor technological progress are strong enough to overcome that. Our homes still have character, if you are willing to love them, willing to look, and willing to keep and to tend what you find.