Some time back my brother recommended I watch the documentary film Medora, about a high school basketball team from rural Southern Indiana. I finally got around to doing it.
Someone described this film as an “inverse Hoosiers“, which is an apt description. Hoosiers is a fictional retelling of the Milan Miracle, the legendary story of how tiny Milan High School (enrollment 161) won the state’s then single-class basketball championship in 1954.
There’s no such happy ending in prospect in Medora (available on Netflix). The town’s basketball team had gone 0-22 the season before the film. The question is not whether they will win a championship or even the sectional, but if they can win just a single game.
The basketball team is a proxy for the community as a whole, a once proud town fallen on hard times. The town of Medora (pop ~700) and its surrounds, locals believe, used to be prosperous, socially cohesive, and have a great basketball team too.
This history is part mythological. I don’t doubt that these towns once had all the doctors and lawyers and such that people say they did. I’ve heard the same stories about where I grew up (two counties south). But that was a different era and I doubt there was ever real prosperity. Rural and small town life has always been tough in America.
But the social history certainly has much truth. Even in my own childhood I remember that people not only didn’t lock their houses, they left their keys in their cars. City water service, cable TV, garbage pickup, and even private telephone lines may not have been available, but it had its upsides too.
Today those Mayberry like characteristics are long gone.
In Medora we see not only poverty, but nearly complete social breakdown. I don’t recall a single player on the team raised in an intact family. Many of them lived in trailer parks. One kid had never even met his father. Others had mothers who themselves were alcoholics or barely functional individuals. They sometimes bounced around from home to home (grandmother, etc.) or dropped out of school to take care of a problematic mother.
These kids are also remarkably unsophisticated about the world. Once we see someone drive to Louisville – to pick his mother up from a rehab center – and another time one kid visits a seminary, but otherwise there’s no indication that these kids have spent much time or in some cases ever left Medora. One flirts with enlisting in the military. Another with what appears to be a for-profit technical college. But all of these are clearly unable to apply an independent knowledge or critical thought to what the sales reps for these entities are telling them.
Much of what structure exists in the town and the kids lives appears to be imported. Both the coach and one assistant coach appear to be from Bedford – 30 miles away. Neither really seems equipped to deal with these troubled kids.
Nothing indicates that these kids have much prospect of success in life.
Yet we see that there’s also little motivation on the part of the people in the town to actually change that. They are steeped in nostalgia and cling to a idealized vision of a past community that they surely know can never be reclaimed, yet insist on grasping until it is physically pried from their grip.
Medora is one of the last unconsolidated small town high schools left in Indiana. (I attended a small school, but one that was already consolidated, with the uninspiring name of South Central High School). It’s clearly not really viable as an independent school – it’s facing a major budget shortfall during the film – yet they steadfastly refuse to consider consolidation.
The town residents believe that the loss of the school would be the death knell of their community. They aren’t wrong about that. Merging the school would destroy the locus of identity. But the cold reality is that the modern world doesn’t need towns like Medora anymore. Always changing is the future as they say, but it’s hard to imagine anything that would sustainably restore the town. America is full of towns like Medoras. Some of them may experience a miracle. Most won’t, and will slowly bleed away to a dysfunctional rump community. (Interesting, Medora’s population grew by 23% during the 2000s, something worthy of further investigation).
The residents of Medora refuse to surrender their town and resolutely refuse to leave. In that they are not unlike the handful of people hanging on in depopulated Detroit neighborhoods who will accept planned shrinkage only over their dead bodies. It’s irrational to those of us who have no such attachment to a place, but it is clearly a sentiment that animates many such people all over the world.
The National Review’s Kevin Williamson blames the residents of these towns for their own demise. This is manifestly false. The people in these communities did not change the structure of the economy to render their homes obsolete. They did not invent the technology that destroyed the need for agricultural labor. They did not create the divorce revolution. They did not invent Oxycontin. These towns have always been belated, sometimes unwilling consumers of what is created elsewhere.
Yet the fact that outside forces acted on them does not absolve them from taking action now. Williamson is right about that. Much of the rural Midwest was settled by homesteaders who ventured off into the risky unknown, or German immigrants like the Renn family. These places were created by people who embodied different values than those who live there now, people who had no choice but to do something desperate in response to desperate conditions.
I chose to leave my hometown. Many other chose to stay. I know that many people there think it is God’s country and can’t imagine anyone ever leaving. I don’t want to claim that their attachment to place is less valid than my lack of it. Even in the city, to the extent that no one is attached to the place, to their neighborhood, for anything other than immediate self-interest, that’s not a good sign for the long term. I see today the consequences of viewing places purely as a mechanism for extracting personal or corporate profit in the now.
Yet the reality is that to the extent that people do choose to stay in the Medoras of this world, their future prospects aren’t good. Nor are those of their children. But if they leave their towns will die, along with a way of life. This isn’t a pleasant choice. They didn’t ask to be faced with it. But it’s the choice they face nevertheless.
Henry Saint Clair says
Using Google Earth’s historical imagery, I can’t spot any development in the town going back to 1998. I didn’t look real close, though. I wonder how that impacts the town’s self image.
DaveOf Richmond says
The town saw a 30% decrease in population in the 2000 census, then a 23% increase in 2010. This would seem to indicate that someone messed up the 2000 census. The housing unit counts were 350 in 1980, 330 in 1990, way down to 239 in 2000, and back up to 279 in 2010. Those 2000 numbers look fishy.
There was an interesting brick factory just outside of Medora, which closed in 1992, see the top picture on this page: http://www.medorabrickplant.org/ That is one cool-looking industrial site! There seems to be some recent interest in preserving the site, and it should be preserved – we’ll never build a place like that again.
Chris Barnett says
To the extent that a town like Medora survives, it seems to be a function of having a unique attraction or being an “exurb” of a small city with jobs and being on or near a highway that makes commuting possible.
Medora is 30 minutes from Seymour (for non-Hoosiers, John Mellencamp’s home “Small Town”), which still has auto parts factories and a big Walmart warehouse. So there is actual opportunity. But to work at the Cummins operation, a kid will need a degree.
But, let’s face it, places like Medora have almost identical problems to inner cities: poverty, unstructured families, poor education, and few good prospects. A kid has to leave to have a chance, but leaving an insular subculture is hard for anyone and doubly hard for those at the bottom of the ladder: many can’t reach the first rung. And there aren’t institutionalized programs (safety net) to help widely dispersed poverty and broken families in the same way as in cities and metros.
My mother (also German American) grew up on a subsistence farm and graduated from a village school in a class of 12. She left when she was 18 and graduated from high school…in 1950…and spent the next decade working and getting a degree. None of her siblings stayed on the farm. This is no doubt a familiar story in your own experience: the most ambitious ones leave, a few become prosperous local entrepreneurs, and the rest are just left behind.
Your own research into Indiana migration patterns shows this, writ large. But what happens to Indianapolis, and the rest of the state, when there are fewer and fewer “best and brightest” going to state universities and graduating to Indy?
wkg in bham says
Charles Murray wrote an excellent book about the plight of the underclass titled “Coming Apart — The State of White America, 1960-2010”. His proxy when anecdoting the statistics and data provided is an actual neighborhood in Philadelphia named “Fishtown”. The neighborhood (overwhelmingly white) is a former working class one. I say underclass, because the situation is a lot more than just incomes and assets. The situation is very depressing to read about. It sounds much like Medora in terms of the breakdown of societal norms.
Bob Cook says
Even when you watch “Hoosiers,” there’s clues in the movie that what’s happening in Hickory is a fluke, and also represents the end of the thriving, rural, small community. But a lot of them hang on because there are people who remember the glory days, and can’t imagine living anywhere else. If you haven’t already, check out the Life Magazine from 1950 about the folks of Onward, Ind., and their long protest to stop their school from falling to consolidation. (http://www.tctc.com/~gmm/onward.htm). Consolidation (except Medora) kept many schools viable (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1683066), but now even a lot of those consolidated schools are growing less viable (http://www.forbes.com/sites/bobcook/2013/12/27/in-rural-america-school-sports-dying-with-the-population/#748f652e4211).
I recently returned from Munising, Mich., my birthplace, in Upper Michigan along the shore of Lake Superior. The UP’s population peaked in 1920 — the end of the copper and lumber boom. Munising itself has dropped from 5,000 in 1950 to 2,000 today, and it relies on a paper mill and a prison for its highest-paid work. The population there has a median age of close to 50, and that includes the prisoners. The town itself has people in their 50s and 60s who remember the glory days and never want their town to change (though it’s changing anyway), younger people who are going to leave town the moment they graduate from high school, and younger people who got into drugs and Medora-like despair and are stuck. What’s interesting now is that tourism is booming in the area, which is right by the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. For the first time in ages, Munising has a growing economic reason for being. The city leaders themselves are doing a good job in trying to assess, manage and take advantage of this — but what I hear when I’m in town is all those folks in the 50s and 60s complaining about all the tourists, that THEY don’t get any benefit from tourism, and that they wish everyone would leave. I guess some people would rather have a dying version of what they know rather than a thriving version of something that’s changing.
Mike Jackson says
I grew up in the small northwestern Illinois town of Hanover, Illinois, which has lost half its population since 1950. The only factory in town just closed and the plant is moving to Mexico. The story of the plant closing was written up in Atlantic Magazine – “Just Another Factory Closing.” My nephew lost his job of 21 years. He is now a Trump supporter. I suspect that the nostalgia marketing ploy of Trump appeals to the many older residents of these small towns as well as the former factory workers.
The most interesting word in your writing today is “hometown”. Like “authenticity”, this gets to the heart of many community development issues.
Consciously or unconsciously we all think of our hometown. That’s what brings us back to family reunions, that’s what gets us to move back to places, that’s what we compare things to when we are considering a move to somewhere new.
Recently some friends of mine that I knew in Portland 20 years ago moved back to Portland, after spending many years in Davidson, NC. They liked that place, but they never considered it “home”. Neither are from Portland originally, but they considered it home all the time they were “away” and always thought about moving back there. Now that they are ensconced there, they are thinking about how they will live out their retirement there. In short, they are thinking of themselves as permanent, and they are very much tied to the place again emotionally and in their day-to-day activities.
When I asked a friend of mine about how to deal with retail gentrification in Los Angeles, he answered, very quickly and very simply, “we just need to create more good places”. The same is true of hometowns. A lot of these old factory and resource towns do not have a future, while a lot of the growth centers, places like Houston and Phoenix and Silicon Valley have no real community or sense of place. It is almost a hopeless task to find a new economic place for those withering old towns. It is possible, however, to make the growth places better places to live, so that they become new hometowns, the same way Portland did for my friends.
There are towns like this all over not the country, though they may be more numerous in the midwest Rust Belt. There have been towns mentioned on the national news recently in the south and west, newsworthy due to their being for sale. More like ghost towns, these small communities are down to virtually no residents, but apparently their owners think they have some worth.
As in evolutionary biology, which has discovered that adaptations often occurred very rapidly in response to relatively sudden change (and when they didn’t among some life forms, they disappeared) cultural evolution may be experiencing the same phenomenon. Significant global changes are not going to quietly respect the desire of Americans to live as we did, or think we did, in the 1950’s – 60’s. The very small window of time for the sort of economic growth and community development of post WWII America should have been a hint of its artificiality. We are in a very different place now, towards which we have been heading for decades, but seem to prefer not to acknowledge that fact.