How did your town do last year?
A small antidote for the "New Year, New You" of it all
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There’s an intersection not far from our house. It has seen better days. When we first moved in, its four corners were occupied by a liquor store/Subway franchise, a not-great gas station, a window repair shop, and a long-closed bar. By 2022, those anchors all reached their respective nadirs (or, at least I hope it was their nadirs): The liquor store/Subway became a liquor store/smoke shop, the not-great gas station became an extremely abandoned gas station, the empty bar crumbled and shrugged, and the window repair shop must have closed because they haven’t fixed their own broken windows in over a year. Their lights are still on every few days, so who can say, really. The Milwaukee Convention and Tourism Bureau was not available for comment.
Near the end of the year, though, there were hopeful signs for our little intersection of constant sorrow. The abandoned gas station has been torn down, with a new building rising up in its place. The long-closed bar was gutted down to its foundation and it too is being fixed up competently. There’s no updates on the window shop that can’t fix its own windows. As for the liquor store/smoke shop, all I can say is at least they haven’t diversified into other vices (“Hey, want to come over to my place? It’s near the liquor store/smoke shop/cozy nook to worship false idols and take the Lord’s name in vain.”).
Two out of four corners isn’t too bad, though, right? At least I hope so. These things are complicated. Nobody likes an abandoned gas station, but nobody likes being evicted because gentrifiers like me— who mostly live east of that intersection— have started encroaching westward. I am rooting for that little intersection, but I haven’t been involved one way or another in its transformation. I’m only really there when I have to wait for the bus.
A few days ago, in her lovely/melancholy reflection on the weird week between Christmas and New Years,offered an aside about how her hometown of Lewiston, Idaho is doing. The answer is, not great, unfortunately. “I am the person I am because I grew up where I did, but that hometown now feels hard-edged and belligerent. The signs for Christmas Gun Sales are funny but not, not at all.” Real good lines, those ones.
I’ve been thinking about those sentences for the past few days. I know a thing or two about towns like Lewiston. The Christmas Gun Sales are, indeed, not funny at all. But it’s not just the specific fate of Western church-and-cowboy towns that’s on my mind. It’s the way that mini State Of A Community reflection was nestled in a larger nesting doll of New Years thoughts. This is the mini-season of taking stock, of assessing, of asking “how was the past year…?” Reading those lines about Lewiston, I realized how frequently we end that question with the loneliest, most isolated possible suffix: “…for me? for my immediate family?”
We don’t often expand our interrogative scope. We feel alternately pleased or guilty about how our career track or exercise regimen is going, but we don’t really pause to ask, "how was the past year for the places I care about?”
That’s not totally our fault, of course. It isn’t an easy question to answer. How was 2022 for Milwaukee, the city I live in? It depends on who’s asking and who’s being asked about. Was it a good year because our mostly Black and Brown city elected an ambitious young Black mayor (after decades of being led by an almost prodigiously unambitious older White mayor)? Or a bad year because we set another record for the number of our neighbors who were murdered? Do we point to all the new food halls and breweries as proof that we are in a renaissance? Or do we look at the number of our neighbors going in and out of food banks and domestic violence shelters and juvenile lock-up as proof that we are barely hanging on? The new two by fours being raised over at that bar and gas station near my house must be a harbinger for something, but what? And for whom?
How was 2022 for Missoula, Montana, the place I call my hometown? Who tells that story? Is it the Missoulians— perhaps newly arrived, perhaps there for quite some time— who can afford to enjoy its now-busier hiking trails and suddenly-better-than-Hoagieville downtown restaurants? Or is it the former Missoulians who left because they were priced out and sent packing? Was it a good year because we offered the Bitterroot Salish a lovely bridge as an apology for stealing the valley? Or another shameful year because— come on— is that all we’re willing to do? A bridge?
There is always a pessimistic answer to this question, wherever you live. Every year, we all have good reason to argue that things in each of our necks of the woods keep getting worse. Yesterday I caught a glimpse of a TV news chyron claiming that one in three Americans said that 2022 was an awful year. I wonder how many years that’s been the case. Ours is a world where some places have jobs but not many cheap, dignified places to live, while other places get the opposite, and no place seems to have both. Ours is a country full of towns where White people buy guns and sneer and metropolises where White people buy their way out of school districts and fret. Ours is a nation of fentanyl and firearms and heartbreak. There’s plenty of evidence for pessimism, is what I’m saying.
The answer to the question isn’t the point, though. The gift in the “how is your town doing?” question is in what we notice when its posed to us.
Do we have a story to tell about the past year that isn’t just our own story, but our community’s story?
If so, who helped shape it?
If not, what does that loneliness feel like?
Do we really live in a place— a place with neighbors, a place with contradictory, interconnected, human stories— or are we just shadowboxing?
The last book I read in 2022 was about Milwaukee. Well, sort of. Sarah Thankam Matthews’ All This Could Be Different is a bildungsroman, so it’s about a lot of things. Lesbian coming of age. Immigrant coming of age. Radical communitarian coming of age. Beneficiary and victim of capitalism coming of age. Once and potentially future management consultant coming of age.
One of the many things it’s about is Milwaukee, though. You can trace the book’s arc through the ways its characters interact with this city. Early on, in the heady days of new paychecks and individual sense-making, Thankam Mathews’ narrator talks about Milwaukee and its strengths and challenges in vague, overarching generalities. It is overly segregated and cold and empty in the winter but alive and friendly in the summers. These broad brushstrokes stand in contrast to the specificity with which the novel’s core characters recollect specific hip restaurants and bars. There is an entire paragraph about a lobster taco— a revelation! Meanwhile, the city’s entire economic history is summarized in two words— “rusted out.”
I know that narrative, and not just the Milwaukee-specific parts. I know the part about moving to a place and picking and choosing the parts that fulfill your needs and consigning everybody around you to the status of non-speaking extras. There’s a Hemingway short story embedded in All This Could Be Different, one that was familiar enough to make me wince: Books about a new community’s history: placed on an apartment’s shelf, never read.
That’s the place where a lot of us stay stuck. At the risk of spoiling Thankam Mathews’ book, her characters do unmoor themselves from that small-plate-and-cocktail fugue state, though not before having to personally navigate tragedy and alienation and poverty. By the book’s end, there are loads of unanswered questions, but a shift has occurred. Gone are the detailed descriptions of restaurant meals. In their place are human details— about actual neighbors and friends who are trying to build something together that might provide sufficient care for themselves and their neighbors. Milwaukee’s history is finally tapped into, because there is an actual, specific reason for the characters to learn it.
Writers only have so many unique thoughts to share, and if you’ve been around these parts for a while, you’re already more than familiar with my biggest hobby horses. As my essays come tearing a bit too chaotically towards their final turn, I usually conclude with a familiar entreaty about how we should be working in our communities. You have heard this before: me telling you to meet your neighbors, to stick with political projects even when they’re boring, to knock on doors when it isn’t one month before an election. I do so because I earnestly believe that’s how change happens, and I’m scared to death about how easily we’ve tricked ourselves into believing that internet social justice choir preaching will be our ticket to salvation.
What I don’t say often enough, though, is that we shouldn’t do any of those things because they will save our towns, our cities, our communities. We should do them because we unlock something differently in ourselves. We will change when we’re actually able to answer— in specifics rather than generalizations— about the state of our communities.
I’ve seen this shift happen quite a bit.
A number of years ago, my mom and some other neighbors got concerned that there actually weren’t enough places in Missoula where residents could figure out problems together, so they created a neighborhood council system. Decades later, there are hundreds of people in my hometown with a much more intimate answer about how their neighbors are doing.
My father-in-law moved to Mankato, Minnesota about a decade ago. It was the last stop of his professional career. He liked his new town, but other than the university where he had worked, he wasn’t connected to it in a real way. So, when he retired, he swapped his work hours for volunteer shifts at the food bank. Now, he can tell you exactly what happened to neighbors he cares about deeply when the pandemic aid ran out and the cost of milk went up. He writes letters to the Governor these days, but they aren’t intellectual screeds about what he heard on MSNBC. They’re about folks in his town to whom he’s actually connected.
I know a great deal of people here in Milwaukee who can answer any question about how our community is doing without hesitation. They can do so because they’re teachers who have committed to knowing as many of their students’ as possible, neighbors who actually show up at the planning and zoning meetings I ignore, and quixotic but tenacious activists fighting uphill battles to redirect police budgets or socialize our city’s electric utility.
Every week, I write a new essay about how we have to strengthen local connections, but if I’m being honest, I can’t currently answer that “how is my community doing?” question with anything but vague stabs in the dark. And I know why. I can use the crutch of how I am “training organizers nationally” to avoid deepening my roots in the place I actually live. But I also know that roots can branch out and deepen at the same time. And sure, like all of us, I’m busy and tired and like many of us I’m also raising children and there are reasons, damnit. So I’m not wearing ashes and sackcloth here. I just feel like there’s an opportunity to attach myself a couple of projects here locally and try my darnedest not let go.
So, this essay is a question for you, but it’s also accountability for me. This is Part I, I suppose. Next year around this time, God willing, I’ll write Part II. I don’t pretend that I’ll have a holistic, perfect answer to that “how did my community do this year?’ question. I do imagine that I will have learned something— about my neighbors, about myself, about our relationship to each other— from living that question out loud.
That’s all to say, happy 2023, you all. I hope you care deeply for the people around you this year. I hope you receive care from them as well. I hope you ask a few questions that aren’t just about yourself, personally. I hope you find a gift in the answers.
This week’s song of the week:
“My America Is Not Your America” by Mexican Institute of Sound. It is about collective belonging in unwelcoming places, about being planted in harsh soil and still blooming, together. A good idea!
This week’s community discussion (for subscribers): We’re going to be talking about wishes and dreams for 2023. Not resolutions, mind you, but things that we hope will be true in and around our lives. I’m looking forward to it, but even more so I’m looking forward to checking in a couple of times throughout the year on how it’s going for us. That goes live in subscribers’ inboxes tomorrow. As always, if you want in but can’t afford the subscription, just toss me an email (email@example.com). No questions asked.
If you’re curious, one place where I’m going to be spending much more energy this year is connecting with other Wisconsinites who, like me, would like the opportunity to put binding citizen referendum on the ballot. That might sound wonky (because it is!), but I’m excited about it because it’s the kind of campaign that requires you to actually hear what folks in Beloit and Rhineland and Superior and the North and South Sides of Milwaukee actually need our government to do differently for them.