Place has a power over us that we are rarely recognize. Our surroundings never stop adjusting our behavior and shaping our actions. We quiet down when we inhabit certain spaces, we feel more sophisticated just by entering a particular room. We walk where it’s walkable and drive where it’s not. We gather with one another in inviting spaces and we feel beaten down by blight and decline. No one is unique in this regard, whether we pay attention to it or not- our spaces shape us.
I was working in Eastern Washington last week and an event was held at the high school. My hosts explained that they wanted to find out what the kids wanted, how could they entice them to remain in town. They wanted the next generation to stay and invest, to help the town revive, attempt to make it as good as it once was. The people I spoke with were cognizant that the community needed some care and attention, but at the same time there was a level of frustration that the youth of the community was not more interested. There seemed to be a disconnect between the two concepts they were communicating.
To be blunt, the gift that they were giving to the students was a fixer upper. The generation giving the gift had not properly cared for what they had received from their parents, yet wanted the kids to love it the same, but that’s just not how things work.
We all fall into the habit of looking past things. We are all guilty of turning a blind eye at times to what we don’t want to deal with. I am sure each of us noticed blemishes we promised to amend when we moved into our homes only to find them unaddressed years later. The blemishes don’t go away, we just learn to live with them. This is understandable, but not without a cost. If too many of these blemishes remain, if too much maintenance gets deferred, the house becomes harder to sell, the value harder to discern, the price comes down.
A town is a collection of structures, those structures create a habitat for people. When those structures are allowed to decline, the value of the town follows suit. A place becomes harder to love when the maintenance is deferred. As the built environment falls into disrepair, the emotional attachment our communities depend on becomes considerably harder to foster.
The older generations have a context and a history to relate to, they are familiar with a time when things were different, possibly better. They were around when those buildings were not yet tarnished, their town functioned differently when they were kids, For most of us, our parents’ communities were exponentially nicer than ours. When they were young, people lived closer together, there were more places to go, more places to gather. For my parents, it was easy to walk to a park to play, it was easy to ride a bike to a friend’s or head downtown to shop. It was easy to make friends, to have some freedom, and to have some fun. We have taken most of that away as we rearranged our cities for cars, but we expect the kids to behave as if this never happened.
We aren’t just turning a blind eye to a lack of maintenance though, we are putting a piece of electric tape over the check engine light. We are being willfully ignorant of how we trashed our cities and instead of asking ourselves ‘how we can repair the damage we caused’, we are blaming the next generation for not loving the unlovable.
I refuse to believe that I am fundamentally different from my grandparents. It simply doesn’t make sense that all of us are wildly different from those that came before us. People didn’t change, our values remain steadfast throughout across the continents and throughout the generations. It’s not the kids that changed, it’s the places they inhabit.
Had I grown up in the Lima, Ohio of my grandparents, I never would have left. My generation wouldn’t have sought out universities and large cities. If there was still opportunity at home and beauty and a sense of community, the kids wouldn’t seek it out elsewhere. Every home town has a leg up over the competition. Every city has an innate advantage of keeping every offspring right where they are. The kids aren’t leaving because they don’t find the charms and advantages of hometown life, it’s that the charms and advantages no longer exist.
The town of my grandparents was beautiful. It offered a rich sense of community and it was welcoming to entrepreneurs and dreamers. I imagine it was a town that was easy to get involved in and offered opportunity for those that wanted to make a difference. It was an easy place to be social and there were plenty of places to go to hang out with old friends, places to make new ones, even places and activities to foster a little young love. Tell me, where in your town do you find the sock hop, the roller rink or the teen dance club? Do you not trust the kids to get together? This is why young people aren’t hanging out with one another, they are alone in their bedrooms on TikTok. Teenagers are dancing alone on social media because we took away all the places they used to gather. We have isolated them and then wonder why they aren’t a bigger part of the community.
See, we took away what people want and what people value. We took away what our kids desire. Those pretty buildings are collapsing, the streets we used to stroll are now filled with cars and it’s far too dangerous to walk near them, let alone play a game of stickball or street hockey out there. The friends all moved away to the subdivision so we can’t walk or bike to see them anymore. The shops downtown all closed and were replaced with a mall we can’t reach. There is no place to hang out, no place to meet up, and no place to dance with someone we might have our eye on.
All the things that once fostered an attachment to our towns are gone, yet we want our kids to feel the same way, forgetting they don’t have the same context. Maybe your town was nice when you were a kid, but your kids weren’t around then. What you fondly remember, doesn’t exist for them. Today’s students weren’t alive during the good old days, they only know their town as it is today, in whatever condition it’s currently in.
And now… a corollary from the home front. We recently renovated our basement. When we bought the house 18 months ago, it had a room that we had hoped would someday be the den. Clearly it has been used this way at some point. When we moved in, it’s condition left a lot to be desired. The linoleum floors were stained yellow, the walls were faux wood paneling and the ceiling was comprised of drop tile. The room had water damage and was a favorite hangout for spiders. Upon move-in day, it became the room where mismatched furniture and odds and ends lived, all befitting of the room’s current status.
Even with seating and a tv, no one really spent anytime in this room. It just wasn’t inviting, therefore it wasn’t relaxing. The room was not conducive to the activities we had hoped it would be. We imagined movie nights, slumber parties, and just a spot for the kids to hang. What we got was a few Xbox sessions and more spiders.
So after a year in the house, we got around to the den renovation. We pulled down the drop tile and painted the exposed ceiling. We ripped off the paneling, mitigated the water issue and put up drywall. We covered the yellowing floors with wood and a shaggy rug. We transformed the room to what we wanted it to be. We didn’t keep wishing that the kids would appreciate the room for what it was for, because to us it was never that way. We had no nostalgia for this space. Since we purchased the home, the den was never nice, therefore we didn’t really expect anyone to appreciate it. We knew in order for people to use the room how we wanted, we had to move beyond hopeful thinking and address the space.
As soon as we finished the den renovation, household behavior changed. Instead of watching a show on an iPad in a bedroom, the family flocked to the basement. To where I would walk down to the neighborhood bar to watch a game, I now went to the den. Since we finished the project, our family has spent considerably more time together. We redesigned the space, and in doing so, we reshaped behavior. Not the other way around.
The den still fills the same space in our home. You still find it in the corner of the basement. It remains the same square footage as before. It still has things to sit on and magic picture box to stare at. We simply made it nicer. We made it cleaner and more comfortable. The den is now inviting and relaxing and it’s having the intended effect.
This is the story of downtown, the story of the town square and of the public realm. These places declined, they got water damage and filled up with spiders. We can’t keep expecting people to appreciate them just because they used to be nice. We can’t keep hoping that kids find them special just because they used to be special. If you want the next generation to feel a sense of attachment to their community, make it worth growing attached. If you want people to put down roots, then give them spaces and places where they can gather and connect. If you want people to fall in love with your town, stop stomping your feet and whining about kids these days not knowing how good they have it and instead take a realistic look at what kind of gift you are actually giving.
When we don’t take care of something, we make it very hard for someone to care about. In deferring maintenance, we are dampening affection, we are squandering concern and decreasing engagement. The simple fact is this, if you want someone to fall in love with your town, all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference. The secret to making someone fall for your town is making your town worth falling for.