I knew we had to break up. I don’t know when it became clear to me. Like driving in a heavy fog, objects ahead don’t become visible all at once, you think you see something, but before you know it, there they are, fully formed, forcing you to react. I doubt I would have ever been happy, I might have always felt like I was being held back. Maybe I would be satisfied, or maybe I would always wonder what could have been.
How is it, that the town that was good enough for my grandparents and the town that was good enough for my parents, was not good enough for me? What made me so damn special? Did my white middle class up-bringing demand more lavish surroundings than my parents and their parents were afforded?
People change. Partners don’t always grow at the same pace. Sometimes one person wants more, others become stagnant, content with the way things are, some regress. Places change. A handful have gotten better, some have remained the same, most have gotten worse. Much, much worse.
It wasn’t that I was somehow superior, I just couldn’t have the same relationship with my town that my grandparents and my parents had. How could I? They lived close to one another and could walk to school and downtown. We were spread out and couldn’t walk to anything. Their downtown was gorgeous and teeming with life. Mine was replaced by 4 lanes of Mattress Factories. They knew one another and helped one another out. We were scared of one another.
My family didn’t change, the place we called home did.
The setting in which my grandparents lived their life would have been more than satisfactory- I would have loved that setting. I think about it all the time and picture life there. But by the time I came around, that Lima no longer existed. My siblings and I would have loved growing up in “that Lima”. We all would have been more than happy to stay around after graduation and do adult things like find jobs, spouses and birth up some progeny. We would have loved to be another generation in the same town- we had a history there. My dad’s dad started a food service company in town and made a name for himself as an entrepreneur, on top of being a war hero. My mom’s dad played a pretty prominent role in town as well. He was a business owner, a community pillar and was said to be quite debonair as well.
It would have been nice for us to grow up in a town where you had a legacy. Where some people might already know who I am because of the people I came from. Where success wouldn’t be so damn hard because connections afford opportunity. Where businesses could have been passed down instead of lost to “progress.” Where people had generational connections to one another and you felt roots that extended to the center of the earth. Where you never had to do a google search to find a mechanic or a doctor or any of the thousand people we rely on to get by. All those connections were already made in that town that I was born in. Everyone had a “guy” for everything already.
But that town went away. Those businesses closed. Those connections disconnected. The town didn’t get better. It didn’t stay the same. It got worse. Much, much worse.
This is not unique to my family or my town. People’s values have not shifted so dramatically in a generation. Families are not all that different. What matters, what we care about, what we want, those remain the same as those that preceded us. We are not a generation so different from any other. We did not change, our setting changed. We didn’t get better, we remained in a place that got worse.
I don’t ever remember it being stated. There was no conversation where I was told I would have to break up with my hometown, it was just always understood. It must have been part of a thousand conversions because I don’t ever recall it coming up, but I always knew it to be true. One day when I was old enough to go out on my own, I would go away. This was true for my siblings as well. Home wasn’t a choice for us.
I hate that for my parents, I hate that for all parents. They didn’t do anything wrong, they didn’t mess things up. They safely assumed that the place that raised them was good enough to raise their kids. But it wasn’t. We didn’t change, the town did. My parents only wanted to give us what they had and what our grandparents had, but they couldn’t do it anymore, not in that setting. To give us the same opportunity as they had, the same shot at happiness, we would have to find a new place to call home. What a rotten piece of shit thing to have to do as a parent. To have to make the gut wrenching choice of pushing your kids away from where you want them most.
My family didn’t get better, or fancier or more upwardly mobile, my family would have been happy to stay put. We weren’t suddenly “too good for Lima”. The town got worse. There was no way to stay in the relationship. Our city regressed while we only ever wanted the same. No one wants to push their kids out. We didn’t want to have to leave one another.
The town my parents grew-up in was gone. It was replaced by a synthetic imposter of a town, apparently designed by someone who never before visited a town. The downtown was left to rot, pretty buildings now starring in a slow-mo demolition video. All the locally owned shops were swapped out for a marketing firm’s idea of what would relieve us of our dollars immediately. Walkable schools demolished for prison looking side-of-the-highway schools. All character and charm relegated to the landfill. Social ties withered as the places people once convened were all boarded up.
You can still pick out the name on a map, but that place was gone, but for pictures and stories the old-timers told. What took a 200 years to build, was sacrificed at the alter of convenience and greed in less than a generation.
A relationship with a community is just like any other. When it goes bad, you have three choices. You can remain and become the type of person that settles, ultimately lowering your standards and accepting less. You can do the hardwork of trying to improve it and make it what you believe it can be. Or you can leave. Thank god for the people that stay and fight. We didn’t.
Nevada, Cleveland, Syracuse, Pittsburgh. We all went. First John and Jason, next was Jody, and then, eventually, I left. And finally, a few years after my exodus- even my parents packed up. We all took off. Every one of us realized we had slowly slipped into a toxic relationship with our town and had to get out.
I hate it. I hate the miles on a map separating me from the people I want to be with most. We get together now as often as we can, at times maxing out as a clan of 23. There is no better feeling than arriving for a holiday weekend, knowing I get a few precious days with these gloriously sarcastic and boozy people that all love each other unconditionally and only cast judgment when suitably funny.
I don’t want to miss James’ birthdays, George’s football game or Janine’s recital. I don’t want to always fill my mom in on the first day of school over the phone. I don’t want my kids to have to keep saying goodbye to Aunt Jody. I am tired of them only seeing Pops on FaceTime.
I wish we could have all stayed in the same town. But, my parents- they were right. They made one of the hardest choices so we wouldn’t have to make the same one. We all moved to places where we wouldn’t have to do the same. We moved to places were we felt our kids would have ample opportunity, places were we wouldn’t have to tell them to move away when they graduated.
This is not the way cities should be. Not all of them are. This is a choice. Your city, any city, can turn its back on this bullshit sprawl development garbage that continues to suck the life out of town. Backstabbing locals so more national chains can come to town and cart off the last of the money. Inviting in developers that build more shit that no one can muster a single care about. These are the decisions that get made that makes a city worse, these are decisions that dry up the legacies, that pull the people apart, that make families want to run. Our places had it right the first time and they can go back to doing it right. Trajectory doesn’t only go in one way and it can turn around tomorrow. A city, just like a person, can write its own story. It can be a place again that people love. A place where people feel attached and defend it with their honor, because it is a reflection on them. Defend it because they know that city is the home to the people they love the most. A city has to be a good partner in a relationship.
My clan and I don’t get to see each other as much as we like, but the sacrifice my parents made, and in-turn… we made, is one we hope to not have to make again. My hope is that my kids have the chance to raise their family around family. My hope is that every kid, someday has the chance to raise their family around family. This is what drives me. If I can help a town improve, maybe one less parent has to tell their kid to move on.