Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Go west (to I-81), young man

Does anyone remember when Mike Huckabee was running for president in 2008 and his major transportation policy proposal was to add extra lanes to I-95? At the time, I was living free and easy (that is, employed, unmarried, childfree) in DC and taking frequent trips to visit friends in New York (remember when our friends still lived in New York? also, remember when we used to take the Chinatown bus to see them?) and see the sights of the fabled East Coast to which I had very recently relocated and where everyone is from and all significant American life was said to take place. I remember thinking about his proposal that this is truly a great idea. I-95 is the Great American Thoroughfare. Since then though, everyone turned against the people along I-95, including especially the people who live along I-95 themselves, the greatest anti-elitists of all, and it has become the Hated Elite Thoroughfare.

There is another expressway though that roughly tracks I-95 along the East Coast, but runs through its "back country," where authentic people live, and that is I-81. It is along this interstate that you can find authentic cities that, if you have ever heard of them, it was likely only as the butt of a joke, like Martinsburg, Hagerstown, Scranton. In deference to our new populist overlords therefore, we hewed closer to the I-81 on our recent trip to New Haven (boo hiss) and back. Actually, so populist were we that we took state roads almost all the way up (great idea if you want to drive for nine hours), and the I-81 only back down. And, since we also had a toddler with us, we stopped...a lot. In many small towns: Berryville, VA, Green Springs, PA, Wanaque, NJ, Middletown, NY, Lewisburg, PA. We also stayed in Lancaster, PA for a day and visited Emily Hale in Williamsport, PA, where we saw the used food store (two of them, actually; the used-food business must be doing well) and everything was named after Little League and there were some extremely impressive Victorian mansions.

The great irony we discovered was that, for all the apparent resentment against the college-educated among the voters in the I-81 corridor, building and sustaining a college, even a small one, from the nineteenth century was the most reliable ticket to present-day survival for a small town or city beyond New York's or Washington's exurban orbit. For example, look at this nice postcard of pre-war Middletown. It looked almost exactly like that last Saturday afternoon, except nearly every one of those storefronts was empty and instead of dozens of people strolling about, there were more like two. The whole western side of Virginia appears to sag and sit empty, with strip malls full of discount tobacco stores and places that fix cell phones. By contrast, Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University, was in fine shape. Gettysburg's prosperity is apparently sufficient to support a proto-suburban ring. I realize that colleges are not the only economic basis for small towns, and that these places do still serve as supply centers for agricultural hinterlands and, judging by what we saw, trucking depots, in addition to whatever local specialties they might have, but it was truly uncanny how much work colleges were doing for otherwise-isolated local economies.

Utopia, VA is an obvious and extreme example of this, since we have both a huge university and a huge university hospital that together employ something like 120 percent of the city's residents, and make possible 20 fancy coffee shops. Another thing this road trip has demonstrated to me is Utopia is really in the middle of nowhere when you consider it from the perspective of the geography of the eastern US (is this why no one ever visits us here?), but it never feels like it when you're in it. From the inside, it feels comfortably large and full of things to do. But without the university, it's clear that Utopia would be, at best, like its much saggier neighbor, Waynesboro, VA - a place that itself has benefited economically a great deal from even somewhat distant proximity to Utopia's university.

It would surely be preferable to have a more diversified economy, but it's very hard for a small place to do that simply by virtue of its size, and the main alternative to a higher ed-based economy seems to be no economy at all. So what do the populists have to say about this difficulty?


Withywindle said...

County seats also. Any place with a local bureaucracy. And tourist places where profs and bureaucrats go to visit.

A lot of small colleges may go under in the next few decades. So strategic patience means not bothering to form an opinion about an inconvenient but temporary fact...

Miss Self-Important said...

County seats depend on the wealth of the county. We passed some pretty decrepit specimens. Lancaster has definitely benefited from being a tourist place, and Luray, VA was looking better than most of its neighbors on account of some nice caves.

A lot of small colleges have always been going under. It's a cutthroat business. But the towns that have managed to sustain them have also sustained themselves. And it's something you can do even if you don't happen to be built atop cave formations.

Withywindle said...

New populist solution: dig a cave under every (economically) foundering town in America. A stalactite in every pot.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, isn't that what fracking pretty much is already?

Withywindle said...