The Slow, Agonizing Death Of The Small U.S. Town

Casino Town Nevada

Source: Daily Kos

The small town of Athol, Massachusetts, is where I was born and raised, and lived until 2005.  And it absolutely kills me that the town I knew growing up is becoming a ghost town, just like many other small towns in New England, and maybe even other states in this country.  Let me tell you why.

My father, Dick Chaisson, was a well-known reporter for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and worked out of an office on downtown Main Street, working there since at least the 1960s after a brief stint at the local paper and a short run in the US Air Force.  His office was in a great spot–sharing the same building as a local insurance company, and right next door to the Credit Union, and across the street from the large hardware store and the clothing boutique.  Right up the street was the local YMCA, the local library, and town hall.

I remember this well, because the front of his office had a raised platform and a large glass window–sort of like the ones you see in older stores, where they’d have mannequins or furniture in the window to advertise their wares–and he used it to great effect.  He had a few large bulletin boards in those windows, in which he’d post pictures he’d taken and clippings of local news and happenings that he’d written about, and he’d always have people stopping by to read, and maybe even step in and say hi, or give him more things to write about.

He’s Athol’s town historian–not something he was elected to be, but something he did on his own.  Just this past summer, Athol celebrated its 250th anniversary, and he was appointed Grand Marshall of the parade, and it was well earned.

The youngest son of a French Canadian who came to Athol at the turn of the century, he loved his hometown–and loved writing–enough that his life’s project was to find out as much as he could about this small town.  I grew up in a house where the basement has always been filled with filing cabinets, books, and notebooks about the North Quabbin Area, and especially Athol.

Did you know that Busby Berkeley briefly taught dance there?  Or that Candy Cummings, inventor of the curve ball, retired there?  Or that H.P. Lovecraft’s editor lived there, and the town was partial inspiration for Dunwich?  Or that one of the Starrett kids that didn’t get into toolmaking became known as The Durango Kid back in the early days of cinema?  It’s fascinating what you can find about a small town, if you look hard enough.  To this day, at 77 years old, my dad still gets calls from friends and even strangers, asking if he could help them do some research on that local history.  He’s retired now (and has been for awhile), and has started turning away some of these requests, as he wants to spend more time working on his own project that he’s been working on for…well, forever, really–a definitive history of Athol.

I was born in Athol in 1971 as the youngest of four kids.  I remember the days when my age was in the single digits, and the boundary of my world was my cousin’s house up the way.  While I didn’t get into reporting like my father did–I just don’t have the investigative chops, nor do I have the inclination for it–I did however get the writing bug from him.  I write science fiction, as well as an ongoing blog about my obsession with music (focusing on alternative rock, and specifically the “college rock” years of the mid-to-late 80s, which I’m writing a book about…you can find it here if you’re so inclined).  I live in San Francisco now, but most of my family still lives at home in Athol, so I still have ties there.

I bring all this up, because, over the course of the last 7 years when I’ve traveled back to Massachusetts to visit family and friends, I can’t help but shake the fact that downtown…once vibrant and full of people, noisy from kids getting out of school and trucks making their deliveries, locals stopping by to say hello, people stopping in to pick up the local paper…it’s slowly, painfully, heartbreakingly, fading away.

My dad’s office in a primo location closed a year or two before he retired–first moving him to a much smaller, out of the way office that rarely got foot traffic, and later out of town so he had to commute to Gardner on that last year.  The insurance company moved up the street.  The hardware store closed ages ago, was boarded up for awhile, and became a storefront church.  The clothing boutique closed up soon after, got partitioned up, and became random offices including a WiC office.  The pharmacy up the street closed up.  The stationery store where he used to buy all his supplies closed up when the owners retired.  The other hardware store closed, was empty for awhile, became a Goodwill Store, and closed up again.  The Twist Drill company closed up in the mid-80s after a failed union strike, and has been mostly empty for years.  The old casket company is empty.  The Cass toy company, which was a mainstay for years, but had been closed for some time, had its main building burn down last winter.  Mind you, it’s not that the town is blighted or run down…it’s just…empty.

There are many nice houses in town that are empty as well.  Not all of them are foreclosed due to bad or unpaid loans; some of them are simply empty because the owners could not find anyone to buy them.

This past spring when we visited, my wife and I walked downtown for coffee.  What I saw depressed the hell out of me–closed storefronts, empty houses…empty streets.  We walked through around two in the afternoon, when I’m sure I’d have seen at least someone walking the streets.  We maybe saw two or three people.

Where the hell is everyone?

I came to the conclusion that there are two reasons for this:

The older generation has either moved away or passed on.
It’s sad to say, but it’s true.  Back in the early 20th century, it was thought of as a grand idea to move out of the dirty insanity of the Big City and live in a small town, where one could make a name for oneself, get a job at the local factory or store, and be a part of a small but tight community.  Athol was very much like this post-WWII.  Downtown really was bustling, with two theaters, a handful of restaurants and diners, and quite a few stores (not to mention law, dentistry and accounting offices on the second floors of these buildings).  That went away a few decades later, but there was still a lot going on well until the mid-80s.  Then, due to the economy, the Twist Drill closing, and other events, it started to quiet down even more.  By the mid 90s we had a WalMart built between Orange and Athol, and even more stores started closing.

Despite all of this, the older generations were still there.  Age, however, has a nasty habit of cutting things short.  Some have passed on, others moving to assisted living or down to their Florida condos.

The younger generation, unlike the older generation, have moved back to the cities.

I’ll be brutally honest–when I was a junior in high school, all my closest friends were a year ahead of me and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of this dump.  It was 1988, I was seriously into college radio, and I couldn’t wait to head off to college.  I had a few ideas of where I’d want to go–UMass Amherst was on my short list–but when I was introduced to Emerson College in Boston?  A private college that focused on the communications field, where I could get into filmmaking and writing?  Oh HELL YES!  I bugged the hell out of my parents that I wanted to go to there…I filled out the applications, applied for all kinds of student loans [For the record: I just finished paying it off two years ago!!], and I made all kinds of plans to get the hell out of Inkspot and move into the Real World where THINGS HAPPENED.

Mind you…in 1995, that exciting bubble burst, and I had to move back home to Athol, where I lived with my family until 2005, due to financial issues.  But that’s another post entirely.  My point here is that the younger generations, like mine and those younger than me, don’t have any reason to stay in a small town.  We know that it makes more sense to live frugally, to rent a decent apartment in a nice neighborhood instead of living in a so-so house with a so-so car out in the sticks.  Sure, it’s quieter and probably safer, but especially in this economy…is it worth it anymore?  Why live in Nowheresville with spotty cell phone service when you could live in a city where you can rely on public transportation or an easy commute, and better internet connection?

Despite all this…

What, then, can we do about these small towns that were once a comforting community with its own interesting history?  What can we do to help these communities not just survive, but to update themselves into the twenty-first century?

I sometimes wish I had the love of my hometown that my Dad does.  I have his obsessiveness for information, which has helped me with my own writing, but I haven’t had the excitement of the town for some time.  A mixture of reminiscence and saudade, really.  I enjoy remembering things about my youth, the trouble I got in and the events I went to, but I’ve moved on.  I live in a big city on the opposite coast now.

I do, however, have the compassion he has, and I can’t help but feel saddened and frustrated by the stagnation that I see in so many small towns that haven’t moved on.  But I understand that there are those who DO want to remain there, in those small towns like Athol, who consider it home, who love the community despite its problems and hardships.  And to those people, I say, “God Bless You.”  You are truly strong of heart and compassion.

I know that it’s a lot to ask, and a hope beyond hope, but I wish that someone, somewhere, would do what Starrett’s Tools did so long ago, by creating a new startup company in town…some company that could enjoy the fruits of its labors, could hire the town’s citizens.  Who knows what this startup could be–an internet company?  A creative hub?  Or another factory, this one even stronger and more profitable?

I wish I knew.

I really don’t know what’s going to happen to these small towns in America…but I sincerely hope that President Obama and those in Congress truly understand what I’ve said here.  These small communities, they’re the ones who are always forgotten when it comes to towns needing help.  They’re the ones who are last on the list because other towns are always considered “more important”.  They’re the ones who have to fend for themselves and rely on their own meager civic pride.

Because, most of the time, it’s all they have left.