It seems that almost every place in New England is rapidly becoming or is already a suburb. Small towns and even small cities are being gobbled up wholesale and casually incorporated into regional aggregates.
I suppose that this beats just drying up and blowing away.
If your small city had been a famous home of a tool steel company, brass foundries, or machinery manufacturer, becoming a suburb might be preferable to hanging a vacancy sign on the way into town.
In the post-World War II years, the companies had begun to drift away. They moved south for cheap labor or to be closer to essential materials.
By the time I first whipped through, the Main Street vacancies were beginning to appear. Vacant storefronts or small stores having closing sales were common.
The cheap little church-sponsored coffeehouse I was booked to play in was one vacancy. The main factory that had anchored the town for a century was closing, and the young people I was meeting did not expect to find good-paying jobs but had no idea of where they might go. I’d show up with a guitar and a backpack and become part of the problem. I was loose, unfettered, and unattached. Parents hated what I represented. Their children saw certain freedom rolling into town one afternoon and out the following one. I was on my way over the far horizon; they saw themselves bound by the horizon formed by the mill and factory buildings silhouetting downtown.
Monday, my wife and I were journeying to a greenhouse in an adjacent state. It was our annual late winter retreat to a green and beautiful location. We’d come home refreshed and with a car full of new plants. Needing a PM snack, I pulled off the highway after seeing a sign that vaguely reminded me of something. As we drove into the small city, I realized that it was one of those places that I used roll in and out of in about 1965. The process of industrial devolution had been completed sometime in the ’80s. And a competent Community Development Department had begun to repackage downtown rather thoroughly.
The old New Haven railroad station gleamed after a restoration. Pastry shops, antique shops, boutiques, fashionable restaurants, and pubs dotted downtown. Nearby was free public parking and restrooms.
A formerly shoddy area was now a lovely urban riverside park.
I found no reminder of the old coffeehouse. A robust local economy dependent on a larger nearby city made this all possible. I was in no way nostalgic for my 1960s memories. But, yes, the place had become a satellite whirling in orbit around a larger neighbor.
But all communities are satellites, not isolates. For example, this city used to be tied to an economic net of industrial procurement and supply. Now it is linked to different networks of supply and demand. Different, but similar.
My wife looked over at me, sipping my latte, and asked if I was thinking about the old days. “No,” I replied, ” just wondering what’s next. Even if you are real cagey and think ahead times, economies and communities change.” You can gaze into the cards and ask the Magic Eightball for answers, but people are lousy at predicting the future. I leaned back, took a sip, and watched the scene outside the window. All you can do is prepare, but you really can’t predict.
So enjoy and be ready for change; it’s a certainty.