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In Defense of a Small Town



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I wrote a post a few days ago to point out that New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s plan to pressure small towns to merge in order to reduce the cost of municipal services didn’t make much sense even on its own terms, since the most fiscally-efficient towns in New Jersey tend to have about 10,000 people. But I also think that we should reject the implicit premise that the only, or even most important, criterion in evaluating the worth of a town should be per capita cost of local services.

But I’m biased. I grew up in a small beach town in New Jersey named Spring Lake that is pretty much Mayberry-by-the-Sea: 3,475 people and no traffic lights. While various other bloggers are much more in this line of work than I am, let me try to explain something about this place by telling you about two things in it: an old house and a recent speech.

I was raised there in the house that my grandfather built. Not “built” as in “hired people to build it to his specifications”, but built as in got carpenter’s tools, nails and wood, and hammered it together with his own hands. When I was a child, a major hurricane hit the New Jersey coast. We were used to hurricanes in late summer (June, too soon; July, keep an eye; August the worst; September, remember; October, it’s over). The power would always go out, and we would ride it out together in the living room with candles and flashlights. It was kind of fun, almost like an indoor campout. This storm started that way, but got much, much worse than normal. A hurricane can look kind of cartoonish on TV when you see an anchorman being blown around by the wind in its early stages, but if it’s a bad one, it can be pretty serious business near the water. This one got horrifying. Trees were uprooted by the wind. Cars flipped over. A brick wall that had stood for decades collapsed on the beachfront. The eeriest part was when the eye of the storm passed over us, and we looked out into the bizarre moonlit stillness, knowing what was going to start again in a few minutes. I glanced up, frightened, at my father. He smiled and told me not to worry, that the house was built solid. Which, it turns out, it was.

This house sits on a street that changes slowly. When I would come back home as an adult, the houses around us still had the same families in them as on the day I was born. Our cousins lived directly across the street, but eventually sold their house to one of my grammar school classmates. When I was in my thirties, we finally took up the wall-to-wall carpeting that my parents had put down because they had a houseful of kids. Underneath it, in the living room where we had ridden out that storm, was a simple, beautiful, geometrically-patterned hardwood floor.

A few years later, in 2002, I was home for Memorial Day weekend with my wife. I brought her to exactly the kind of small-town parade you might expect: volunteer fire department, Boy Scouts, Little League teams. The parade always ends at one end of the lake, and the mayor and whoever else give short speeches in front of the memorial stone that lists people from the town who have died in war. It is normally pretty far from intense, but emotions were a little raw, as this was the first Memorial Day after 9/11, and the Jersey Shore had an extremely high casualty rate in that attack.

The mayor introduced an eighty-year-old woman from the town, and she began to speak. I have never seen her speak in public before or since. She talked about living in this same town as a child. Adults were talking on cell phones, kids were running around and people were, to be honest, probably mostly thinking about lunch and getting to the beach, as the weather was perfect. She went on to describe her experiences as a nurse deployed into the European Theater of Operations in World War II. She was neither jingoistic nor abstract. There are things I didn’t know about dying in a war until I learned them from her. She had crossed the North Atlantic on a wooden hospital ship more than 20 times between 1941 and 1945. People fell overboard, but the ship would usually just keep going because the odds of saving them were so low, and delay would mean more deaths on the other end. They often had to put maggots on gangrenous wounds, because they were so short of alternatives that it was the only way to clean away the dead flesh and try to save the patient’s life, sometimes successfully. The Luftwaffe purposely dive-bombed a marked hospital ship in the middle of Naples harbor, because they could.

Everyone listened closely by the time she matter-of-factly described what it is like to stand over a severely wounded 19-year-old, trying to save him, but knowing that he is dying – knowing that you will watch him die in front of you with his blood up to your elbows. What, she asked, leads someone to make such a sacrifice?

Rather than answer this conceptually, she turned to the marker stone and began to talk about specific people named on it. She knew them, and knew their families. She talked about what they were like as individuals. About what she believed motivated them, based on what they had said and how they had lived since childhood. About how little each of them wanted to die so far from home at 19, 22, 25.

Her conclusion with respect to these men was simple: they wanted to protect a way of life. This specific way of life, the one we lived here. These streets we can see with our own eyes, the salt we can taste in the air, these people standing around us right now, whom we have known our whole lives.

The speaker, my mother, is no fool about how these motivations can be manipulated to serve the imperial dreams of a ruling class, about how wealth and privilege operate, in short, about who decides and who dies. But to say that this motivation can be abused, is not to say that it is unimportant to an individual or to a nation.

It’s easy to make the argument that Governor Corzine isn’t proposing to outlaw these rustic traditions, and that all of these pretty stories could be told about people who lived in this same 1.7 square miles even if they shared a police force and garbage trucks with some other people as part of a much larger town. I’m not so sure about that. The police chief was our next-door neighbor. More than once, he was able to take me aside and prevent me from proceeding into even worse trouble than I was already getting into. Would he have been able and willing to do that if he were part of a larger, more bureaucratic police force, and had not known me since I rode my Big Wheel on his driveway? It’s hard to get either too cynical or too hopeful about the prospects for government when your first memory of one of the members of the town council involves figuring out what time it is when the big hand is on the 12, and the little hand is on the 2. Would the festivals, parades and monuments that are specific to this little town be maintained if it were amalgamated? Would the people who were standing in that crowd on Memorial Day really have known the people that my mother described? Towns are not just service providers, they are one of the ways we come together to govern ourselves.

Many better writers than I have made the point that it is foolish to idealize small town life. Spring Lake is ethnically homogeneous to a degree that’s almost comical – by some measures, it is literally the most Irish town in America. Only it’s probably not so comical if you’re the one who feels excluded. I bet it was no fun growing up gay there. I quit high school at 16 and went off to college because I wanted to prove myself in a wider world. Most of my childhood friends have also left town, and each had his or her own reasons. Different kinds of people flourish in different kinds of communities at different times of life, and in the world as it is now, we all need to find our home.

While there are important aspects of life that tend to be common in America, but systematically different than those in France, Zimbabwe or China, many of the specific elements of deep community – shared experiences, obligations and risks – that command the kind of loyalty that can be required to motivate the defense of a society vary widely among communities within the nation. One of the paradoxes of an extended republic like the United States is that we are called upon to see that the national government serves to provide protection against external political threats, and thereby allows these different communities within in it to prosper despite have differing mores, and that therefore, we share a common political project with people who live in ways of which we do not approve. We must have a healthy kind of dual loyalty: to our individual communities and to the nation that enables them to exist. The alternative of trying to force national uniformity would lead to tyranny, failure or both.

Madison and Hamilton made this argument far better than I have here (needless to say), when writing about an emerging nation with a population that was less than that of New Jersey today. Governor Corzine ought to go read them again before he decides to destroy local autonomy and traditions in pursuit of administrative uniformity. Silly as it sounds, we have to defend our society. And if there’s one thing that living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean teaches you, it’s that you should enjoy beautiful days, but remember that storms always come, so you better have someplace built solid.



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