My husband and I were in Louisville this weekend for a conference and got to have lunch with a friend who used to live here in Middletown. We got to talking about the city and where it is today, where it used to be (just a few months ago!) and where it’s going. We talked about what brought us here, and the life we’ve gotten to live and see lived by our friends and neighbors. Most importantly, we talked about the nature of revitalization.
Now, I started this blog in the hopes of seeing Middletown “revitalized”. And what I meant by revitalization was this: a booming downtown, full of small businesses and dreams fulfilled; racial harmony and integration of our neighborhoods; the obliteration of the drug abuse in the families in Middletown; a nationally recognized and celebrated public school system. I still want those things, friends. I always will, and I know you do too. Those are principles that I hope we all fight for with every ounce of vision and passion we have. But these good and possible things are not going to blossom overnight, and I need to confess something: I expected change to happen without any real work. And neighbors, I am sorry for that.
I’m sorry I’ve been so selfish in my dreams for the city. I’m sorry for hoping that Middletown hits a sudden and severe growth spurt so that we get lots of media coverage praising us for how hard we’ve been working and promoting all of the cool new places to eat and drink and be entertained. I’m sorry that I so quickly got frustrated for no one jumping on board after reading one blog post from a mouthy (and largely ignorant) 23-year-old girl. Most of all, I’m sorry for thinking, even for a half of a second, for giving up and moving somewhere with a farm-to-table New American restaurant and a yoga studio.
I’m writing today to say that we’re here, and we have no plans of going anywhere.
Wendell Berry gave a lecture about place few years ago titled It All Turns on Affection. In the lecture, he talks about the mundane days he and his father and his grandfather lived in their small, lack-luster Kentucky hometown. He paints a picture of the grueling, often unnoticed work of his farming family and the beauty of the legacy they left behind. Read this excerpt:
We have one memory of [my grandfather] that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.
Berry goes on to discuss vision, the true goodness of imagination and the drive of working toward what you do not yet have. But, my friends, let’s take just a moment to be reminded that our talk and our imaginations can only take us so far. I could write ten posts a day about the vision I have for this city and see the downtown storefronts be filled with nothing but my own hot air. My vision is virtually nothing without action.
The solemn reality is that even with our best intentions, without plowing there will be no harvest. And here’s the thing about plowing: it takes a long time and you have to do it every single year. And it is tiring and really difficult, especially if the soil is hard as a rock and when the people lining the field are telling you that your work in vain. But, my friends, I don’t believe that! I believe there is deep, true hope for this city. I don’t know what revitalization should and could look like here. But I do know that grand statements of intent do nothing without sustained presence and action. I don’t want to be a televangelist cheerleader for this city, preaching grand statements of “what if!” from somewhere far away without any real skin in the game.
So we’re buying a house facing Sunset Park, and I’m going grocery shopping with a friend tomorrow at Kroger or maybe Marsh, and having some friends over for dinner. And I’m going to get my coffee at Triple Moon, and buy another candle at Society. And I’ll go to city council meetings and vote in elections and smile at you on the sidewalk. Lord willing, we’ll bring our children home to that house facing Sunset Park and teach them that when things are tough, we don’t run away to someplace trendier, we walk with purpose back to the barn and put our hands to the plow. And I will pray every single day that this city grows further away from bitterness and heartache and broken dreams and closer to hope and wellness.
So unless the Good Lord calls me out or calls me home, I’ll be here. Even if it doesn’t seem like anything is changing, we’re choosing to be “stickers”. And I really hope you join us.
ps: There are good things that are happening! Did you read this article by Rick McCrabb about how we got to put a “yield to pedestrians” sign downtown because there are pedestrians downtown?!! And a big welcome and congratulations to our friends at Flores Leather Works who just opened their storefront downtown! LOTS to be celebrating!