All Commentary
Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stay Put?

Small-town nostalgia is not a moral imperative


Earlier this week, I read a column by Gracy Olmstead published in the American Conservative. It was called “Why Staying Put Matters.” Her argument that we should stay where we are, learn to flourish where we were born, and invest our time and our lives in our local communities troubled me, though I wasn’t quite sure why.

With her article on my mind, I got into my car to drive to Chicago from Indianapolis. I thought about Olmstead’s article all through the three hour drive, which takes you through 180-some miles of farmland, punctuated by the occasional wind farm. It’s hard to believe, as you make the drive, that anything as big as Chicago could be so nearby. Then the traffic begins to thicken, the billboards increase in frequency, and out of nowhere the skyline appears.

Having arrived, I am writing this column from the 29th floor of the Sofitel hotel in the Chicago Loop. When I look out my window, I have a stunning view of the Hancock building. Just behind it is Lake Michigan. I see new and old buildings in a stunning range of architectural styles. There’s a highly wrought Gothic church just to my right. To my left, I see a series of office towers and apartment buildings that look like a child’s drawing of a cityscape. I can even see a rooftop garden and some overly optimistic patio furniture.

Chicago is a miracle.

Driving to Chicago, I always feel a little like Carrie Meeber in the first chapter of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie coming to Chicago from her small town to seek her fortune.

To the child, the genius with imagination, or the wholly untravelled, the approach to a great city for the first time is a wonderful thing. Particularly if it be evening — that mystic period between the glare and gloom of the world when life is changing from one sphere or condition to another. Ah, the promise of the night. What does it not hold for the weary! What old illusion of hope is not here forever repeated! Says the soul of the toiler to itself, “I shall soon be free. I shall be in the ways and the hosts of the merry. The streets, the lamps, the lighted chamber set for dining, are for me. The theatre, the halls, the parties, the ways of rest and the paths of song — these are mine in the night.”

Leaving aside our moral assessments of the choices Carrie makes as she explores the challenges of life in Chicago and climbs over any number of people to achieve success, we can all share her wonder when we think about our first sight of our first big city.

Now mind you, I’m fond of small towns and the things they offer as well. In mid-sized Indianapolis, I enjoy replicating some of that small-town culture. I keep a garden in my backyard so I can grow tomatoes. I make jam and pickles. I talk over the backyard fence to my neighbors. I brake for yard sales and for kids with lemonade stands. And there’s no better way to understand America than to visit a small town’s Fourth of July parade.

Please don’t write to my editors and tell them that I have cast aspersions on your beloved Paris, France — or Paris, Indiana. I like them both.

But I don’t like Olmstead’s argument. Worried by a recent poll about the American tendency to relocate, she urges her readers to stay where they are and to bloom where they’re planted. She writes:

Staying put — fully inhabiting, loving, and stewarding the place in which you live — is a conservative idea in many respects. It’s interwoven with the idea of civic care and involvement, the importance of commitment to the political, economic, and cultural wellbeing of a community. But it is also, increasingly, an option that makes financial sense.

Cities, Olmstead notes, are full of expensive things like restaurants and theaters, “new buildings, attractive downtowns, and thriving commerce areas.” They’re also loaded with young professionals to socialize with. But these are just shallow temptations. “We will never live in the city or town of our dreams. The grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence. That’s why committing to a place — its people, its quirks, its flaws as well as its strengths — is one of the most freeing options we have.”

Stay put. Don’t change. How much better can it be anywhere else?

Reading Olmstead’s article made me think instantly of F.A. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In it, he points out that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” I have rarely seen a more thoroughgoing example of this kind of timidity than in Olmstead’s piece.

Stay where you are because it is where you are. If you leave in order to pursue economic opportunity, a wider range of social networks, a more appealing set of choices in restaurants and stores, or maybe just the chance to stay on the 29th floor of the Sofitel, you are betraying yourself.

But humans have always relocated in order to better their economic position or to find freedom or for countless other reasons that are as varied as the people behind them. Since when have conservatives tried to discourage others from taking responsibility for improving their own lives?

I will leave aside any comments about how, if my mother’s ancestors hadn’t hopped a boat from England in 1620, they’d have been imprisoned for heresy, or if my father’s forebears had decided to “fully inhabit” their small towns in Russia and Poland, the entire family would have been wiped out in one pogrom or another. I’m fairly sure Olmstead didn’t mean to suggest that the kind of stasis she recommends for Americans should apply to those in other countries who wish to seek a better life here.

 But why, then, should it apply to any of us?

The best stories always begin with travel. Whether it is Abraham called by God to “go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you,” Bilbo Baggins setting out for adventure with a band of dwarves, or Huck Finn setting out on a raft, exploring new places teaches us about others and about ourselves.

We may, like Bilbo, come back home to the Shire eventually. Or we may, like Huck, light out for the territories. But whichever way our stories end, they will be richer and fuller for our having had the bravery to explore.

I don’t think we should try to stop that. I don’t think we should even wish that we could. But then, I didn’t cry when my daughters learned to ride their bikes. I cheered them on and watched them go.