My Little Town: An Econo-Politico Essay

In my little town, I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all.
And he used to lean upon me as I pledged allegiance to the wall.
Lord, I recall, in my little town

Comin’ home after school, flyin’ my bike past the gates of the factories,
My mom doin’ the laundry, hangin’ out shirts in the dirty breeze.
And after it rains there’s a rainbow and all of the colors are black.

Nothin’ but the dead and dyin’ back in my little town.
Nothin’ but the dead and dyin’ back in my little town.

Simon and Garfunkel, 1975

“The Economy, Stupid.”

James Carville, 1992

My little town is located just outside of the Chicago metro area in Illinois. County population – approx. 110,000 today, and has been steady in people if not morale– it passed 100,000 in 1976, about 40 years ago and has barely grown since. Its racial composition is about the national average; it is an average small town. After this election, my thoughts went to my little town and why so many counties flipped their usual politics.

I am a graduate of this little town. I grew up as a baby-boomer in the town and I saw the post-war prosperity of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I left the town to get my education – first from the big state university, then a series of places like New York City, and Chicago. I am a solid Chicago democrat, no matter what happens. And I am a progressive. And I know why I did not even think of going back – the opportunities and population were both at an all-time low in 1985 when I got out of grad school.  But as I look back at my home town, it is not progressing as I have – and it is voting based on the economy.

My little town is one of those that flip for the economy – it voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 (the economy was having a great run) and it voted for change for GWB in 2000. In 2008 it voted change again, this time for Barack Obama. The economy did not recover very fast in my little town – the unemployment peaked at 14.7% in January of 2010, so in 2012, it voted for change again. The percentage of votes it takes for the county to flip is around 3%, so it is very sensitive to the message of politicians. My little town is not in a straight ballot county, it is an issues county.

So what is happening in my little town? Well when I was a child, in the 60’s and 70’s there were factories – lots of factories. There were two stove factories that made lots and lots of stoves for Sears. There was a dog food factory, one that was known as a very large dog food factory. There was the processed meat factory. There was the furniture factory. There was a cereal factory. There was the AO Smith factory that made everything tall and steel from water heaters to grain silos. And speaking of grain silos – we had a lot of those. My little town was the last stop before Chicago, so a lot of crops came to my town for staging for delivery to the large Chicago agro-marketplace. We had train tracks all over town – train tracks into and out of all of those factories and grain silos. It was a busy place. With a population in the 90,000-range at the time, the factories were busy, the transportation hubs were busy. Not only were those busy, but everything you needed to support the thriving manufacturing and agricultural base was thriving too – the restaurants were thriving, the schools were having additions and more faculty were being hired, the roads were being constructed, the police and firemen/women were being hired. Everything was coming up roses – or in this county Gladiolus flowers, since they are one of the biggest crops.

As with such towns all across America, you know the story. Factories began to close. Work began to change. I think of my uncle – a proud veteran of the army reserves during the inter-war years. He found a good living working at the local stove factory – until it closed. Then he found other general work, and his final job was as a security guard. One of the last times I saw him, his eyes were sad, he was still working at the age of 70 and he said the job was OK, but it was cold outside, very, very cold in the Chicago-area winters. The deep crevices on his face and the sadness in his eyes told the story of how cold it was in my little town.

Even David Letterman tried to cheer up my little town. In 1999, it was rated the 354th best place to live out of 354 so he donated a Gazebo to brighten up the city’s park. You can’t sink any lower than last place.

The town has recovered slightly, an insurance company brought in some desk jobs, but the local Mall is a shadow of what it once was, the downtown business district, once bustling, is almost empty, and the jobs are all in gas stations and fast food places. You can’t support a family on jobs that have degraded from good-paying manufacturing jobs to security guards standing in the cold. I know why my little town is flip-flopping for anyone with a “good story” and a promise of a slightly better life. What has it got to lose?