Andy's gone, Mayberry, too
Andy Griffith died. He outlived Mayberry, by a lot. I wasn’t a big fan of The Andy Griffith Show back when (1960-68,) but it’s hard to look at it now without…sadness. In Andy’s world, we all lived in small towns. Even city folk; they just didn’t call them small towns. They called them neighborhoods. Andy’s Mayberry was in the south, mine was in the northeast corner of New York State, kind of tucked between New England to the east and Quebec to the north, and we didn’t talk like the folks in Mayberry. We had our own accents, the slow New England thing that drove the tourists crazy, and the heavy French Canadian, to identify us. Those of us without a New England or Canadian ancestry thought we were sans accent, until we grew up and went away and people said we talked funny.
Mayberry was all of us. It was small town America, gone now, irrevocably, and despite the valiant efforts of some local small-town politicians to resurrect it, it will never come back. I admire the efforts of those politicians (and I don’t call them politicians disparagingly; there’s something honorable and noble and elevating about their efforts, and they’re darn sure not in it for the money.) But they may as well find something else to do, like spit into the wind. The economics that fueled small town America are gone. Today’s economics are all about bigness and efficiency, the bottom line, and the bottom line is a world far removed from those small towns.
They say you can’t truly appreciate something until it’s gone. I’m not sure that’s true in all cases, but it’s true for small town kids of my generation. It was the post-war boom, and I suppose it would have seemed to us, had we thought about it, and we didn’t think about it, there wasn’t any reason to think about it, it must have seemed to us to be something that would always be there.
In the late 70s, things started to fall apart.
I remember in our town, a store folded, not unheard of, it was rare, sure, but it happened, and when the storefront didn’t immediately fill up with something else, well, folks just couldn’t help stopping, when they walked past. They’d put their faces against the soaped-up window to get a look at the emptiness in there and when they walked away shaking their heads, it was more disgust than regret.
Fast forward to today and the storefronts are pretty much all vacant. That first long-term vacancy was a harbinger, not an aberration. Now all of the commerce, what there is of it, is consolidated into a few big box stores out along the highway and none of the locals work for themselves. They work for the Monolith. They don’t get to make any meaningful decisions. They wear (shudder!) nametags. Back in the day, we knew their names. They wear vests and aprons emblazoned, How May I Serve You. They are unfailingly polite, it’s required; some have a deep-simmering resentment in their eyes.
Some few small towns have survived, flourished, even, with vibrant main streets but those towns don’t count. I mean, good for them, wish them luck, but it’s different, what we had then and what they have today. They don’t have stores. They have shops. And galleries. Antique shops and French bakeries. They have proximity to places with money, which translates, cities. Those towns are close enough to be reachable for day-trippers and weekenders, and far enough out to be country. They’re trendy and sure, it works, and it’s what they have to do, to survive, but it’s not the same and let’s not pretend it is.
We didn’t need proximity to cities. What fueled us was local industry. All the towns made something other Americans wanted to buy, or needed to buy. Our factories were gritty and dirty and with machinery whining and grinding, trucks and trains rumbling, and we recognized the smoke and stink that was spewed out of the smokestacks for what it was – prosperity. Manufacturing was king. It was the engine powering the towns and nation; a high school diploma was sufficient to ensure a job and a place in America’s middle class. Our downtowns, in the shadows of those mills, consisted of stores, not shops, and what they sold was utilitarian stuff, stuff folks needed, pretty much everything they needed, and when they did go out of town to shop, it was as much for the novelty of it as for the necessity.
Today, the mills are shuttered or leveled, the downtown buildings are emptied, the commerce and the community are gone. Some of the kids, most of them, get out as soon as they can, heading for the city or the military and those who stay, if they can’t find a place in the middle class, and most can’t, lose themselves in video games, alcohol, sex and drugs.
What the towns do now, all they can do, is look desperately at themselves and see do they have something, anything, they can sell - a fort, a falls, a famous person or event, a pageant, a festival, and with all those towns vying for our attention, with all of them jumping up and down and shouting, it’s a tough sell.
What killed us? The usual villains – urban renewal, suburban sprawl, super highways, foreign competition, megastores and something else – ourselves. We wanted the wrong things - cheap goods, quick goods; our destinations became more important than our journeys. We ravaged our own downtowns, chased away the kids, sold our souls for pocket change.