The new faces of the West

  • Manuel Garcia

  • Maria Gonzales Mabbutt

  • Jerry Wheeler

  • Judge Sergio A. Gutierrez

  • Tonya Parker

  • Boarded-up storefronts on Alberta St. in Northeast Portland, Ore.

    Michelle Nijhuis
 

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature stories.

Now that small towns are disappearing from America, we visit Disney theme parks designed to remind us of them. Or we crowd into the first small town we can find and set about changing it into the suburb we came from.

This is the last of a three-part series on the Hidden West that is mostly about small towns. But not Disney's idealized small town. The places described here are on the edge.

They are losing their pasts - cultural and economic - but have not yet found a route to the future. In the last issue, dated June 21, we described wheat-growing towns in North Dakota, where farmers pin their economic hopes on pasta-making cooperatives. In the June 7 issue, we examined Butte, Mont. - a town whose mining past is so dazzling its residents have been unable to get beyond that history to take their place in the modern world.

Except at the scene of a fire or other disaster, people do not usually spill their guts to a journalist. Still, it is possible to read into these articles some of the middle-of-the-night terror that must exist in the North Dakota prairie towns or the Lakota reservation community profiled in our last issue. These people experience a sense of intertwined peril: for themselves and for their place. They are on edge not just because of their individual struggles, but because the larger system is crumbling around them.

It is a fear not experienced by those who are less rooted in a place. Those with shallow roots can pick up their economic shells and go where the dollars flow more freely. Perhaps that is why traditional towns are so famous for a desperate willingness to sell out the hometown for a few jobs. It is why this paper gets to write so often about towns and counties that support, from the grass roots up, a proposed mine or subdivision that everyone knows will damage the surrounding land or air, or the community itself.

But the articles in these three issues are not about blind boosterism. The communities examined here are attempting to understand where they have come from, and, from that, where they can go. In vulnerable places such as Caldwell, Idaho, and Leeds, N.D., people are attempting to adapt in ways that will allow them to survive without giving up their pasts.

In the process, they are determining what kind of West we will have.