I grew up in South Dakota, but spent my summers in Portland, Ore., with my mom. As an adolescent, I enjoyed how my city experience pushed me ahead of the curve when I got back home for school.
I had my classmates beat by at least a
year on the overalls-with-one-strap thing. It wasn’t all that
hard to stay ahead of a state whose curve, many observers say,
In later years, addicted to being a
pioneer, I followed the logic of the curve to its extreme. My
philosophy: The instant someone declares a trend a trend,
it’s done. So when the fashion arbiters say, "White is the
new black," it’s red all over.
That’s why a
recent series in the New York Times caught my
eye. Three articles pondered population trends out in my neck of
the weeds, lamenting losses on the rural Great Plains. Just about
everybody has been playing this dirge in one minor key or another
for a decade and a half — at least since Rand McNally omitted
Oklahoma and both Dakotas from its travel guide in the late 1980s.
The first article described for the hundredth time the
"slow demographic collapse" and "quiet crisis in confidence" in the
region. Yawn. The Dying Plains are so passé.
and Deborah Popper — the New Jersey professors who forecast
this decline and prescribed returning the prairie to a "buffalo
commons" — were the Dying Plains trendsetters back in 1987.
When the 1990 census came out, Americans were startled to
learn that the Poppers were right; the population of many Plains
counties had plummeted to frontier levels. Perhaps Frederick
Jackson Turner’s 1893 elegy for the ending of the frontier
— inspired by the 1890 census — was null and void.
Open space again existed in America, but without the
possibility the word "frontier" suggested a century ago. Now, the
frontier is a vast, unpeopled factory for agribusiness giants like
ConAgra and Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. Another decade and another
census inspired another suite of Dying Plains dirges. But the Times
has now added a twist: Some of Superior, Nebraska’s departed
youth (my kindred spirits: I left my Dakota hometown five years ago
to attend college seven states to the east) had returned, giving
the town a fighting chance.
There were also whispers of
hope in Kansas and Oklahoma. Some small towns survive by
resurrecting an informal, "make-do" economy, where neighbors share
extra garden produce, maternity clothes — even houses —
with those in need. Some towns have zoned industrial parks-to-be
and conceived new festivals with a sort of Field of Dreams logic.
The last residents of the Plains hang on, determined to preserve
the communities they grew up in. Tenacity, the paper suggested,
might just turn the curve around.
I’m not sure
what’s unsettling about these articles. Maybe I’m
afraid that with its Midas touch, the New York
Times will jinx the good news by printing it. Or maybe
it’s that when the Times says "white is
the new black," it isn’t long before the Gap and then
Wal-Mart (the only clothier left on the Plains) start bleaching
their racks and bring supercenter prosperity to the region.
I just left a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where young
hipsters have converted empty warehouses into expensive loft
apartments. After a year of gagging on the new residents’
stylish mullet and mohawk hairstyles, I fled — only to move
to a small Colorado town that’s gentrifying in its own way. I
couldn’t bear to watch the Plains refill with classy
I may be loyal to the charm of a
dying place. "As memory, as experience, those Plains are
unforgettable," wrote Wallace Stegner in 1963, long before anyone
cared to notice; "as history, they have the lurid explosiveness of
a prairie fire, quickly dangerous, swiftly over." The Plains, with
their droughts and their hard seasons, with their long drives to
the multiplex, may be destined to lose their people. There’s
something comforting about that; if my home would simply disappear
like a landlocked Atlantis, nobody could steal it — not even
the people who still live there.
But maybe I’m just
jealous, because the Plains have sparked a trend for once —
and done it without me. Caught up in my own momentum, like so many
of my peers, away from the broad flats, I may have missed a turn
for the better. Maybe, I’m behind the curve.