The adolescent West
by Dennis Hinkamp
Logan, Utah, isn’t too anything. It’s not too big or too small, but it’s also not just right. Like many Western towns and small cities of about 50,000 people, it’s as confused as a hormonally challenged adolescent.
Policy moods swing wildly between pro-development mayors and ones that want to go back to family-friendly neighborhoods. We want to restore the downtown, but we keep building more big-box stores on cheap land near the city boundaries. We put in parking meters, then rip them out, like kids throwing tantrums. We’re like teenagers who change their hair color to fit their mood. We just don’t know who or what we are yet.
To put our community’s age into perspective, my house was built about 100 years ago. Many people praised me for taking on such an ancient fixer-upper instead of building something new. Of course, 100 years is old only by Western standards. On the East Coast and in the Midwest, some houses have washing machines that old. Take a trip across the Atlantic Ocean and you’ll find homes with plumbing designed by Druids and Roman arches actually built by Romans.
While there are many desirable things about youth, fickle, irresponsible behavior is not one of them. Adolescents long for popularity and often do embarrassing things to achieve it. I know I was thrilled to get a Lowes, Home Depot and Starbucks in town for my own selfish consumptive reasons. Gone were those trips to the big city for provisions. Many other locals applauded the arrival of Old Navy, PetSmart and Chili’s as signs that Logan was maturing into a metropolis. But every binge is followed by the next morning, with its painful hangover and feelings of regret.
Do we want to be the popular kid with an iPhone and all the right clothes or are we more like the bohemian kid who artfully mixes thrift-shop ensembles and writes poetry at the coffee shop? Because we are filled with the throbbing hormones of youth, most days the answer is yes, no and somewhere in between.
I liked Logan just the way it was when it was mostly franchise-free, while at the same time I curse how inconvenient it is that I have to drive to Salt Lake City to catch a plane to anywhere. I want Logan to be different from the rest of the world and at the same time to be almost exactly like it.
Most cities east of the Rockies have had several hundred years to mature into their current personality. They lived through the raging hormones of industrialization, and many of them have reinvented themselves from fishing and farming economies, becoming business centers, art communities or tourist destinations. They built trains, subways and other means of mass transit to simplify commuting, not to save energy. There are cities where people use public transit because they don’t own cars. These are cities where people pay more to park their car than the car is worth.
None of these places are anywhere near Logan, Utah. We’re drunk on open spaces and cheap land. The West is the land of eight-lane highways, drive-through everything and free parking.
Unless you pick your address carefully, there isn’t much of anything in most towns within non-Olympic walking distance. If you do want to walk somewhere, there might not be a sidewalk to get there, and the drivers of cars and pickups may veer uncomfortably close to you. And, since we assume everyone has a car, we have decided to draw strict lines between residential and commercial districts.
I grew up in long-ago sepia-toned St. Louis with a corner store, laundry, hardware store and, of course, a corner bar nearby. Most Western neighborhoods don’t even have definable corners because the original grids were based on agriculture and irrigation, not commerce.
But we are beginning to show some signs of maturity. Have you been to a farmers market lately? Farmers markets are thriving because people want someplace to go to find good local food, and they want to enjoy local art and flavor even if some of that art is sometimes bland. The “locavore” movement is only partially driven by environmental concerns. It’s also a sign that we want to settle down and live within the boundaries of our hometowns.
We are torn between the consistent taste of franchise coffee and burgers while simultaneously longing for a unique local flavor. We’re moody and inconsistent; but who can blame us? We’re still just teenagers in a youthful region.
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He admits that it is a contradiction, but he lusts for a Dunkin Donuts to come to Logan, Utah.