Can the New West rescue an old town?

 

First came the Thai restaurant, then the jazz nightclub. Pretty heady stuff for a dead railroad town with a population of 1,900 in the far northern reaches of California. There's a sense of anticipation, of wondering what will happen next.

Along with our fancy restaurant and a couple of art galleries, we're starting to attract some pretty sophisticated immigrants. A Berkeley professor moved up here part-time, and an artist from the Napa wine country bought the old stone house on Oak Street.

One professor, one artist at a time, the town of Dunsmuir is gradually joining the "New West," or as a clever demographer has labeled it, the "Cappuccino West." The Old West was cowboys, miners and loggers; the New West is artists, writers, professionals, entrepreneurs of all sorts and retirees with discretionary spending money. In the Old West, the boss man created the jobs, and the cowpokes drifted in to fill them. In the New West, the newcomers bring their jobs or their portable incomes with them.

A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce traced the decline of the cowpoke and the tree-feller. It calculated that 8 eight percent of all personal income in the West came from resource-based jobs, compared to 20 percent as recently as 1970. Another 2001 study by the Fannie Mae Foundation found that rural counties with service-based economies grew at four times the rate of resource-based counties between 1950 and 2000, and they now account for one-fourth of the population of the rural West.

We need the new blood in town as Wal-Mart and other big box retailers wipe out what’s left of our small-town businesses. Here in Dunsmuir, we still have our hardware store, but you have to buy your underwear 45 miles away in Yreka.

Instead, we have the jazz nightclub and niche businesses, like the guy who makes bamboo fishing rods. Dunsmuir is a major sport-fishing destination since the Sacramento River runs right through town.

The newcomers also bring with them ideas for restyling the town along the lines of the place they came from. Don't get me wrong; some of these ideas are good--turning the old elementary school into a performing arts center is one that comes to mind. But there has to be some sort of screening process to weed out some of these ideas, or City Hall, which is all of five people, wouldn't have time to get the potholes filled.

The job of screening new ideas is undertaken by a few of the town's seniors, who show up at city council meetings with a collective scowl on their faces and a facility for coming up with all sorts of creative reasons for not undertaking any new project whatsoever. Thus we have no new performing arts facility and no new expanded library, two fairly recent proposals. But we do have a youth center and downtown street trees thanks to persistent folks who've managed to get past the grim-faced gantlet.

Dunsmuir has weathered a long period of economic decline, starting with cutbacks in railroad crews in the 1950s, the closure of all the town's lumber mills by the early 1960s, and a devastating 1991 toxic spill in the river. The spill wiped out sport fishing until recently.

For a while, it looked as though the town might evolve into a bedroom community, with a skeletal downtown business district. But the creative immigrants of the New West are riding to the rescue — reshaping the town and their own lives as well. The guy who makes those bamboo rods used to install refrigeration units in trucks. The guy with the flyfishing shop used to write TV scripts.

More power to them, I say. I'm hoping we'll eventually have an economy that's both vibrant and environmentally friendly, one that celebrates our mountains and rivers by encouraging hiking, fishing, boating and skiing. I certainly don't want us to be one of those cutesy towns, with a main street full of boutiques selling soap and T-shirts. My attitude is, if we’re going to go to all the trouble of re-inventing our town, let’s do it by sending people on mountain adventures and to healthy streams holding healthy fish.

Tim Holt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California.

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