Saturday, June 16, 2007

trophy towns

How long has it been since local agricultural producers sold their products directly to local people in this town? Never mind for now that half the people milling about the town green are New Yorkers up at their beach houses for the weekend: they pay taxes, so for modern purposes, they are locals. And leave aside the sporadic exceptions: the truck selling corn off the side of the road, the oystermen selling directly to patrons of Jake’s Bar by the milk jug. In any case, that has not happened since the sixties. Jake’s Bar is now R.J. Julia’s Booksellers.

As I watched well-fed, well-lived white folk like myself prod the pies and finger the arrugula leaf, chat and buy almond crunch bars from the carefully reconstructed Original Good Humor truck, I thought: it’s an event! Like the Fourth of July, like a Hand football game. But it is every week, and it is focused, not around celebrations of symbolic belonging to nation or high school or town, but purchase of food commodities. Something had been broken, just like that: the lock held by the impersonal, corporate transaction on the definition of modern life.

Just a couple of years back I was decrying what I saw as the final death knell of human-human transactions, the installation of self service check out lines at Stop and Shop. What it said to me was the last extremity of the guillotine of (emotional) convenience: the blow severing the pitiful patch of social skin still connecting members of the social body. Even “Do you have your Stop and Shop card?” was to be relegated to the past. The cocoon of the self’s daily experience was to be made complete, the sole identity of a person as resident was to exist only in purchase of goods – in solitude. One could be a Madisonite and speak to no one.

Now, suddenly, there is a counter-current. The few remaining farmers and fisherfolk in the state see themselves selling directly to people they previously had no access to, unless it was through the supermarket. And wealthy residents can feel themselves alive in a sun-dappled, picture book of small town life, buying flowers or pies in sight of the white church.

Oddly enough, the stringent zoning laws whose sole aim is to preserve the “small town character” of the town has actually had the effect of killing off nearly all sings of small townhood, at least in retail life, replacing shops and stores people might need with luxury boutiques and gift shops selling antique beaten copper wash basins and embroidered lamp shades. There is nothing like a small town than a shop called “Harp and Hearth” selling “Celtic Wares,” or “Merrimax Financial Services.” “Small town character” is clearly a code word for “politically obligatory high property values.” The two main streets of the center of town are lined with eerily silent shops crammed with gleaming, high end bric a brac. Small towns historically had little truck with useless luxury goods meant for hanging on the wall of a trophy beach house. Excuse me: cottage.

A farmer’s market is not going to lessen the yawning gap between the classes buying cheese on the green and the rest of the nation’s population. But at least some producers are allowed space to develop clientele previously denied to them, monopolized by corporations and their agribusiness produce from Chile and California. And this sensibly local character shines even more brightly in this era when shipping broccoli from Mexico to Madison (along with surplus labor also produced by NAFTA) is looking more and more absurd from the perspective of energy wasted and economic suppression of local producers. The “natural” free market based on long distance transport is looking more and more like quite an artificial, constructed artifact.

Finally, I feel good that the old idol of modernity founded on the idea of impersonality and rule of corporations has gotten eroded a tiny bit more – even if it is just a bit of upper class fantasizing about small town life. It is fantasizing with real dollars and cents, however.

As I walked about I heard my name called, just as I was thinking how weirdly anonymous I felt, in the very town I grew up in! I turned to see the sallow, gaunt face of Grace Zahornicky. She is one of the few reminders of a working class presence in the local Mormon ward (congregation). Even though I have not attended church in almost two decades, she gives off not a whiff of estrangement or awkwardness. I thank her for the delicious zucchini bread she gave my parents the week before at church. She looks faint: “Oh, no, don’t say that. . .it fell.” I protest that it tasted great, however it looked. But she is unconsoled and unfooled. “But I’ve got some Texas pecans in the mail,” she says brightly, looking to a future glory. I say she could surely compete with the pie sellers here, a statement so obvious she does not bother responding to. She is with her neighbor, an Asian American woman, and when she gives up waiting for my father – whom she assiduously calls “Bishop,” despite his having retired the post decades before, she moves on. My father told me recently how hard it was being bishop in Madison in the seventies, with all the struggling working class members then. He had marveled at all the physicians and professors now in the ward. Hearing my father was about, Grace quipped, “Good thing I did not bring any booze or cigarettes here, he’d think I was a real bad person!” I assure her I too am such a person.

As she leaves I feel something touchingly old fashioned, a touch of a parallel life where I live in an actual small town where people know each other, and where people like Grace pay a trusting sort of homage to my father, which is simply extended to me as his son. It is a world where local elites smile benevolently on the people in a circuit of relationships that extend decades, generations. Because of Grace, stray remainder of a time when this town was a town of more than one class, I have felt a whiff of a world all but gone, at least here. But at least the farmer’s market has stirred something to life, a shift in the horizons of possibility. Is it possible the 4-H pavilions at local fairs will get more attention than just as a place to look at the snow white lambs and monster pumpkins, a curiosity of an agriculture firmly in the past?

Not longer so firmly fixed there, it seems. Not that Madison itself would ever relent in its fortress of laws, but towns near here like Durham might see a modest shift.

So the investment trophy “small town” is infiltrated unawares by the real small townness of small producers and food.

What is the most ironic thing of all? The fact that the rural is being interwoven back into the (faux) small-town due to the influence of the city! The growth and popularity of farmer’s markets in cities across the country, but most importantly in New York City, is clearly the inspiration for this development. Madison is now a distant suburb of New York, less distant in the summer, when the market runs. The big cities, in more ways than one, have acted for suburbs much the same way that monasteries acted for Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, as receptacles for a precious knowledge. In the case of American cities, they preserved the basic notion of urbanity as valuing the multiple interactions of people throughout the day. It was not a textual knowledge but a living one. The suburbs, however, celebrated separation in all aspects. They drained the cities. But the cities never died entirely. Now the realization slowly spreads through the culture – due to a reconfiguration of class geography where elites once again desire cities – that urban life is rich and irreplaceable, a fabric of experience.

This urbanity does not lie in density of population but in valuation of contact, even friction, particularly around human culture. In Madison, the opening of R.J. Julia booksellers was the first example, several years back, of New York “seeding” Madison with the practice of urbanity. Or I should say, the city seeding this suburb with an urbanity dressed up in their play imagination of the rural. This farmer’s market is a second example. Interesting, isn’t it, how cities have begun teaching suburbs how to be towns again? And paring back the worst excesses of the trophy towns?

Of course, I have not mentioned at all how rural areas have injected suburbs with new life: through churches. But even there, the growth of churches I am not so sure is not a phenomenon as suburban and urban as it is rural: a protest against the segregation and isolation of private property in America, even as consumers have seemed to crave more of the same. Clearly what we are seeing is schizophrenia: more and more Netflix and self-service check out aisles, to further remove us from people, and simultaneously more and more churches and farmer’s markets, to save us from the yawning space of our own heads.

We want it all: trophy town and soul.

In the summer, as I ride or walk down near the shoreline, where all the summer homes are, I find myself becoming so much more gregarious. “Hello,” I find myself saying to people I meet, “How are you?” I do so only because these fake small town residents look at me and, feeling that this is what small town people do, nod their heads and greet me. What am I going to do, not respond? And in any case, maybe this faux rurality has something good in it.


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