Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Death of a Town

I have found myself living in the middle of a large social experiment and no, this time it isn't about the Maharishi. This time I'm talking about four lane highways and bypasses around the city.

For many years, when someone talked about a four-lane road, you knew that they were talking about the Interstate. However, in the 80's things changed and non-Interstate two lane roads were being expanded. One in particular started carving its was southeast of Des Moines into this rural country towards where I reside mile at a time. By then end of next year, it will finally have been completed.

Over the years as I have traveled on the two lanes and then the four lanes as it crept ever closer, I have noticed the impact it has on those around it. Besides the obvious of people who used to live near a quite two-lane road having to move as their house gets pushed in to make room for progress, other less subtle things have happened. Literally dozens of towns along the new four lanes began dying and their death always started with the completion of the bypass around the town. The bypass around Fairfield will be completed next year and thus I find myself on the inside when for almost 30 years I have been on the outside looking in.

When a bypass is completed, the town begins to shift ever so slightly. A new gas station is built out by the bypass followed by a restaurant and/or a hotel. Soon another restaurant follows and then a big box store like Wal-Mart heads out there. Wal-Mart in and of itself is a wave makers and soon dozens of buildings shift out to the skirts of town leaving behind a large void. This void allows rot in the form of urban blight to set in and thus begins the death process of the town. Eventually the only venues in town that people use are the big box store, gas station and fast food joint and slowly the town begins to lose diversity as other stores close up shop. Finally all that remains of town is a gas station on the edge out by the bypass because the big box store and fast food joint have all moved to new victims.

Town size depends a lot on the length of the death process and how vulnerable it is. When the bypass around my hometown went by, all it took was one gas station built along side the town. That combined with the fact that people aren't as likely to stop by when they have to slow down and get off the "faster" road and the town collapsed. Now some 40 years later every single business on Main Street is closed, the school is gone and the only viable business in town is still the single gas station out on the bypass.

Another larger town west of here by the name of Ottumwa was thriving in my early youth with a vibrant downtown. Wal-Mart came and built a big box store north of town and soon businesses flocked to be nearby leaving this large void in the center. Then the road south of town was expanded to four lanes and Wal-Mart built a huge store outside of town along that road. Businesses again flocked over there drawing the town in the complete opposite direction leaving the old "new" area of town to rot which is has started to do as businesses get boarded up. (Downtown has long since been forgotten and boarded up or turned into bars and x-rated theaters.) And I haven't even yet got to the kicker. The bypass going around Fairfield where I live now is also going around Ottumwa… to the north. Already gas stations are being constructed and perhaps a fast food place but I know Wal-Mart probably won't be far behind.

It's ironic that businesses want to be where the traffic is and we want to route the traffic away from the towns. A prime example is Muscatine along the Mississippi River. The bypass long ago was built around the town and up on top of the hill away from the river. Now everything is built up along the bypass and it takes longer to drive through the bypass complete with almost a dozen stoplights now than it ever did to drive through town. I'm just waiting for the day they begin building a bypass around the bypass.

Already in Fairfield the dying process has begun and the first concrete will not be poured for another month. The local hospital is moving out near the bypass in order to garner state money. A gas station and hotel are already slated to be built. A furniture store long since dead from the days Wal-Mart built their store on the other end of town is now being turned into a strip mall now that it is back to being on prime property. One of our grocery stores has already closed up shop and rumors consistently fly around that Wal-Mart is looking at property out near the bypass. The town will shift, a void will happen, rot will happen and the death process begins. This time, I have a front row seat.

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