Sunday, February 14, 2010


Part of the problem of managing a small town like Valier, which is about a hundred years old, or Browning which is slightly older, is that we are having to travel in two directions at once. If the problem were to plan a new community within the limits of money available and to the extent that is practical, it would be easy. But these are towns built on the bones of the recent past so that deconstruction must constantly accompany construction and in some cases -- like the original decision to locate Browning in a swamp -- old decisions constantly present new problems.

In Browning old buildings still persist in spite of many of them being burned. In Valier we seem to have passed that stage, mostly. The ghosts that haunt us are things like underground contamination plumes from former gas stations along the highway. Now they are a line of vacant lots on which nothing can be built. It’s not just that they must be monitored and eventually cleaned up, but that the law suits entangled with them are proceeding slowly. And since the blame/accountability/decisions were all entangled with parent and grandparent generations -- but most of the impulse and need to build is on the part of the younger people, competing families and newcomers -- the frustration and defensiveness get personal. Divisions and factions develop.

The pressure of growth in people and their modern water use (showers, sprinklers, frequent laundry) is coming up against tightening legal requirements, most of them meant to be protective like the sometimes onerous restrictions on our sewage lagoon. (Sometimes six samples a day, spaced by hours) Most reforms and rebuilding of the sewer and water infrastructure mean digging, which means a need for nonexistent maps and personal knowledge to deal with what is unseen but constantly felt. Investigation of the water distribution pipes reveals all kinds of improvisations, like jackleg plumbing that takes the water of two houses in from one pipe with the shut off on the single leg. So if one house pays the water bill and the other one doesn’t, how can the deadbeat be shut off? On the other hand, if one fellow wants to go to Florida for the winter, how does he safeguard his plumbing by shutting it down and emptying his pipes? It looks as though this sort of thing will contribute major headaches to moving from a “shared co-op” model in which everyone pays the same price regardless of use, to a metered system. Installing meters will mean rebuilding the pipes. Who pays?

Digging aggravates one of the constant sources of irritation: the roads. Plow it, pave it, gravel it, water it, light it, keep the equipment running -- major headaches.

One of the council men remarked that the only product we have to sell as a town is water, but that’s not true. A town is a service provider. Service providers respond to need and keep coming. They operate on good will. How do we maintain good will in the face of so much aggravation? We are basically a cooperative but some people are not good cooperators.

I’ve been thinking about the churches as reminders of good will and common benefits. They are so shrunken in resources that none can maintain a full-time resident clergyperson. This means that their awareness of tension in the town is pretty vague and their feeling that they ought to address town problems of morale and morality is weak. If one is preaching to four towns in one day, the tendency is to generalize so one can simply repeat the same sermon and put the energy into driving. This town has the VADC, whose purpose is to “improve” the town but on their own terms. I think they would be surprised to know what I consider an improvement. (Benign neglect!) The social clubs like Lions or Elks tend to be area-wide, not specific to Valier.

Town-identified entities include the fire volunteers and the EMT or the lunches provided for senior citizens. The home visit nurses do a lot of good, but rather privately. The single biggest organization providing identity and guidance is the school, which helps to explain why so much revolves around it.

The new mayor notes that we have MANY cancer and diabetes patients in this town. (I have my theories why and I don’t blame the victims.) But there is no bus service to get them to chemo or dialysis. Many people have family, but not all. The local cafe and the local grocery store are run by conscientious and extremely hard working people, but they are aging and growing exhausted. The townsfolk dread losing these vital gathering places and services. Most people have become prosperous enough in the past few years to have cars or washing machines, but not all. The laundromat is gone. The car dealer is gone.

Somehow our electricity has become co-opted by Conrad: the algorithms that control power allocation put them first in an emergency so we have breaks in service. On the other hand, their water supply comes from our lake and in a dry year their intake sucks mud. Somehow we keep getting dragged into area schemes, like a pipeline that runs thirty miles and more to another larger irrigation-impounding lake, and when we try to stay out, pleading poverty, they get us grants. Or they use their influence to make the state REQUIRE participation, so we are gradually losing our ability to control our own decisions.

In the past ten years some of the very qualities that attracted me to Valier are ebbing away. I’ve always known I might eventually become too frail to maintain a freestanding house here, but I had not expected the town to become too robust, contentious or rule-ridden to include me.

The cards haven’t all come down yet. For instance, what if the children who grew up here begin to return? This has been one of the best impulses for inspired growth and renewal in Browning. The other has been a growing willingness to cooperate and compromise. Since this was the style of Valier's original founders, perhaps we’ll just dig it up.


Old Scrote said...

It all sounds painfully familiar to me, Mary, not in the details, but in the general degradation of the village that I have lived in for nearly thirty years. I always have to ask myself if it is only the village that has changed, or have I too become grumpier, more critical, more demanding with the passing years. Time to make a cup of tea and watch the birds in the garden....

Lance Michael Foster said...

I've thought at times of moving to a small town. But not only is it tough to figure out how you are going to make a living, moving to a small town is sorta like changing high schools in your senior year-

Florida family gives up on small-town North Dakota
By JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press Writer – Mon Feb 15
HAZELTON, N.D. – A tiny North Dakota town's promise of cash and free land lured only one family from out of state. Now, Michael and Jeanette Tristani and their 12-year-old twins are trying to move from the town without a traffic light back to Miami.
Tired of crime, traffic, hurricanes and the high cost of living in Florida, the Tristanis moved four years ago to Hazelton, a dwindling town of about 240 that has attempted to attract young families to stay on the map.
Michael Tristani, 42, said at the time the 1,800-mile move was "an answer to our prayers."
"We don't have to look over our shoulder to see who's going to rob us, or jump out of the bushes to attack us," Tristani said. "Taxes are low, the cost of living is low and the kids enjoy school."
But the family also found a cliquey community that treated them like outsiders. "For my wife, it's been a culture shock," he said.