I am in Calumet, Michigan, with my wife visiting my son. We are staying at an Air B&B. The apartment is cozy, almost luxurious for the cost. We have a full kitchen, two bedrooms, a living room, everything we could want. Yet, the rooms are in the middle of a city past its prime. It is on the second story of a building that is probably over a hundred years old, and looks it from the outside.
We are in the middle of Calumet, if not exactly geographically at least in a figurative sense. Last night (06 May 2021 – a Thursday) in the early evening, Robin and I took a walk to explore the city. Radiating out from our base camp, the city is comprised of many beautiful red stone buildings lining several streets. The buildings are in various states of disrepair, from literally piles of rubble to meticulously restored theaters and a few shops. One can sense a kind of struggle between decay and rejuvenation.
This morning I wandered the streets alone looking for a cup of coffee and a newspaper. It was 7:30 in the morning and there was nearly no one on the streets other than myself and the occasional pickup truck speeding on to some unknown destination, but I suspect it contains a local headed off to work in one of the diminishing blue collar jobs available in the area. Nothing was open. Even the local party stores were as yet closed. I headed south and on the very outskirts of the old town finally found a coffee shop. There I settled down to a breakfast bagel and a large coffee with a significant amount of cream. But no newspaper was in sight.
My wanderings about the city made me a bit melancholy, because there is something magnificent about this place. You can sense in what remains a time when Calumet was the Copper capital of the nation, perhaps the world. Money obviously flowed here into the shops, the many inspiring churches, the stately civic buildings, in and out of the pockets of a once burgeoning, growing population.
Such ruminations about the decline of America’s small cities are not new to me. I felt similarly on a visit to Escanaba last fall. Of course, much of the decline is due to people moving out, forsaking an urban culture of closeness with our fellow humans for one of separation and fragmentation in suburbia, where there is yes, more freedom, but less intimacy.
On my visit to the coffee shop this morning, I got a chance to practice a little of that urban intimacy. I struck up a conversation with a gentleman just a few years my senior at a table next to me. We are both hard of hearing, so Gary and I carried on a conversation that could be heard in the entire coffee shop. He spoke some of the good old days, as all we old codgers do. He had been a truck driver, roadie, for some of the major bands of the 1960s – 1970s. He spoke of great musicians like James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Kid Rock (for good measure). My only response to that was my teen-age crush on Carly Simon. Since it was on my mind we also talked about the hay days of Calumet. It was the kind of conversation that makes you value the intimacy that urban life can bring.
It got me thinking about what it would take to revitalize this town. My son is making his own contribution to this effort. He bought a fixer-upper and is working to make it livable. Though I admire his drive, and am even planning on helping to work on it for a day or two, I feel my own energy level is too low to contemplate a deep involvement in this kind of project for myself. The task of revitalization is daunting and not meant for those whose energies are already committed elsewhere.
So what would it take? Many of the historic structures still stand, and there is a basic infrastructure that still exists in the form of utilities and civic entities. Is money an object? The federal government has already lavished trillions on various programs during the Covid-19 panic. It would seem that applying another couple trillion on the rebuilding of America’s small cities would be possible, however unlikely and perhaps problematic in its execution.
If it does start with money perhaps it means investing in those who already have a vested interest. If we could plow a billion dollars into a small city how would we do it? Perhaps by putting the money into the hands of local contractors to be awarded to current owners of properties for renovation. Perhaps by putting a fraction of it in the hands of individuals who already live in a city to apply to the upgrade of their own dwelling or to invest their portion in a specific local business or civic building. But would this even work? It could be fraught with corruption and malaise.
Behind it all it would be necessary to build a mentality, a will, and an acceptance of responsibility by the greater population for investing not just money, but time and sweat into such a program. There would have to be a recognition of individual initiative applied to the civic good. Building up Calumet, or Escanaba, or any small city would not be just about living a cool urban lifestyle, but having an incentive to invest in that lifestyle that is both economic and personally rewarding. It would have to take on elements that are both collective and individual.
We are a long way from any of this. So perhaps we will continue to see the decline of the small city in this country. But for the sake of Calumet and the innumerable other dots on the map of the world I pray we will find a solution.