Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One Thing

I've made note here, a couple times, that a small town doesn't get too many opportunities to define itself to the world. A large metropolis, such as St. Louis or Los Angeles, gets in front of the world regularly, and has the opportunity to present many different sides of itself. One can look at Los Angeles and see primarily a celebrity playground, or a media center, or Disneyland, or beaches and surfing, or outrageous urban sprawl, or any of the local sports teams, or its ethnic diversity, or Skid Row, or a culinary mecca, or a parched desert with a city on top of it, or a multitude of other things. The world sees Los Angeles often, and so it sees more sides of Los Angeles.

A small town doesn't have that luxury. Small towns as a whole get in front of the world regularly. But there are a lot of small towns out there. A specific small town in particular, and even some medium-sized cities, may never get its face shown in front of the populace at large in any remotely significant way. Even if it does, it will almost certainly be known for one thing, and one thing only. That's it. One Thing. The town simply isn't large enough to have enough facets to it that people are likely to see more than one of them to any appreciable degree; it may have more, but one is far too likely to outshine the others.

Sometimes, that one thing is sports. Auburn, Alabama is only ever going to be known for the Auburn Tigers. Despite being the birthplace of James Fennimore Cooper, and despite his family being the town's namesake, Cooperstown, New York still has only One Thing, and that is being the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Green Bay, Wisconsin is home to over 100,000 people and has always been a major player in the paper mill industry, but paper is not Green Bay's One Thing. It's the Packers and everybody knows it.

Other times, it's a particular attraction in the town, a landmark. In my case, Watertown, we like to put the fact that we're home to astronaut Dan Brandenstein on the signs entering town, and we name our football team the Goslings over our history fattening up geese for foie gras, but those are not our One Thing. We're the home of the country's first kindergarten. That's our One Thing, and it's really a rather boring one. Neighboring Oconomowoc's One Thing is the unorthodox name of the town itself. Despite secondary reputations as a spring break destination and a fair number of sporting events revolving around the lake, Lake Havasu City, Arizona acquired its One Thing when London Bridge was relocated there, brick by brick, in 1968. Some towns that don't even think they have a One Thing at all try to force it by building a blatant roadside attraction, often the World's Largest something or other. A typical example is Hebron, Nebraska and the World's Largest Porch Swing.

And sometimes, it's historical. Nobody will ever know Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for anything except the Wright Brothers. Nobody will ever know Plymouth, Massachusetts for anything except the landing of the Pilgrims. Nobody will ever know Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for anything except the Civil War.

And this can be rather problematic for a city if its One Thing is an incident that gives the town a bad name. Again, it is hard for a small town to get everybody's attention, and if their one moment in the spotlight is for something bad, that's that. People will go away, remembering only the facet of town that brought them there, and the town will be forced to deal with their One Thing single-handedly dragging down their reputation even if they fix the problem that caused it, because no matter how much effort they put into rebranding themselves, it will probably fail as the nation will go right back to ignoring them after gawking at the One Thing.

Compton, California has gotten far safer since the days in the early 1990's when N.W.A, the Bloods, the Crips and involvement in the Rodney King riots gave Compton their One Thing. But despite working to improve matters ever since, Compton has failed to get the attention of the public at large for any of it. They still labor under their One Thing. And when you labor under your One Thing, it can be very, very difficult getting people or business to move in afterward. It can cost the town dearly going forward, until and unless they can convince the world that their One Thing no longer defines them.

Columbine, Colorado was charged with its One Thing later in the decade, when it became the victim of what would prove to be the most famous school shooting in America, even now, 15 years and far too many school shootings later. The word 'Columbine' has become a byword for school shootings, as school districts across the country, no matter who gets shot up in the meantime, still wonder how to prevent 'another Columbine'. The town's Wikipedia page doesn't even list anything else about it save for basic geography and demographics. Neighboring Littleton, whose previous One Thing was not much better- being the burial site of Alferd Packer, America's only convicted cannibal- found itself in the same shoes as Columbine when, finding that Columbine itself was (and still is) unincorporated, the media falsely reported Littleton, which was incorporated, as the location of the shooting instead.

Whatever it is you may say regarding the events or legitimacy thereof surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson- and I've said plenty myself- what is surely beyond dispute is that Ferguson, Missouri has, by now, been saddled with its One Thing. It is the town where Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, got acquitted, and riots broke out upon his grand jury acquittal. That is Ferguson's claim to fame, and unless Ferguson finds a way to get some other, bigger claim to fame, that is how it will always be remembered, and the town, blacks and whites alike, will simply have to live with that stigma. Ferguson will, eventually, leave America's eye for good, and it will be long before any of the larger issues surrounding the crisis even begin to be resolved. If they ever are. People will, more than they already had, think twice before moving to Ferguson. Businesses will think twice before opening locations in Ferguson, and those who saw their businesses burned down last night will surely think twice before deciding to rebuild, presuming they even have the ability to do so.

Ferguson may never get a chance to find itself a new One Thing. But if they do, let us hope it isn't something even worse.

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