The Small Town and Its Defenders

The missus and I were glad to be in Jackson, Michigan, at the Grand River Brewery, for a set of presentations sponsored by The American Conservative. We heard Bill Kauffman, who is arguably conservatism’s funniest voice. Here’s an excerpt:

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

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