Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

April 27 to May 4, 2006.
A Tale of Two Towns

The small town in America is an endangered species. It is a piece of the American mythology, the close-knit community where everyone knows each other, all the adults keep an eye on the children, who can play safely in the streets. There’s no crime, so there’s no need for protect the children, and they don’t need the street smarts that are second nature to city kids. Although

there may not be much else for kids to do in that small town, they don’t grow up experimenting with drugs or alcohol or sex, because those evil big-city vices somehow don’t make it past the suburbs. Small town life is about neighbors; you know the people who sell you food or hardware, the florist knows what kind of bouquet your wife wants on her birthday, the dentist scolds your children when he sees them buying candy.

Before there were cars, the small town might have been a reality. Without transportation, you had to live close to where you worked and shopped and went to school. Or if you were a farmer and lived on your land, you were isolated except when you could make an excursion into town to buy whatever you couldn’t grow yourself.

The small towns are still there, but the culture around them has changed.

Tucumcari is in eastern New Mexico, a hundred or so miles east of Albuquerque on the highway that runs to Oklahoma City. Sanger is seventy miles north of Dallas and Fort Worth, on another highway running to Oklahoma City. Both are towns of a few thousand people, surrounded by open space.

There ends the similarity.

Tucumcari is the biggest community between Albuquerque and the state line. Its history can be read in its streets. I got there on I-40, looking for a place to park my camper van for the night. Following the signs into town, I found myself on old Rte 66, which had run through a rather trendy “historic” district in Albuquerque. Not so in Tucumcari. Rte 66 in Tucumcari is the land of boarded up motels. One after another sports enthusiastic signs - “Rte 66 motel,” “best lodging on Rte 66.” Their doors are closed, their windows boarded up, trash blows across the parking lots, weeds grow through cracks in the pavement. South of Rte 66, I came to Main Street, where half the homes were abandoned, the gas stations shut down, their pumps long gone. Off Main Street the roads were unpaved. A few truck service centers were open near the interstate, but the retail shops on Main Street were closed. I parked my van on a grassy patch and slept for the night.

In the morning, improbably, I came across a cheese factory humming with activity. It had the unlikely name of Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory – in one of the flattest parts of the United States. So I went in. The staff, Hispanic men in hairnets handling large trays of white cheese, were bemused by my presence and summoned the manager. He was equally bemused. He’d been there for ten years. They’d opened the factory there because the location was good for shipping, right off I-40, and real estate prices were low. They make feta cheese, which they ship all over the country.

When I asked about living in Tucumcari, he hesitated, then said he liked the weather all right. He’d grown up in a small town in the northern plains, and as a youngster he thought forty below in the winter was just an unavoidable part of life. So Tucumcari was a nice change, though it’s hot in the summer. The railroad used to stop there, he said, but it didn’t any more, and that’s when the town’s population started dropping. There were still enough families for a high school, though, graduating a hundred seniors each year. Which is

hardly smaller than the school my nephews attended – but Trumansburg, New York is a cute town near Ithaca, rather than the largest city for eighty miles in any direction.

Past the cheese factory I found myself in the old town center, where the police, the post office, and the city hall could be found. I stopped to look at a local history museum, whose yard sported an old plane, a railroad car, and a lot of native plants.

It was still closed at that hour of the morning, though. As I pointed my camera into the yard a man shuffled past, and stopped to tell me about the mural painted on the wall of the supermarket, by a couple of artists named Sharon and Doug Quarles. He was the only person I’d seen on foot – not that I’d seen too many cars on the roads, either. I was a bit afraid he’d try to convert me, so I thanked him for the information and moved on.

The murals – the one on the supermarket was one of many – were a delightful surprise. The supermarket wall was a montage of Rte 66 – steer heads, a motorcycle, an RV, a long-haired hitchhiker with guitar case in hand, a 1950s pickup truck, a small bi-plane towing a marquee reading “get your kicks.” It must have been forty or fifty feet long. Clearly something worth seeing.

Another mural near the railroad tracks depicted a western scene – a wide landscape with a glowing orange sunset, a six or seven-point buck surveying the landscape from the top of a red-rock cliff, a bald eagle, a small pond. In the sky a misty white angel looked down on the whole scene, shedding rays of light through the clouds. This one had the artists’ names and web address painted in the bottom.

As I walked past the mural, two small dogs trotted across the street and into a small pocket of park to do their business in the morning light. A man surveying them from the doorway of Zeke’s Body Shop assured me that they were friendly, so we got to chatting. He explained more of the history of Tucumcari. It started a small town on the railroad. It was a passenger stop, so people got on and off going from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque. People lived on Main Street, the shops were busy. When Rte 66 was constructed it brought in people, and motels and diners to serve them, but Main Street lost out to the new road.

In the 1960s the railroad closed Tucumcari as a passenger stop; that was the first blow to the town. Freight trains still stopped, though, to change crews on long haul journeys. So it was still a busy place, the freight crews providing a lot of business to the motels and the restaurants. The population was about 7,000.

Then the interstate was built and cars sped past going from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, instead of meandering along Rte 66. There’s a truck stop in town, but the truckers sleep in their cabs, not in the motels.

And then the railroad stopped changing crews there. That was the end. The population dropped. Businesses closed. An industrial park was built, but it has no industry; the cheese factory is the only place in town that actually manufactures anything, and it only employs a few dozen people. The body shop owner – Zeke himself, perhaps? - said he used to have lots of competition; people came through and got into accidents, and needed body work. Not any more – the town only supports two body shops. The train station still

stands, a long low structure in a traditional Mexican style. There’s not enough life in town to renovate it into shops and trendy restaurants, though; there’s no one to shop there. And no surrounding area to draw from. Zeke said he doesn’t even shop at the local supermarket. It has no competition and he said it’s very expensive. Every two weeks he has to drive to the nearest bigger town, so he does his shopping and even fills his gas tank there instead of buying locally. But that’s eighty miles away. The land in between is empty, save for cows, who don’t do much to support the local economy. And the “town dads,” as Zeke called them, weren’t interested in trying to attract manufacturing or other economic activity that might create jobs and keep people in town. The kids all leave after high school. During high school they spend their time getting high and getting into trouble.

Sanger, Texas was another small boarded up town with development problems, but they were completely different. Sanger is besieged with developers. There’s not much there now, but with the amount of housing that’s now planned for the area right around them they expect to grow from under 5,000 to over 35,000 in just a few years. And they have no idea what to do about it.

Sanger is also just off the interstate, some sixty miles north of Dallas-Fort Worth. It’s en route to a state park on the shores of a lake that was created in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers. I came through town looking for a place to camp at the park. I’d planned to head straight out in the morning, but as in Tucumcari, I ended up poking around instead.

The town has an old center – a square park surrounded by rows of shops, most of them boarded up. The police station is at the corner of the square, city hall just down the street. I went into a small donut shop hoping for some breakfast. It was run by a young Korean woman, who scuttled between the counter in the shop and the window of her drive-through. The coffee was terrible, the donut not much better. Opposite the square a few businesses seemed to be operating. A storefront daycare center had verses from the new testament inscribed on the windows – this is the bible belt, after all – and to my surprise a branch of Curves was going to open up there. Curves is a franchise gym and health club, open only to women. Its founders identified a market among women who want to exercise, but are intimidated by trendy gyms, athletic people in lycra, and body-builders. Judging by how many storefront Curves I’ve seen across the country, the founders were probably right. But I was surprised to see Curves coming to Sanger; it speaks of a middle class community, and an attempt to provide services to local people within the town instead of on a commercial strip.

The town center was quiet and faded. But every field outside of Sanger had a billboard showing the houses that would soon be built there. Some were already up, three or four bedroom places with perhaps half an acre around them. They were modest homes, targeting families who wanted space, couldn’t afford it closer to Dallas or Fort Worth. Perhaps they drive to jobs in the northern suburbs.

I ate my donut on a park bench outside the Sanger Chamber of Commerce. On the wall inside I saw a big architectural rendering of the town square. It looked like someone had plans to fix things up and maybe keep the town from being killed by the strip malls and chain stores that are sure to follow the houses. So when a woman opened the office at 9:30, I went into chat with her.

I never found out her name, so I’ll give her one – Alice. She grew up in Sanger, and had recently returned with her family. Her children are in high school, and after years as a full-time mom, Alice had landed a part-time job running the Chamber office. She had no experience with planning or urban issues, and was trying to learn fast. The problem, she said, was that the city council members had their heads stuck in the sand. They couldn’t stop the development – much of it is on land outside the town’s boundaries, and there are no zoning or regulatory controls that would give them the right to decide what may be built there. They like their rural life, don’t mind their sleepy dilapidated town, and have no idea of what is about to hit them. Or perhaps they expect to make money off it and just hope to cash in?

The plan on the office wall was for streetscape changes to add character and charm to the historic downtown. The state of Texas has a Main Street program, to help small towns like Sanger redevelop their old centers – the centers that create what people now romanticize as “small town feel,” but used to provide the commercial core that everyone had to rely on before they

had cars and could get away in search of more choice and lower prices. Or before Walmart came in and put everyone in town out of business. The plan had been prepared a few years before, but Alice said the city council wouldn’t appropriate the funds to even join the Main Street program, much less make any of the changes suggested in the plan.

Sanger doesn’t have any planners on staff. The town’s economic development officer is trying to pull things together, to figure out how to control the development that is going to come. But she’s working on her own pretty much. The county doesn’t provide much help, unlike some places where county planners work as circuit riders, going from town to town to advise them and help them manage – or, more often, attempt to stimulate –growth in their area. Here it seems to be a free-for-all. And it seems like the most likely result is a state (or should I say a town?) of chaos, in which some people will make a lot of money, the local government will go on a fiscal

rollercoaster – tax revenues rising, but expenses probably rising even faster – and “home” will change dramatically for everyone who lives there now.

Not much like Tucumcari. But so what? To me these two towns do indeed suggest that the small town is an anachronism in the US in 2006. They once made sense because livelihoods were local, transportation difficult, communications slow, and shipping of goods very costly. So life as a whole was local. But the institutions of manufacturing are on a national or global scale now, transport is easy, communications are instantaneous, and goods come from all over the world for much less than

they cost to produce locally. Which makes it hard to maintain the integrity of a small town. So towns can go one of two ways. They can slowly wither, until they are little more than a truck stop on the highway, as Tucumcari is doing. Or they can be absorbed into ex-urban sprawl, like Sanger. And the romance of the small town is really about trying to recreate some of its charming aspects – depending on the neighbors, walking down a bustling main street – without the technological and economic constraints that made the rest of the town viable and required its residents to do all their shopping on main street and depend on their neighbors.

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