Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Place That Mattered Once

[Editor's Note: This is probably the last report from my hometown, thanks for indulging me.]

It's been good to be back home again, to see friends and family and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life than what's normal for me in the Northeast.  Sometimes when I come back to my hometown my adolescent feelings of resentment and boredom bubble over, but perhaps having my kids along has kept those feelings in check.

This time around what I'm feeling for my home town is a kind of melancholy, rather than anger.  Having my children here has meant going to local museums for the first time in over twenty years, and in the process being reminded that my hometown of Hastings was once a place that mattered.  It went from a little prairie settlement to a bustling town in a short period of time in the 1880s due to its location as the junction between the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific railroads.  With the railroads came commerce from the surrounding farming areas and factories (including a brewery) who wanted to take advantage of the proximity to transportation.  Hastings made bricks and cigars, beer and machine parts.  The many rail passengers passing through could get fine clothes at Stein's department store downtown.  Hastings was basically the most important railroad town between Omaha and Denver.

Around this time local boosters deemed Hastings "The Queen City of the Plains."  There are a lot of beautiful houses and institutions in my hometown built in the 1900-1930 time period, the town's economic heyday.  The Dutton-Lainson manufacturing company, still the biggest in town, built a large warehouse downtown after World War I that is still the city's tallest building.  Despite being a warehouse, it has some beautiful art nouveau touches, as you can see below:

The VB stands for "Victory Building," in reference to the nation's victory in World War I.  I often gaze upon this building as a symbol of a dream that never quite came to be.  During the 1920s the railroad was losing importance to the automobile, but the presence of US Highway 6 in town kept the city relevant.  The railroad also led the the town's last burst of growth in the 1940s during World War II, when the government located a massive naval munitions plant and depot in Hastings.  Its central location made it hard for saboteurs to hit and easy for trains on two different lines to get the ammo to ports on either coast. After the war, the growth stopped.  More damaging, when the interstate highway came through, it bypassed Hastings in favor of Grand Island, its rival thirty miles to the north.  There is a whole line of cheap, rundown motels on Highway 6 on the edge of town attesting the effects of this decision.  On top of this, the evisceration of the farm economy in the 1980s drained the local countryside of people and wealth, kneecapping Hastings' position as a commercial center.

The melancholy I have now is over the fact that my hometown is a place that mattered once, and that does not matter anymore.  Like rural Nebraska generally, it is in a position of irreversible decline.  Those who grow up here who get educated get out and don't come back, mostly because there just aren't opportunities for those who would even want to come back.  As in a lot of rural America, the raging against the dying of the late often takes the form of extreme religiosity and an ultra-conservative politics of fear and resentment.  

On this trip I've tried my hardest not to let those things irritate me, even if they do.  Instead, I've tried to focus on the good that has survived from Hastings' heyday past.  Having blossomed in the Progressive Era, Hastings has had well-supported and much used public institutions.  Yesterday, for example, I took my children to a park in the shadow of the Chautauqua Pavilion, built in 1907.

Before film and radio, speakers toured the country on the Chautauqua circuit, named for the town in New York where it originated.  Unlike most similar structures, Hastings' pavilion has survived, and civic events still take place there.  Growing up it was the location for church picnics and high school band concerts, though in former times Robert Kennedy and William Jennings Bryan had spoke there.  
I mentioned a few days ago that a bunch of vandals almost burned it down in the 1990s.  Perhaps the fact that Hastings is indeed a town with a bright past and a dim future is what arouses such hatred of its monuments.  I may have underestimated the dirtbag element in this town, they too know that this place could never again claim to be the Queen City of the Plains.

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