I’ve been looking for those metal signs in sharp black and gold, the ones that mark people and places of local significance. I am used to seeing them in the places I’ve lived before and now here in Terre Haute, the fourth city I’ve lived with a funny name. The Indiana Historical Bureau’s website provides you with a handy guide for getting one erected in your town. It’s not that difficult – some citizen’s initiative and two thousand dollars can get you a sign custom cast for your hometown pride. There are thirteen such markers scattered throughout Terre Haute and surrounding Vigo County. Some are attached to appropriately quaint houses, others in places you’d never expect. The kind of place you’d have to be walking very, very aimlessly to find: abandoned lot by the Dairy Queen, corner of gas station and VCR repair.
Terre Haute used to be a Representative American City. That’s what everybody tells me. It’s one of those smaller midwestern towns that is always simultaneously Past Its Prime and Making a Comeback. Being from Michigan, I understand phrases like “revitalized downtown” and “small business renaissance” even if I rarely believe the truth of the words. Once home to commerce, brothels, and the juncture of two major highways, Terre Haute – and specifically, the corner of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue – has the honor of being The Crossroads of America. The title has been attributed to Indianapolis and even the entire state of Indiana, but make no mistake, it’s us. Funny that a town would want to be known as The Crossroads of America, i.e. The Place America Drove Through to Get Somewhere Else, but we take it seriously. The apparently revitalized downtown is littered with those historical markers: one on the corner itself and others sprinkled elsewhere down the avenue, including tacked to the side of a parking garage.
In two years, Indiana will have its bicentennial. I only know this because it’s stamped on our license plate and I don’t know if we’ll be here for it, but part of me would like to be. I’ve never experienced the birthday of a state before, and I can imagine the party in the streets. Let’s celebrate how, unlike so many things, we’re still here. Buildings come and go, whole cities declare bankruptcy, and demographics shift faster than weather patterns. To last a whole two centuries must feel satisfying, even if what’s inside these borders looks nothing like what it started with. Sometimes the name of the thing is all that’s left, and that ends up being enough for a commemorative marker, a sigh of relief. We have made it through another year.
In winter the town contracts like knees drawn up to the chest and the past feels condensed into something you can hold in the palm of your hand. In a small town on the other side of expansion, you can stand in that abandoned lot and you can hold up a postcard and imagine time then. U.S. 40 and U.S. 41 don’t carry the streaming tide of Americana from one manifest destiny to the next anymore, but it’s a nice thought. Just the title of it conjures up all kinds of old timey images in burnt sienna and dust: This is when America ran through town, hands raised, see-you-later, gotta-go. When America crowded the streets and the opening of a department store was a big damn deal. Buggies stood ready to take you somewhere else and blinkered horses breathed steam on your cold hands.
To find out what we value, look for those signs and the places we have marked as significant. Sometimes these places move and are not where they always were. Sometimes they are demolished anyway. I can understand that the past is not like a snow globe, self-contained and smooth, but more like dust blown off a leather bound book: let loose. You walk down Wabash, past a row of empty storefronts with duct tape on the windows, and you think about all the things it was and all the things the local politicians promise it can be. You get kicked out of the library because it’s about to close until Monday, and you walk back across the ice that threatens your very existence, and you realize you’ve lived in this city almost half your life.