I drive a lot more than I used to. It is one of the many ways that Terre Haute feels narrow, more so than any other place I’ve lived. Contrary to the tattooed waiter who told me that this town was “mad bike friendly,” all I seem to do is drive. I drive to work, I drive my husband to work, I drive to my weekly allergy shots, I drive to the grocery store, I drive to the gym. Driving is supposed to be the ultimate in self-determined get-up-and-go, but here it makes me feel small, makes the town feel anonymous. Through a dirty windshield all the streets look the same. One side of town is much like the other.
In the evenings we walk to the grocery store. We take the long way up Ohio because our street doesn’t have sidewalks. Sometimes we search for reasons to go – batteries, iced tea, individual slices of cake wrapped in plastic – but when it’s cold and dark, when we most require a smack in the face, we will just go to go. Fifteen minutes wandering the aisles. We leave suspiciously empty handed. If we’re really ambitious, we’ll walk even further to the Kroger on Wabash and haul two-for-one cartons of coconut milk home, frozen hands curled around shopping bags. Once we’re home, we don’t feel like we’ve really gone anywhere.
Sometimes I walk around downtown. Same fashion, no real destination. You can walk the whole of it easily, and in fact you might be forced to if you are like me and refuse to parallel park nose-to-tail between pickup trucks. Only a few blocks long and fewer blocks wide, downtown is often deserted. Stores are closed at strange times of day, and last summer an entire block of buildings was razed to the ground. Lots of room to walk, and nowhere in particular to be.
There are a few blocks on Seventh Street labeled as the Downtown Arts Corridor. I know this because of the cheery flags fluttering from the lampposts. It’s two or three blocks, and the only things there to mark it as such are the art museum and the recently renovated antique movie theater, all decked out in faded red and luxe gold. My optometrist is around the corner and my hair dresser not far away but I suppose they can be arts as well. Two blocks, a few commonalities, and we have ourselves a district.
I’ve noticed this mentality a few times in Terre Haute, a desire to label each square of public space. If one downtown block can be a whole district, with its own particular spice and flavor, then a weedy strip of lawn between two streets can be a park, complete with bench and memorial plaque.
Because our macro-region – the Midwest – is so vast and all-encompassing and nebulous, we have an obsession with the taxonomy of places on the micro level. I spent my college years in Kalamazoo, another smallish town, but it too has cheery banners in orange and plum and cherry. The banners have the important work of demarcating the districts, no less than six, each with a warm, rich name like Haymarket, Arcadia, South Town. The neighborhoods too all have names, and you can even buy a t-shirt enumerating them for you. When I lived there, I’m not sure I could have told you the difference between any of them. Not like how I used to imagine a vast city like New York might feel: cross a sidewalk, make two left turns, and feel like you’re in a different world.
When these signs went up in Kalamazoo I had to smile. Guys, it’s three blocks. Let’s not get carried away.
Growing up I ran through shuttered downtowns and historic districts of small Michigan towns but I didn’t feel like I was crossing worlds. I was too busy sneaking into boys’ basements and hanging around outside of liquor stores hoping they’d sell to us. The geography of the town was one of ability and desire. We mapped our world according to the places we could get what we wanted. When I visit, we go to the same bars. I get in them no problem. There’s deja vu, even in these places that should be new to me. I stumble back to the bathroom and see graffiti that looks familiar. A broken chair in the corner and I swear I remember who broke it.
The Midwest thinks it’s a game of denomination. If we just say we are something, than we are – legitimate, special, interesting, just-as-good-as. Hang out with your three friends at a coffee shop and you have a social hour, but give yourself a name and a logo and you have an Organization. You have a phenomenon that must be recognized. We are as good as the college town up the highway where you can eat vegetarian and drink fair trade on every street corner because I say so. Look what I can show you. We are even as good as Chicago, as if Chicago even gives a shit, because isn’t it obvious.
What of the art in the arts corridor? There is a Warhol print and an Edward Hopper painting. I overheard the snowy-haired docent in her crisp red jacket once tell another patron that the Hopper piece was the last he painted before he died. There is a gallery reserved for rotating exhibits that’s often lined with crayon drawings from local elementary schools. The museum fits right in with our excess of antique shops, historical societies, any concrete evidence of things that once were. Naming things is just another method of archiving. We can organize the contradictions of a promising past and a liquid future that slips away all the time. Name it, nail it down, make a pretty banner and give it the promise to live up to.
Draw the boundary big, and hope it sticks.