Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Recovery in the Heartland

I’ve recently moved from a large city in the Heartland, population nearly 600,000. Adding all the suburbs and bedroom communities nearby, Oklahoma City is just a bit under one million, conservative citizens. We left them behind and moved to a recreational, rural area outside three small Midwestern Missouri towns with a combined population of 5,100.

Because the closest grocery is several miles away and small, I now plan my menus and shopping trips more carefully, especially if I need fresh fruit and vegetables, products that seem to wither more quickly here. They’re just a day or two shy of overripe when I buy them, perhaps because local grocers cannot compete with the volume that larger, urban grocers command. Here, I also have fewer brands available with generic labels prominent, perhaps because customers cannot afford a few pennies more.

This, I believe, is what an economic downturn and slow recovery look like: too soft pears, bruised apples, and bananas that turn dark overnight. I see other signs as well. More men, once members of thriving construction crews, have turned entrepreneurial. They are start-ups with names like The Other Husband or Honey-Do. For an hourly wage and sometimes for whatever the homeowner offers, they will clean gutters, repair what’s broken, and build fences.

Other signs of downward spirals are the traffic patterns. Those readers in big cities will scoff at our modest traffic problems. After all, you may witness a stream of cars in numbers too high to count while I wait upon a mere ten vehicles before I can cross traffic to be on my way, but trust me, ten or twenty vehicles in a row in this place is a rush-hour.

Frequently, these long lines of cars and pick-ups are turning into and out of parking lots surrounding Dollar Generals or Wal-Mart and into and out of flea markets or second-hand stores. Dollar General and Family Dollar have even announced plans to build several hundred more stores across the country because their profits are up. Big-name, higher priced stores are not expanding as rapidly.

I’ve also observed that two of the most popular shopping spots are not-for-profits that support no-kill animal shelters. There, huge, chest-high bins leak denim jeans where mothers lean in to dig deep in search of their child’s current size. The price tag? Twenty-five cents--a single quarter, a testament to just how many kids outgrow their denim allotment each fiscal quarter and to capitalism. The denim supply is large, the demand steady, but consumers are willing to buy genuinely worn denims, not just the high-end, stone-washed ones.

Saturdays in town show me where the full-time, year-round residents shop and eat. Restaurants will turn away customers in spring and summer during the lake season, but now, in the off-season, restauranteurs have stowed their pagers. Parking spots are close to entries, and diners can choose from a number of available tables, even at peak hours. Similarly, close parking is always available at the shopping hot spot, a row of stores anchored by Lowe’s, Target, Pier 1, and a high-end grocery store. But the flea market and animal-shelter thrift store are ozone-busting with vehicles in a holding pattern, waiting for an open parking space on the asphalt lot.

So I suggest that times are still hard. Here, real estate moves as slowly as icebergs. After all, how many people can afford a second, vacation home? Those who bought high, only to lose value after 2008, have lost their lake homes to foreclosure, and many condo units stand empty. Consequently, the folks born and trained around the lake must look elsewhere for work and clothing until the economy rebounds.

Admire those people who endure in the face of these hardships, the ones who remain hopeful that things will get better, the ones who have babies and believe, as they must, that their futures will be bright. Where would they find comfort if they failed to believe in a brighter future? So they live in this “time of vague optimism . . . [with] nothing to fear but fear itself” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 1, citing FDR), and they thrive because they are resourceful and humble and hard-working.