Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Constantine, Michigan





    On the road, my wife and I try to avoid fast food restaurants because they serve not just crap, but boring, familiar, unhealthful, unappetizing crap. 
     Which means picnic lunches, if we've prepared them. If not, then venturing away from the tollway, looking for the ever-more-elusive local restaurant. At the back of my mind is "Mom's Diner," with Mom—curly haired, fat cheeks, powerful forearms, rolling out the pie crust, gazing out the window, somehow knowing we're about to arrive. ("Howdy. Take a seat anywhere. Leave room for pie—they should just be cool by the time you're done with supper.") 
    Yes, I know. There is something of the connoisseur's delusion to the idea—Mom's Diner can be lousy too; worse than McDonald's (at least once a trip I point out that local roadside eateries were so famously slow and consistently horrible that nationwide chains were embraced particularly for being quick and clean).
    But part of our vacation fun is searching out a bit of local color, and seeking homemade pie.
    And sometimes learning something. 
    Heading home Tuesday, I pulled off the road at the exit we were passing about 12 noon and we found ourselves in Michigan, heading north on 131. There was a commercial traffic bypass, and a "Historic" downtown local route. We went historic, ending up on Washington Street, the main drag of the village of Constantine, on the St. Joseph River.
    One glimpse of the downtown and the restaurant almost became moot. It was a once prosperous, small red brick storefronts with turrets and trim, now empty and forlorn. A town on hard times, which was mystifying, because there were several enormous agricultural companies -- Pioneer Seeds,  Monsanto corn—on the outskirts. Maybe they were completely mechanized, because whatever profits they generate obviously aren't being spent in downtown Constantine. The ice cream parlor had gone out of business. Most of the windows were empty, or covered with plywood painted black. The several amateur efforts at retail, craft stores and such, had died on the vine. 
    To be fair, several buildings had their moldings brightly painted and seemed to have thriving businesses: a cafe, an art galley. But fully 80 percent of the downtown strip was shuttered.
    We ate at the Harvey Restaurant, which the waitress told us had been in business since 1908 (actually, 1903) making it the oldest restaurant I had ever been in that retained not a whiff of whatever charm it might have once possessed over the decades. It was 70 percent empty at lunchtime on Taco Tuesday. A grilled cheese sandwich cost $2.
     After lunch we explored downtown. Maybe I have election on the brain, but I kept thinking this is why people are willing to support Donald Trump, in spite of all reason and the demands of patriotism and humanity. They'll follow anybody who promises to deliver the country from this sort of dismal descent in to ruin. If you saw your town turn into this, it would be heartbreaking. It was sort of heartbreaking when it wasn't your town, just to come upon it for the first time.
     Later, I tried to find out what had happened ton Constantine: named for the Roman Emperor, for you fans of irony. The population didn't vanish—the village is as big as it ever was, 2000 people, the same for the past 25 years. There was a bypass put in three years ago, the idea being get commercial traffic off Washington Street. Maybe it worked too well and got all traffic out of Constantine's downtown. 
      So maybe the injury was self-inflicted. Maybe there's some other factor I haven't considered. A big Walmart in nearby White Pigeon, perhaps, that sucked all the business away. And this isn't to suggest it isn't a nice place to live: we saw children playing on swings, an elderly man on an enormous John Deere mower cutting grass. So no insult intended. I liked the place, tipped well, and was glad to have left money there.
      But the general sinking feeling we felt, walking around, lingered with us. I felt zero big city hauteur. The presidential election has killed that in me, for good I hope. If the populist revolt that gave us Donald Trump's candidacy is indeed thwarted, then Agenda No. 1 needs to be to figure out how to get these buildings in Constantine unboarded and back into business. They had a purpose when they were built. They need a purpose again. 



18 comments:

  1. A lot of small towns like that all over.

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  2. On my motorcycle rides on the back roads throughout the country, I’ve noticed that the only businesses that seem to be thriving are fast food shops, dollar stores and churches. Downtown Mom-and-Pop stores can’t compete with international, industrial economies of scale. Parsimony trumps nostalgia every time.

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  3. Yes, many small towns with a block or more of old shuttered businesses, and new construction as the most cost effective option spread out to the edge of town and beyond. Looking at the photo gives me a headache thinking about costs for renovation, plumbing, electrical, lighting, HVAC upgrades, and parking for customers. These are remnants of an older paradigm, nice to see and visit if they can be preserved, but not really essential.
    Road trips can go a little smoother if a passenger uses a smart phone to get reviews of restaurants you are approaching as you travel. Many hidden gems are out there waiting for a visit, if you find one, take the time to give it 5 stars.

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    1. P.S. And looking at the photos, the buildings are not handicapped accessible, or easily made so. An ADA lawsuit waiting to happen.

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  4. Maybe [Pioneer and Monsanto] were completely mechanized, because whatever profits they generate obviously aren't being spent in downtown Constantine.

    I'm afraid you're right, if not about this particular location, then in general. Automation and other technology, both industrial and agricultural, has taken a huge toll of blue-collar jobs. Around the turn of the 20th century, some 25% of the U.S. population worked on farms. Now that figure is around 2%, they work less land, but produce more food. That's great for the food situation, but not so good for labor. It accounts for why so many rural towns are shells.

    When it comes to the loss of blue-collar jobs, technology tends to get left out of the narrative, mostly because it has little potential for demagoguery. It's a lot easier to blame sneaky Chinese currency manipulators than programmable logic controllers.

    Bitter Scribe

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  5. Recently spent the weekend in a small WI locale - they were anxiously awaiting the 'summer crush' that rains money on the locals so they can survive the other 9 months. Their biggest problem is finding youth that are willing to work. Most are not interested, so they hire eastern European kids who come here to fill in.

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  6. The small businesses have suffered and now Amazon (and other online retailers) are eliminating large brick and mortar stores such as Sportmart and some Sears. Times change, mostly because of technology...but it is kind of sad.

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  7. Mom's Diner?
    That violates one of Nelson Algren's Three Rules of Life," to wit:
    1. Never play cards with a man called Doc.
    2. Never eat at a place called Mom's.
    3. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.

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    1. The only problem with No. 3 is that the better adjusted you are, the fewer potential sexual partners you have.

      Bitter Scribe

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    2. Well then, I'll never have that problem!

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  8. For the buildings to have a purpose people with money to spend have to live nearby. There are so many similar small towns throughout the Midwest which used to be supported by thriving local farmers. Without that support the local downtowns simply die. I was in Constantine last Summer though, and visited the local brewpub, Constantine Brewing. They had done an amazing job renovating the old building, and the beer and food was great. I thought the town looked in relatively good shape actually. Three Oaks MI would be an example of what it might take to thrive; an arts scene, and local breweries and restaurants.

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  9. Rust belt decay. It's almost a reverse of the Industrial Revolution, where people are moving away from many urban centers in the desperate search for living wage jobs. Without these jobs, a consumer supported economy fails. The result? The above.

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  10. Re summer workers in small towns: three years ago, we were vacationing in Door County. We had lunch at a pleasant restaurants in downtown Egg Harbor. Born a Golfer explains why our server was a hardworking young Russian.

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  11. There are a couple of amazing photos in this post, Neil. I LOVE the one with the white truck and especially the one with the white door. That white door photo has amazing texture represented in it.

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  12. I just read that Jerry Reinsdorf was just in Constantine yesterday, his mom was raised there. It's not a bad little town, it seems that the money is poured into the schools, which is nice. They also have a pretty decent marching band for their size.

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  13. This is where I called home for a majority of my life. It isn't that people aren't coming into town or that the bypass was put it. It was like this 10, hell even 20 years ago. When factories went under, meth labs moved in. When hometown spirit got lost to big city lights and "progress" the town went with it. It's sad to see that my little home town is soon to be just a blip in history. I'll always remember the great memories about it and try and stifle the bad future.

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  14. As a resident of this sleepy little town, I can tell you that it's not thriving or pretty (and yeah, there's meth here too), but there's still a great sense of community. We're seeing a return of community events where we catch up with old friends and watch the kids play. Come back for Harvest Fest or Christmas in the Park and you'll see that we're down but not out. Here's the list of summer events, but Christmas in the Park is my personal favorite http://bit.ly/2mGSrlL

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  15. Constantine is my hometown was raised here. This small town was once a thriving town it had 3 banks 2 groceries stores a town fryer which is still in business..4 gas stations, a floral shop the Harvey house meeks mill a jewelry store Ace hardware and I could go on..Yes they closing of the factories and the bypass killed this town..But go there every 4th of July harvest festival and Christmas you will catch up with old friends .My family still lives in the area..I love my hometown. Constantine is still a great little town....

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