Bil Browning

Living In a World Made of Paper-mache

Filed By Bil Browning | July 12, 2005 12:00 AM | comments

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Turns out Dionne Warwick CAN predict the future! Remember that cute little '70s song that complained "We're living in a world made of paper-mache"? Damned if she didn't foresee something called "new urbanism." Read all about it here.

Here's the deal: We can create Mayberry out of a cornfield, complete with all the charms of our old hometown, but without all those...well....working class people with aluminum siding and plastic lawn ornaments. Not that there's anything wrong with that.....

It's perfect living in a box...just add money, LOTS OF IT, and watch Ward and June, Wally and the Beave appear right before your eyes. And, IF George and Louise Jefferson have enough money and refined enough taste not to act like...well...I really don't have to say it, do I?...then they can move on up to Pleasantville, too.

Have you figured out that this whole concept pisses me off??!!

Listen up! I was born and bred in Mayberry (Bremen, Indiana). Bremen has its share of faults and imperfections, but it is, at least, REAL. It grew organically. Little or nothing was "planned" -- not at least until "urban planning" became a certified academic and professional pursuit. As soon as that happened, the streets stopped being organized on a logical grid, and the cul de sac arrived and curved streets that lead to nowhere and ticky tacky houses and stupid newfangled ideas about planning that make our German town-founders spin in their perfectly aligned graves in the Bremen Cemetery.

But I digress. The point is that my neighborhood in a REAL small town worthy of nostalgia was populated by factory workers (my Grandpa), filling-station owners, retail salesmen (my Dad), furriers (Neil Cripe), teachers (Mr. Nierste), alcoholic truck stop cooks (a wonderful woman long-deceased who I still miss), little old ladies who had lived in their houses when the land was farmland, there were three churches within three blocks, two over 100 years old, there were very poor people whose houses were in bad shape, houses built in every decade of the century, there were houses of brick, wood, aluminum siding, fake brick-looking asphalt shingles (bet some of you have never seen those), houses with one bedroom, houses with five bedrooms, lawns that were perfect, lawns that were a mess, people who were happy, people who were miserable, racists and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, Lutherans, Catholics, Brethren, Methodists, more Methodists, and some people who didn't go to church (but whose souls were prayed for regularly).

OK, I admit: There were no African-Americans (actually the 1970 census says there was one, but damned if I ever saw him). There was one family of admitted Jews. There were a few Hispanics (but.....soon there would be many, many more!!!). Was it perfect? Did one learn all the lessons of life one should learn? Of course not.

But....BUT!!!!! One did learn that some people have lots of money, and some have very little and it didn't matter very much. Some people live in ugly, broken-down houses, but they were good people who would share what they did have if you needed it. Mrs. Reaker, deep into her dotage, would sometimes roam the streets at night and call out for her long-deceased daughter, but instead of calling the neighborhood association Nazis and complaining, you would simply go out and lead her back to her home and make sure she got to bed OK and check on her the next morning.

No one tried to manufacture happiness, so to the extent it existed, it wasn't an illusion. One's importance wasn't measured by the square footage, or the exterior surface material, of one's house. You might laugh at Mrs. Whitsell's garish lawn ornament displays (especially the Christmas phantasmagoria wherein Santa is part of the manger scene [and why shouldn't he be??] and Frosty is close enough to appear transfixed at the miracle of the plastic glowing baby Jesus [or is he worried about the heat from the lightbulb?]), but they don't hurt anything or anyone and somehow the town wouldn't be the same without them. Best of all, no fascist neighborhood association can say a damned thing about them! After all, freedom includes the freedom to be tacky!

And, while I'm ranting...THE worst thing EVER to happen to Bremen was the coming of McDonald's. For the record, I am in the minority with that opinion. I flatly REFUSED to patronize it for the first several weeks.

These manufactured fairy tale mirages like West Clay Village (it is NOT a village, dammit!!) and Duke's Anson and Republic's Saxony are quite simply the antithesis of real communities. When I was a kid in Bremen, there were people who still remembered when the streets were gravel, and the phone company was owned by Ruth Koontz, and Hooples (the oldest family-owned tavern in Indiana) didn't allow women at the bar, and who died in WWI and WWII, and when Bremen was the Mint Capital of the World (80% of the world's peppermint oil was distilled there). There were a century of basketball victories to celebrate and never forget and too many horrible tragedies to remind us of the emphemeral nature of life.

What are the old-timers going to remember about West Clay Village???? When the Gap had its grand opening? Those bad-old-days before TGI Fridays offered call-ahead seating????? That dreadful incident when someone ordered furniture from Value City (VALUE CITY!! The horror!!) and the delivery truck was pelted with bottles of Grande Marnier???????

"Duke Realty and Republic Development are betting $1.2 billion between them that Midwest home buyers are ready to dig deeper for small-town nostalgia." The Star

Is it unneighborly to hope they lose their shirts?


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AUTHOR: Marla R. Stevens

DATE: 7/12/2005 08:32:33 AM

What a delightful, evocative piece, Tracy! Your experience is the antithesis of the nightmare world of the cautionary tale based on the understandable-in-perilous-times desire to control one's home's milieu film starring one of the Bridges brothers as the hero-architect versus his social engineering boss with murdering security chief I saw aired recently on the Women-In-Peril-Movie-Channel (aka Lifetime Movie Network). (Talk about neighborhood association nazis!)But despair not. Because there are human beings involved, it will evolve to the organic even if it began as the steadfast avoidance of it. It won't be able to help itself.


AUTHOR: Tracy Elliott

DATE: 7/12/2005 08:45:50 PM

Thanks, Marla. It will, as you say, evolve no doubt. But it will probably end up looking like a platypus. I mean, a Big Mac will just never become a New York strip. Nevertheless, optimism is a good thing.


AUTHOR: Anonymous

DATE: 10/21/2005 10:48:21 AM

I bartend at hooples (a woman) and from the stories i hear from all the town elders i see that this is the story of bremen,a small town that wants to grow to a city but still will have the same small town people.