Monday, May 6, 2013

You Can Never Go Home Again

That is the adage that you hear over and over, “you can never go home again”.  I never understood that cliché, even after I became older and left home.  Sure, home always changes, but so did I.  As I matured and my visits home became more sporadic, it seemed that the ability to go home again was one of the few certainties in life.  I changed a lot in my twenties, and my family underwent a major transformation, but I could always go home to Silex, Missouri and the community was blissfully unchanged.

The static nature of Silex was something I always took for granted.  My family history dates back to the founding of the town in the mid-1800’s.  Both sides of my family have been in the same rural area for over 150 years, and in that span of time little has changed.  The town has stagnated for the last half a century due to the constant threat of flooding from the nearby Cuivre River.  The ambitious plans for the town laid out by my great-great-grandfather were never realized due the unpredictable flow of this small tributary of the Mississippi.  Silex has remained roughly the same size for most of its history.  It once functioned as a regional hub and its main street was filled with diverse and vibrant businesses, but these family owned shops closed down one-by-one as locals traveled farther to larger stores in nearby towns.  Main streets across the country shared this slow death caused by Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The Silex of my childhood may not have been as vibrant as it was during my grandparents’ youth, but it was a fully functioning community.  The town boasted a general store, a gas station, funeral home, hardware store, automotive shop, independent bank, beauty salon, and most importantly, a school.   The old brick buildings on Main Street and  the lone flashing yellow light above the main intersection gave the town at least a hint of legitimacy, but only if you failed to notice the sign at the city limits that advertised the population of 206.

In recent years I relished my time at home.  Two years ago I managed to spend an entire summer living in town while staying with my Mom.  It was both frustrating and idyllic.  It was blissful to spend slow-paced evenings riding my bike around the quiet streets and walking to friends’ houses to drink a beer and shoot the breeze.  It was irritating to have to drive twenty minutes each way to buy groceries and to see nothing but conservative white people day in and day out.  Irritating, but enjoyable – that is how I’ve always felt about my hometown.

Everything changed two years ago.  The Cuivre River flooded again, perhaps the worst flood in the town’s history.  The people in town were caught off-guard and a majority of houses were flooded.  This has happened before, but this time the response would be very different.

As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government had made a decided turn away from relying on levees to protect populations from flooding.  Instead, they would rather pay to permanently relocate people out of flood zones.  The government was tired of paying disaster relief for people living in these flood prone areas, and Silex is undoubtedly a flood prone area.  There would be no more disaster relief and no levees would be built.  Instead, they would just move the town.

Yes, a town can be moved.  The process in Silex is being completed as I write.  The government buys everyone’s home, provides them with a small lot on a nearby hill, and helps them with relocation expenses.  There are too many complications and exceptions to discuss here, but that is the basic idea.  All of the existing homes in the previous town would be owned by the city and then demolished.  The town that has been home to my family for several generations would be leveled, and the people relocated to a subdivision build over an old pig lot perched on a nearby hill.

If I hadn’t been there for the process, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  I was present for the “lot lottery” during which the entire town gathered in a tent on the proposed new city and chose numbers out of a hat.  These numbers gave them the order that they could go to a huge printed map and choose their new lot.  It was like a surreal gameshow that I can imagine occurring in a strange dream, but not in reality.  People’s location in the old town was based on decades of individual decisions about who they would like to have for neighbors and what part of town was the best fit for their family, but in this lot lottery, it came down to sheer luck.

The new town is completed – a cheap subdivision a half a mile down the road.  I don’t want to be too negative because for many people the town relocation has been extremely helpful.  Giving people the opportunity to own a new home that is not in danger of flooding is certainly an improvement.  My resentment of the process is purely selfish - I want to be able to go home again.  The character of a 150 year old town was not taken into consideration when the relocation was planned.  If I had the opportunity to get a new home out of the floodplain, then I would likely feel differently about the process, but I want my son to be able to bike down the same streets that his great-great-great grandfather planned out.  I can get over not being able to go home again, but it is hard to accept that my son will never know my home.  I have memories, but I can’t give those to the next generation.

It is as if some cosmic power did everything imaginable to get me to understand the cliché to which I thought I was immune.  Ok, I get it, you really can never go home again.  

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