Saturday, October 5, 2013

Just a hometown girl, living in a lonely world

The problem with going back to my hometown is that it's not my hometown anymore. Oh, sure, my parents still live there, and it still has my favourite library and a couple stores that I like to browse. But the things, events, people and places that I considered my homebase growing up have mostly faded away.

Take, for example, Menrui. This was an Asian-fusion restaurant run by white owners, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. In reality, the cooks were chef's school graduates, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant was always busy with locals, and I worked there twice, under two different owners. Both times, it felt like a funky, smelly, tight-knit group where the focus was a tiny, hip room, and really tasty food. But Menrui is gone: the original owner taken down by the riptide of drug addiction, the second owner bamboozled by the challenges of small business management, and so poof—disappeared. When I walk by its old address, I get a pang of nostalgia. I'll never be able to stop in for a bowl of udon noodles with spicy peanut sauce, or an orange-date-banana smoothie.

This isn't unique to small towns—it's virtually impossible to walk down any street and return to the same one five years later. But the change is felt more greatly in small towns. The main street really is just that, and instead of a big city's hopscotch board of neighbourhoods, there's usually a single downtown core. Which businesses thrive, and which fail, can say a lot about a town.

For example, Stratford is a nice little town of about 30,000 people. It has two engines driving it: the factories, which ring the community like a necklace, and the Stratford Festival. The Festival, as it's always called, caters to tourists who come in for a day or a weekend, take in some theatre, eat at some restaurants, and then leave. These people come from Toronto and Buffalo, from Montreal and from Chicago, from Waterloo and from Nashville. At least, they did: because of the recession, the Festival is losing money. It seems that, in a time when food bank usage is up and mortgage defaults are an American rite of passage, people just don't want to pay fifteen dollars for a plate of tortellini before their $75-per-ticket performance of Tommy.

So there are two kinds of people in Stratford: those who cater to the tourists, who find themselves increasingly nervous as sales drop, and the blue-collar factory workers. My sister described them as "rednecks," and while she's being classist, Stratford is home to a high number of people with neck tattoos.

If you wandered into downtown Stratford, you would see plenty of little boutiques (although fewer now than in years past), plenty of empty storefronts, and a curious mix of well-dressed older couples, and teenagers sullenly pushing baby strollers while wearing unflattering pants and smoking. The two groups eye each other warily. The tourists are transient, coming for only a few months each year, but the town's unwavering devotion to their imagined needs and wants has coloured the whole town. There was a bitter and years-long fight to keep Wal-Mart out of Stratford because of the perceived threat to the tourist-centric downtown businesses, most of wouldn't dream of carrying anything in Wal-Mart's inventory in the first place. Meanwhile, for the people who actually live here, there remain very few place to buy things like baby bottles, or shirts costing less than thirty dollars, or school supplies.

Downtown, things aren't much better. There are lots of empty storefronts. And it's not just a storefront problem: there are a lot of amenities this town might actually benefit from that are downplayed or shoved aside in order to appease those transient tourists. There's a dearth of things like wilderness space, or youth-focused recreation (unless you count the head shop, which, like, I guess...?), non-stage-related adult recreation (unless you count the myriad bars, which, like, I guesss...?). The local movie theatre sucks. There are no live music venues. No wonder the teens in Stratford wear such heavy eye makeup; the local Shopper's Drug Mart is the only place they can go that's open until midnight.

This may explain why so many of my high school friends have left. The job market is poor, and the jobs that do tend to come available are in tourism or in factories. But more than that, there doesn't seem to be much to do. Unlike in many corporate arts towns, there's no thriving underground arts scene. The Festival is oppressive and everywhere, colouring even the most basic initiatives. (A Farmer's Market? Sure! That will drive tourism!) Stratford would benefit from a slight perspective shift: instead of desperately looking outward to retain its identity—Festival! Gardens! Dinner! Maniacal laughter!—looking inward at what the town truly needs. Why do so many people leave? What might make them stay?

When I come home, I don't see my future. Aside from visiting my family, there's nothing there for me. The town's insular worldview and drug problem make it unappealing to raise a family, and its lackluster job market and lack of stuff to do makes it unappealing as an adult.

No place is perfect, but my hometown needs to figure out ways to grow as we have grown. As it stands now, it's a parlour trick, a one-act play, a designated hitter: good at one thing, all the rest be damned.