Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wellsville: Real Place Once

When I was a kid, Wellsville, my hometown, was still a Place. All traffic was funneled right down Main Street, then, so the town was bustling. Dad taught Boy Scouts in the basement of one of the many churches, and Mom shopped at Newberries and Rockwells. I spent hours, after school and during the summer prowling the stacks at the David A Howe Public Library, and my brother worked for a time in the cafeteria at Jones Memorial Hospital, where all of us were born.

The Place was full of memory and meaning for us. Dad first saw Mom and asked her out at the Texas Hot. Mom shopped for all our baby clothes at Davies. My brother cut his thumb off when he was four on the slide at Island Park. Dad entered the Innertube Regatta every summer on the Genesee River and all of us, my brother, my sister, and I, attended Wellsville High and remember Mr. Whitman and the year the pool was built and countless other details that make up our mental geography.

Even then, 35 years ago, the town was slowly sliding from its heydey as an Oil Boom Town, but it was still a Place. Then, shortly after I graduated from high school, it began to turn it into No-Place, like countless small towns across America. In an effort to speed traffic past town, the Bypass was put in and on its heels came K-Mart and Ames and McDonalds -- and Main Street became empty and shops began to close as people went to the chain stores on the outskirts or drove over to the new mall in Olean 30 miles away.

There are many other forces at work that have driven the vitality out of small towns across America. Small farming, for example, is no longer viable and America's young people have bigger dreams about what is possible (given what they see on TV and through their computers), and off they go to the cities and suburbs for good jobs, leaving these small towns empty of their best and brightest.

Perhaps these shifts are inevitable, but I can't help but feel that we're poorer for them. And I believe that those who come from Places with all the inherent glory of memory and connection, have the responsibility to create Place wherever they go. (Marilyn Finnemore)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of "Home" by Edgar Guest. "It takes a heap of livin in a house to make it home".
It is much the same with "community". When we are free to move easily, to follow jobs, school, opportunity; one of the things which suffer is sense of community (place). In a sense, then, the very fact we enjoy this freedom detracts from our sense of "place".
It doesn't matter whether our place is a rural setting or one of the old staid ethnic communities within a great city. Stability creates "place"; a strong family creates "place", and either may/will also restrict a certain level of personal freedom.
Old Ug

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately your right, i live in Wellsville and I am currently attending Welsville High, much of the town (especially main street) appears run down and unattended. Though some renovation has begun (a few Restaurants and stores finding their way into town,) it still seems as though students cannot wait to move on "leaving town and never comming back." I find it to disappointing that some of us can't be proud of where we come from; but i hope in time that Wellsvilles old status can be regained.

Marilyn Finnemore said...

Thank you for your comment. I really miss Wellsville when it was a real place, and for years after I left I felt deeply homesick. I think we all require a sense of rootedness to be happy in this world, yet people all across America are constantly on the move, either by necessity or because our culture encourages to "move on and move up." It's going to take a real focused effort and deep caring to build real places again.

Doug Sweet said...

I also am from Wellsville, graduating approx 12 years after you did Marilyn if I have calculated the years correctly (1985). I understand your comments about Place, and to an extent, I agree with them. However, I also feel that the definition of Place is not a static one, but that it changes for each person or community as time moves on.
For example, speaking to your point about the downtown bypass (the Arterial, as we called it in the 80's), my friends and I were all very pleased when it opened because it made Wellsville feel less like a small, disconnected town, and more like one of the larger cities we all wanted to move to. ( yes, I recognize the irony here that the structure that for me elevated my "Place" for you was destroying it).
Wellsville of the 70's and 80's for me was my Place. My place included Davies, and Rockwell's, and Hamilton Shoes, the David A Howe Library, Immaculate Conception School and Church, Cannon's Men's shop and The Texas Hot. But, my place also included K-Mart, Radio Shack ( bought my first computer there), Giant Food Mart and McDonalds. I spent time in all of these establishments with my friends and family, and when I reflect back, these are all important waypoints in my Place.
When I return home nowadays to visit, as I did in July, there is no denying that Wellsville, as a whole, is no longer my place. My family actually owned and operated Rockwell's for over 75 years, and the marble storefront on Main Street missing the giant black letters is like an open wound to me that will never heal. However, when I get together with my family, in some of the remaining places like The Texas Hot, or the Modern Diner, or even the library, it's easy to bring my mind back to my place and remember all the things that made it wonderful to grow up there.
Maybe I'm just overly optimistic, but I'd like to believe that even kids growing up in Wellsville today can find ways to make it their own place, a place to learn who you are before you go out to proclaim it to the rest of the world, and also a place where you can still go back and find a little piece of your childhood, for the price of a hot dog and fries (with gravy of course!)

Our Founders said...

Doug, Thank you sincerely for your thoughtful comment. Some great points here that help me think differently about Place. I actually graduated in 1979:-)