In praise of place: A small town isn’t a backwater, and Holland is a marvel

On the first day of classes I ask students where they are from. They usually answer eagerly, but there are two exceptions – students who come from small towns, and students who come from the Holland-Zeeland area. Their diffidence is unjustified.

In the former instance the student will comment they are either “from nowhere” or “just a small town.” I quickly point out there is no such place as nowhere, and that wherever they are from is a somewhere, a place where for generations people have worked, lived, loved and died. Likewise, I gently rebuke small-town students for implying that their places are somehow less valuable than large cities.

Students from the Holland-Zeeland area seem especially apologetic, indicating that attending Hope bespeaks a lack of either imagination or adventure on their part. It is, in their parlance, a bubble.

But every place is a bubble in its own way. Having lived 10 years in Washington D.C., I can assure you it is very much a bubble. A larger one than the Holland-Zeeland one, to be sure, but a bubble it is. There is no city whose bubble is more self-inflated than New York’s (as in Saul Steinberg’s classic map of how New Yorkers perceive America).

Nothing is gained by suggesting that some places are bubbles and others aren’t, or by believing that some bubbles are inherently better than others. A person ought to be proud of his or her place. While each town is different, they all speak to the universal human need for belonging, for finding meaningful work, for discerning right and wrong, and for creating sound social structures.

Conservatives celebrate variety. They are suspicious of attempts to make social life uniform. The great threats to the distinctiveness of place have been large-scale capitalist economies, political centralization, mass education and its bastard spawn of hypermobility, and progressive ideology. The powerful interweaving of these four social movements with each other has created an America increasingly devoid of distinctions.

These places are in their own ways organic wholes, not merely parts. To disintegrate one aspect of a place is to threaten its overall health. Of course, they are not static: like any organism they have cycles of growth and decay, with the determinant elements being largely human will and effort.

But they are not to be disparaged as cracker-laden flyover zones, or as benighted backwaters of lost opportunity that talented young persons would do well to leave. Indeed, they became places worthy of respect in the first place because of the commitment of ambitious, talented, and creative individuals.

Holland stands as a fine example of this, as demonstrated in Robert Swierenga’s breathtakingly comprehensive 3-volume history of the city. Swierenga presents with marvelous detail the history of the city by organizing along topical lines – business, industry, education, and so forth – then by particulars, and then chronologically within those particulars.

It is microhistory: there isn’t a grand narrative holding it all together, but from the particulars emerges a history whose central characteristics are risk-taking, hard work and creative intelligence.

Like many places in America, Holland was founded by people who were busy looking for someplace else. But once they settled, they were determined to make something of it. Holland’s “founder,” Albertus C. VanRaalte, in Swierenga’s account, combined visionary leadership with a keen appetite for land acquisition. He embodied, in many ways, the complexity of human beings, where religious devotion and economic acquisitiveness co-exist: not always comfortably, but often symbiotically.

In that sense, the city is much like its founder – deeply religious, and also economically successful. One telling chapter in Swierenga’s book tells the complicated story of the history of Donnelly Mirrors, a successful company run by people who genuinely cared for their workers. It’s an inspiring story of economic acuity and religious sensibility. It’s little wonder that when Hope College hired a new president it pegged a man who had authored the book “How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It).”

Throw a dart at a map of Michigan and you’ll find community after community that has its own story born of such commitments. It takes generations to build these places, but they can be destroyed in one, unless those that are raised there seek their preservation. Lord knows no one else will.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sun, 08/03/2014 - 7:07am
From the things I have heard most young people from small towns are not interested in how wonderful and visionary the founders were or the history of the place, they just find their day to day life boring and predictable and are looking for a new life elsewhere.
Sun, 08/03/2014 - 8:27am
It is true that young people are attracted to big cities because of all the activities available and the number of other young people. As they get older and raise families they start to see the values of small towns from a sense of community, safety, ease of transportation etc.
Sun, 08/03/2014 - 7:59am
Huh? "Conservatives celebrate variety. They are suspicious of attempts to make social life uniform. The great threats to the distinctiveness of place have been large-scale capitalist economies, political centralization, mass education and its bastard spawn of hypermobility, and progressive ideology. The powerful interweaving of these four social movements with each other has created an America increasingly devoid of distinctions." Interesting self-image. As someone who grew up in Holland I can say with some certainty, "Bull."
Rick Haglund
Sun, 08/03/2014 - 10:33am
I grew up in a small town and I'm glad I did. It helped shaped the person I am today, for better or worse. But I left for more opportunity. Plus it's hard being a journalist in a town where half the people are either friends of your family or your relatives, unless you enjoy making them angry. Polet is off the mark when he criticizes "mass education and its bastard spawn of hypermobility" as somehow being evil. Is he suggesting people should be uneducated so they won't leave their small-town "bubbles?" Education and mobility have been hallmarks of a vibrant U.S. economy for decades. The Great Recession destroyed much of the ability of Americans to move and pursue better opportunities for them and their families. We're still suffering from that today. He also suggests that small-town residents must stay there to keep them alive because "no one else will." But a small town that can't attract people who grew up somewhere else will slowly die.
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 2:09am
Mr. Haglund, All I have is this comment of yours for a reference, which is too little for an accurate assessment, but it does give the impression of a lack of thought in making the comments. I am not clear on how the recent recession reduced mobility, historically it seems looking for work increased mobility as people travel for jobs. As I recall some of the articles I have read lament how people have been leaving Michigan seeking employement suggesting that people are still mobile. I am not clear how resistance to a single educational approach is so off the mark. It seems since the increased effort to move away from local control of education the K-12 graduation rate has decline. If you go back a generation or so it seems we had a higher graduation rates when there was more local control. Are you suggesting that staying in a small town means a person is uneducated? For that is the sound of you logic. Your comments leave me with the impression that you write with more emotion than thought. I can understand how someone who was comfortable with an environment would like to continue that environment, I would not try to belittle their view of the community, small or big. In today's society it seems people have access to what is happening around the corner and around the world so I am not as convinced as you that staying in a small town means a person is under educated. I wonder who you think has a broader knowledge of lives in other towns, do you think the kids from Holland know more about Detroit or Grand Rapids or the kids from Detroit and Grand Rapids know about Holland? I lean to those in Holland knowing more about others. You may not like what the author wrote, but I am not so sure that simply not liking it is reason enough to be so sure it is wrong or there is some truth in what is being said. My experience it is that the mind stays small when it is unwilling to listen or simply doesn't know how to listen. I would like to ask Mr, Polet some questions to help me understand better, but by past experience that is not what Bridge writers respond to. I wonder if you are open to a few questions, why do you seem to presume that since you disagree with a comment you that it has such a dire undertome in its meaning? what criteria did you use when deciding that people's mobility has been restricted in recent years? what criteria do you use for 'better opportunities'? why/how do small towns prevent people and their families from have 'good opportunities'?
Mon, 08/04/2014 - 11:57am
Mr. Polet, I have a sense that you are looking at our communities through the 'lenses' of fond memories and hopes for the future. It isn't the size of the community that matters, it is individuals. The change in education is not due to the size of the community, it is the expectations of the educators and the families that have changed (more is expected of the system and less is expected of the student). Communities are changing not because of size but due to expectations, where the communities and neighborhoods were more reliant on those around who could and would help with needs, now we are more dependent on a system that is expected to fulfill the wants. Think of your youth, weren’t the kids expected to be responsible for their own activities, and today isn’t it more common for their activities to be organized and managed by adults. When was the last time you saw a ‘pickup’ baseball game? It isn’t that ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’ celebrate variety more it is about how they expect it will happen. Whether it is in small towns or big cities it is the people that will choose. Which is more important the means or the results. If it is about programs to provide a desired result then variety will be driven out, if it is about the individual’s right to choose and live with their choices then variety will expand. There are enclaves of diversity in the largest city and the smallest of towns, they are created by individuals not systems. You seem to be talking about people rather than big or small, involvement rather than detached system, about individual responsibilities rather than government efficiencies. In my town each year it seems the systems, city and not government organizations are eliminating the reliance on people who are willing to participate and they have moved to systems and paid professionals. In my community where we had panels and committees we now have only city staff and elected officials, the organizations that were built by volunteers are now distrustful of those volunteers and are less engaged in what volunteers can offer. Small towns or big cities are changing, it is people moving away from each other not from small to large they are moving apart. I am part of this evolution on one level and a resister on another level, but in either case where geography seemed to create the ‘bubbles’ of the past that has not existed for a long time and has no reason to be artificially established today. It seems we have to decide whether we want to be engaged or isolated. I can see how Bridge is choosing the more away from the individuals. Bridge posts articles which people and read and comment on, but those commenters never are engaged by the article writer. It is much how our governments work, they make pronouncement and avoid engaging the community, they respond to the loudest and never ask what other think. Bridge seems to want articles/pronouncements, but never asks for readers thoughts or engages in conversations. I seek variety by asking questions of those who offer their thoughts and I will engage in a conversation. I harken back to the time when neighbors came over and had conversations on the porch or around the kitchen table and listened to each other. When was the last time you had a conversation, when was the last time a writer on Bridge had a conversation with a reader? I know this is a long comment, but it is an attempt share thoughts that would develop in a coversation when there is no conversation. It is an attempt to be open when isolation is the model.