Clawing Against the Abyss: Life in the American NetherworldPosted: December 28, 2012
When I started this project, it was with the idea that I wanted to tell the story of one of those American towns that had its brief flourish and then went on a steady decline. West Terre Haute was one of those towns, my hometown. When you are young you have a limited idea of your surroundings. It is just where you live. It was comfort. It was where your family was. As you grow older, of course, you become more aware. Eventually you recognize that you have, or at least should have some clue, of a personal weltanschauung. Then you look outward and then backward to find a sense of your place, and how that place is seen
I first began to perceive that West Terre Haute was not a garden spot when in my early teens. It began on a personal level. I compared it to another town I knew, Marshall, Illinois. We moved to the rural areas around Marshall the summer before I started the fifth grade. Marshall was my stepfather’s hometown. I hated it. I was being ripped away, or so I thought, from my place and family, even though it and they were just 16 miles away. But to a kid, 16 miles is beyond biking or walking range and I felt myself sent to the gulag.
Of course it was not a banishment of Siberian proportions. Marshall then (not so much now as loss of industry and economic malaise has weakened it also) was an almost quintessential lovely small town. I vaguely remember the Chicago Tribune naming it one of the most beautiful towns in Illinois. I fought my time in Marshall, never allowed myself to reconcile it (after all, I belive I was born with a very strong curmudgeon gene, as many of my friends will attest). What it did do for me was allow me to be educated in a first class school system, likely much better than one in West Terre Haute.
But enough digression. After my personal observations, after I entered the workplace and college, I began to note the slight hesitation or shift in glance that arose when I mentioned I was from West Terre Haute. I began to hear terms like “river rats” and “White trash.” In my mind I formed the callous opinion that West Terre Haute’s main purpose was to give the people of Terre Haute someone to look down upon (no mean feat considering Terre Haute’s lowly place in the universe). Finally, a few months ago I saw a Facebook post from what I imagined to be a do-rag-wearing, tattooed yahoo who wrote that West Terre Haute was “Terre Haute’s retarded little brother.”
Sparked by that I went in search of some demographic date about West T.. Had it really fallen so deep into the abyss of the American netherland of seeming hopelessness? I found only the disheartening. According to 2009 statistics West Terre Haute’s population had dropped to 2,200. The median family was $34,000, 30% less than Indiana’s own sagging income standards. Average home value was $55.000, nearly 2/3 of the state as a whole. On average, West Terre Haute citizens only have 14 teeth. I don’t know how that statistic was determined, but it screams out. It means that the people there have poor diets and can’t afford for them or their children to seek expensive dental care. And they live in shambling, crumbling homes for the most part.
Finally, in October an article appeared in the Terre Haute paper about the struggles of the WTH elementary school to lift their students up. After making progress a year earlier, the school had been given an “F” rating by the state education authorities. The hard-working and dedicated staff was crestfallen. But here are some of the factors they have to deal with. Over 80% of the children are below poverty level and receive free school lunches. Over 31%, yes, 31%, are special needs. That is more than twice the state average. This is the netherland these children inhabit.
It is our fault, not theirs or their parents. I come from the working poor (maybe to be charitable, the lower middle class). I knew what it was like to see parents struggle, to have utilities turned off, to never know if the car that would carry uou to work would start on a frigid morning.
Yes, I know America CAN BE the places of dreams. No matter how humble your beginnings, etc. etc. etc. I and my siblings are examples of that. All with advanced degrees and good lives. But, I think it was easier to attain that during my time.
But those statistics do not form the whole sum of those living in West Terre Haute now, or those I will write about from the past. There is more, so much more. It is my task to tell their stories, possibly to offer opinions on the fall of a town with some promise. In a future blog I will look at West Terre Haute in 1906, when hopes ran high and promise seemed about to be fulfilled.