. . . And where the heart is, but not the jobs

William Neikirk

December 27, 1991|By William Neikirk

Carlisle, Ky. -- DRIVING into this little town at dawn on a December morning, you see the traffic mainly coming at you. They're headed off to work somewhere else, most probably some 35 miles through horse-farm country to Lexington.

Small towns like this have a hard time making it anymore. Their reason for existence has long since disappeared because of shifts in the economy, and so they linger as bedroom communities for the businesses of the region.

Old-timers still recall the good old days when wagons brimming over with tobacco lined up all the way through town, waiting to be unloaded at the warehouses. Its punWilliamNeikirkgent aroma filled the air and gave the people a sense of economic well-being.

They know down deep there's little hope to bring this day back, or to attract much new industry to a place whose only assets are its gently rolling bluegrass countryside and a generally friendly, small-town atmosphere.

So what keeps them here? Why not just pick up roots and -- off to a suburb of the city, and avoid the wear and tear on the car and on one's body caused by the daily commute?

Small-town people definitely identify with place, but they also relate to a past that one does not see or feel in the city. One finds hints of an America that existed 100 years ago, with all its old-fashioned values.

Harvey, for example, is pushing 90 and he still raises his own chickens. Though he isn't as spry as he was in his younger days, he can still make a beautiful piece of furniture with his ancient tools. Until his wife died recently, she cooked everything from scratch, including her patented angel-food cake. A microwave to her would have been an abomination.

Here you might get into a debate about the proper way to cure a country ham, and how the outside world is turning for the worse.

Go into a downtown diner, and you will hear talk that you won't hear in Chicago, New York or Baltimore. They won't be discussing William Kennedy Smith or the latest outrage involving Madonna or Michael Jackson. They're more apt to be talking about religion, and often not so kindly.

"Those people down at that church just gossip all the time, that's all they can do," said one woman at a table as she took another sip of her coffee. "They once had a minister down there who could fire them up, but they went and got rid of him. He was stirrin' things up too much, I suppose, and makin' 'em feel guilty about gossiping."

Religion is serious business here, and so is patriotism. Elaborate Christmas decorations compete with flags for the most attention as front-yard displays. The television satellite dish lights up as a star edges out the flashing American flag atop the courthouse.

Downtown, quaint old Carlisle advertises itself as a museum. It features a courthouse square with an "intact 19th-century commercial district." The jail's old dungeon, which housed prisoners in the 1850s, is on the local tour. The town boasts one of the state's 50 remaining railroad passenger depots, built in 1910. And up the road a piece, there's Daniel Boone's last Kentucky home, a cabin built in 1795.

Nostalgia keeps places like this alive. If it weren't for the cheap gasoline prices that America still enjoys compared with the rest of the world, many small towns like it throughout the country would have to fold up tent. The jobs, largely, are elsewhere. The money, largely, is elsewhere. But home, overwhelmingly, is here.

In a small place like this, there are many parallels with the U.S. economy. The nation has seen millions of jobs disappear because of a lack of competitiveness and its own economic folly. As some of the nation's real underpinning for economic growth departs, there is a longing for the old days of glory. But the local jobs are built around a boutique kind of economy that services rather than manufactures.

The presidential campaign is shaping up as a debate about this economic nostalgia. Just how does a nation living off its wealth and reputation regain its old economic power? A middle-class tax cut? Policies that put pressure on Japan and Europe to open up their markets? A cut in the capital gains tax?

Looking at this region, they all look inadequate as tools of revival. They lack the comprehensiveness and the longer look required to deal with the problem. A few hundred dollars extra in someone's pocket as a tax cut would increase spending overall and help defray commuting costs, but would not cut to the core of the economy's problems.

Economies, even small ones like Carlisle's, lose their vitality because people lose their faith in them and do not invest in them. The U.S. economy is being suffocated by a lack of investment caused by a broken-down banking system, bad tax policies and a failure to address new budget priorities in a post-Cold War age.

All these current policies are harming the potential rejuvenation of industry in the small and big towns of America. Yet in an era of economic pessimism, you can hear the still, small voices of hope in places like Carlisle, voices that say we can compete.

People who have stayed here and kept in touch with a bygone era remember how hard work, money and brains built a great country. That memory is important. It says that we can do it again, if we only go back and get in touch with a long-forgotten past.

William R. Neikirk is a senior writer for the Chicago Tribune, based in Washington.

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