Rain slaps against my face, and I claw at the hood of my jacket, struggling to pull it lower over my exposed forehead. The pothole-ridden sidewalk is filled with pools of water, and I leap from ridge to ridge in an attempt to avoid completely drenching my already-wet sneakers. There’s no one else walking these streets, and those in the cars that speed by are probably too empathetic to laugh at my dance-like movements. December has arrived, and with it, the Midwest has turned a dreary grey.
As I move further from campus, the collection of fast-food joints and big box stores gives way to the remnants of a once-vibrant city center. Large homes line the street, but their exteriors are dilapidated and their lawns are unkempt, suggesting that much has changed since their construction. Long blades of grass are fighting their way through cracks in several of the driveways. It’s been years since families called these buildings home.
I crest a small hill and dart across the road onto Main Street. Multi-story buildings line each side of the street. Squint hard enough, and I can imagine a bustling downtown complete with movie theatres, department stores, and happening bars. But that was years ago. Now the dark buildings seem to blend into the grey sky around them. I slow to a walk as I head up the street.
A few restaurants and a delightful-looking cheesecake shop stand in contrast to the decay around me. Most of the buildings are at least partially vacant. The painted store-signs tell visitors more about what used to be there than any current enterprises. It must have been at least two decades since “SEARS” actually occupied the place that still bears the company’s name. The majority of the stores are antique shops, selling tangible reminders of the city’s once-prosperous past. To the north, I can see the outline of industrial buildings – a mill or factory maybe. Places that at one time employed thousands. On an overpass at the far end of the street, near the point where the road dead ends into a railroad station that transported hundreds of soldiers a day during the World War II years, a banner of Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington proclaims: “I have a dream.” Life here may have changed when the last mill left town, but it did not stop.