catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 18 :: 2004.11.05 — 2004.11.18


Having a ball in my hometown

A couple of weeks ago, Rob and I attended the Carnegie Centennial
Ball in Three Rivers, Michigan, an event hosted by the art gallery
located in one of the original Andrew Carnegie libraries. In the
basement of the beautiful historic building, one of the workers had
written a date—October 21, 1904—and the ball was to celebrate the
milestone of one hundred years of artistic appreciation on that very
spot. Attendees were invited to enjoy the current retrospective
exhibit, make bids in the art auction, dance to live jazz and pop
"oldies," and dress in any style from the last hundred years. With one
suit that happened to be a 30s-style pinstripe, Rob had an easy choice.
And after some borrowing, a little buying and a lot of research, I was
ready to go as his glamorous gangster girlfriend—quite a dramatic
change from the quiet, four-eyed writer.

"I can't imagine doing something like this in northwest Indiana," I
said to Rob, as we parked the car half a block down from the art
gallery. Catching our reflection in a store window, I supposed that a
seventy-year-old photo could have captured the scene exactly—an
antique streetlamp, Victorian era storefronts, and a local couple ready
for the dance. It was a very different picture from the suburban strip
mall buzz we used to live among.

In contrast to small-town Three Rivers, northwest Indiana and the
south suburbs of Chicago are a hornet's nest of traffic-filled highways
and stoplight-studded shopping districts. Geography generally fails to
unify communities as mere zip codes cannot distinguish the non-stop
civilization that lines up along the bustling byways of a busy, busy
population. As those who can afford to continue moving south
precipitate Chicago's never-ending expansion, they leave behind older
communities with clearly defined character, centers and neighborhoods.

Fortunately, a remnant remains that feels some sense of pride at
being able to say, "I'm a lifelong resident of the town of Highland"
or, "I live in the village of South Holland." A few people remember
that history and community cannot be bought or manufactured. They love
and own their towns, in spite of their flaws. Unfortunately, this sense
of place was too buried for us to find and hold onto before we became
charmed by its obvious presence in Three Rivers. And so it was that we
found ourselves, nearly two years after moving here, at the centennial
ball, spending the evening with many new friends who feel much more
like old kindred spirits.

Though the event was a masquerade to some degree, I was amazed at
how real and alive it made me feel. Becoming a different person for a
little while allowed me to view the community from the outside and the
inside simultaneously, especially as I overlooked the dance floor from
the balcony above. Boundaries of age, income, and politics seemed
irrelevant as we gathered in enthusiastic support of good art, dancing
as we were able and smiling as though we couldn't turn off the joy.

Though we live in one of Michigan's poorest counties, though the art
gallery sits on the edge of a struggling downtown, though the city is
still largely segregated by race and income, a sliver of genuine beauty
and hope shone through the evening of the centennial ball. And as I
enumerated the merits of Three Rivers to a non-local couple
inexplicably dressed in Elizabethan garb, I was fully convinced that
the things that keep me here validate all of the work there remains to
be done.

In a culture that rarely puts down deep, strong roots anywhere, I'll
continue to work at loving this place enough to make it better. I
imagine the itch to flee to some imagined utopia will never disappear
entirely, but I receive with gratitude a community of people who are
willing to scratch the ones I just can't (or don't want to) reach. God
is here and the Spirit hovers over the waters of our delightful lakes
and the rivers; I glimpse their presence in the love of beauty, the
abundance of friendship, the faithful stewardship of creation and the
reverence for story and I long to invite them further up and further

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