“Main street isn’t main street anymore. No one seems to need us like they did before.”
Americans continue to face the violent winds of economic change, whether stemming from technology, trade, or globalization. Those pains have been particularly pronounced in rural areas, which the Wall Street Journal recently proclaimed as being the “new inner city” due to accelerating declines in key measures of “socioeconomic well-being.”
In response to these trends, progressives and populists have been quick to turn to a menu of government pseudo-solutions, from trade barriers to subsidized jobs or industries to wage minimums or salary caps. For libertarians and conservatives, on the other hand, we’ve seen prods for more geographic migration and mobility — otherwise known as the “U-Haul Solution.”
“If the work is not coming to the people, then the people have to come to the work,” Kevin Williamson recently wrote. “There is not a plausible third option.”
I have little doubt that this is true, and yet I continue to stroke my chin at the enduring pessimism about Option #1? Why shouldn’t or couldn’t the work “come to the people,” particularly in those cases where there’s plenty of human and physical capital ready for investment or re-investment?
Indeed, this appears to be happening already, whether we look to folks like author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, who recently decided to move from Silicon Valley to the Rust Belt, or pastor Travis Lowe, who says he’s witnessing a renewal of entrepreneurship across Appalachia.
Those are real case studies from real people, but having recently re-watched Disney/Pixar’s infamous animated auto flick, Cars, I was reminded of yet another.
The film’s talking-car protagonist, Lightning McQueen, is a famous racer, who, while on his way to a big championship race, gets sidetracked and stranded in a small-town called Radiator Springs.
Radiator Springs is a stereotypical long-lost town, once a tourist hot-spot on the bustling Interstate 40, with all the quaint community features you’d expect. Following the true story of the once-popular Route 66, Radiator Springs was eventually bypassed by a new and impressive highway, cast aside by America’s narrow quest for convenience and efficiency.
“Back then, cars came across the country a whole different way,” explains Sally, a blue Porsche who owns the local motel. “Cars didn’t drive on [the highway] to make great time; they drove on it to have a great time…The town got bypassed just to save 10 minutes of driving,”
By the time McQueen enters the scene, the cars of Radiator Springs can barely keep their businesses afloat, with the last remaining citizens eager to bombard new visitors with desperate pitches to visit their shops and buy their wares. Like most visitors, McQueen is both bored and annoyed by their provincialism: the way they care about their streets, the way they care about their businesses, the way they don’t care about hot-shot celebrities such as himself.
Soon enough, however, he begins to see the enduring charm and value of the community, not to mention the untapped gifts of its residents. Paired by a stirring song written by Randy Newman and performed by James Taylor, McQueen is told about the community that once was, one that was bound by thriving businesses and neighborly relationships.
It’s a well-crafted ode to the same American nostalgia that feeds our politics today:
Long ago, but not so very long ago,
The world was different, oh yes, it was.
You settled down and you built a town and made it live…
Sun comes up each morning, just like it’s always done.
Get up, go to work, and start a new day.
You open up for business that’s never gonna come,
As the world rolls by a million miles away.
Main street isn’t main street anymore.
No one seems to need us like they did before.
It’s hard to find a reason left to stay.
But it’s our town; love it anyway.
Come what may, it’s our town.
It’s easy to care for these characters, to see their gifts and the value and history of their community. Yet each time I watch it with my young children, I won’t deny that Williamson’s snarky refrain continues to come to mind: “If the work isn’t coming to Radiator Springs, then Radiator Springs has to come to the work.”
Even so, in Radiator Springs, we see no desire to move and to find a new home. Nor do we see efforts to lobby the government to subsidize shops in order to artificially “preserve” the town’s history or character. Mayor Doc Hudson does not seek state or federal funds for grand development projects, designed to subvert basic convenience and supposedly “bring back jobs.” There are no attempts to manipulate global trade policy or hijack the country’s beloved new highway system for their own narrow benefit.
That’s mostly because the plot kicks in and McQueen is quickly shuffled off to his big race in California. But what happens next offers a refreshing challenge to the conventional wisdom on how to revive rural America.
Following the film’s climax, McQueen decides to move the base of his racing franchise to Radiator Springs, bringing life and investment back to its streets and business community. By the time we enter the sequel, Cars 2, we find a city refreshed by good, bottom-up economic demand.
Luigi’s once-vacant tire shop is now frequented by Ferraris. The abandoned “Wagon Wheel” plaza is transformed into a hip oil bar and restaurant, crammed by tourists of McQueen’s racing empire. The annual Radiator Springs Grand Prix is now attracting international race cars from around the world. (Cars 3 hits theaters this weekend, so we’ll see if any of that changes.)
Yes, it’s a cartoon. Yes, it’s fiction. Indeed, it sets forth an ideal of community revival that is harder and messier to pull off than many of the alternatives. It’s an approach that, in real life, requires intentional and persistent investment, both of heart and spirit and capital.
If McQueen ran off to the federal government and saved the town with federal grants, it wouldn’t make for a very good story. But that’s sort of the point. Organic, community-based growth is the ideal for a reason, and that basic notion ought to frame the ways we think about practical economic policy and, more importantly, practical economic action.
Williamson is right that some cities and communities are probably destined to fail, and their time is probably up. But there are plenty of other rural communities that are more than capable of a turnaround, filled with social, economic, and community institutions that may be left idle at the moment, but are eager for re-habitation and rehabilitation.
Like Lightning McQueen, we need to adjust our perspective and recognize the human and community capital that exists across America. Once we see it, we can promote and invest and encourage it in turn, spurring value creation from the bottom up and cultivating communities that grow and sustain and flourish once again.
Image: Wikipedia / Fair Use