Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Sedate Heartland’s Disquiet: Half Full or Half Empty?

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Last of four articles

With seven photos, of Jesus Grillo delivering newspapers (NNS21), empty Michigan Avenue (NNS22), Bill Shrubb, Parri Norman and friends in doughnut shop (NNS23), Mark Behnke, wife Geri and daughter Alexis outside their historic home (NNS24), Optimists Ralph Calladine, Al Abels and the Rev. Glenn Huisinga (NNS25), Tom Smith with deed signed by President Van Buren (NNS26) and the Hyslop sisters (Cathy Cook, Sue Fentress, Julie Lantz and Becki Monroe) with Battle Creek Sanitarium in background (NNS27); and with biobox, logo, map and two graphics showing departure from and influx to Heartland of the college-educated and percent of U.S. population born in state of residence«MDNM»


c.2004 Newhouse News Service

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. _ The Heartland, concentrated in the Midwest, New England and parts of the South, is an older, less diverse America, the America most deeply rooted in the past and least disturbed by newcomers from the rest of the country or abroad. It is home and hearth. But because it is outside the main currents of change and growth, and too often finds itself bidding goodbye to its own best and brightest, it is also an America uncertain where it stands, teetering between contentment and malaise.


The Battle Creek Optimist Club, a small group of mostly older white men, concludes its weekly meeting at Shrank’s Cafeteria by reciting the Optimist Creed _ “to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.”

Optimism helps in this city, which in lots of ways seems about half full. In 2000, there were 53,364 people rattling around Battle Creek’s 44 square miles _ an area twice the size of Manhattan.

Between 1980 and 2000, the population of the Melting Pot swelled by a third and of the New Sun Belt by 43 percent. But the Heartland grew barely 10 percent. This was an America struggling to hold its own, losing many of its most talented and ambitious sons and daughters to the other Americas. Immigrants helped fill the void, but fewer of them moved to the Heartland than to the other Americas, and altogether, more people died or left Battle Creek in the 1980s and ’90s than were born or moved here.

Shrank’s (a family name, not a commentary) is located downtown, right on Michigan Avenue, the main drag. Like the rest of Battle Creek, it’s got character, a well-settled sense of place. Maybe too settled. But they’re working on it. They just sent a team to Cleveland to get ideas on livening things up.

Of course, there are those who look at their hometown and think, half empty.

At a darker hour than the Optimist meeting, Bill Shrubb, 23, holds forth at his usual table at Sweetwater’s 24-hour doughnut shop, expounding his Black Hole Theory of Battle Creek, as in, “Nobody comes here of their own free will.” The first in his family with a college degree, Shrubb has told his parents, “I don’t want to end up like you guys.”

“My set destination in life,” he declares, “is North Carolina.”

And there _ between Shrank’s and Sweetwater’s, between noon and midnight, between half full and half empty _ resides the two-fifths of America that demographer William Frey calls the Heartland.

The irony of the Heartland is that this is the America of continuity and connection, of small-town values and smell-the-roses pace, the very qualities people crisscrossing the rest of the country say they are seeking in a home.

“They are looking for a new Mayberry, but this is the old Mayberry,” says Frey, of the University of Michigan and Brookings Institution.

It is Our Town and Lake Wobegon. It is Appalachia, the Berkshires and the Great Plains. It is the Old South of kudzu and the Ten Commandments, not the New South of airport hubs and New Urbanism subdivisions with sculpted shrubs.

It’s older and whiter, at 81 percent, than America on the whole was in 1980. It is this America that people in the other two have left behind, that they tell their new acquaintances they are “from,” and to which they go home for the holidays.

For the second decade in a row, a lot more people left for the rest of America than the Heartland received in return, though what was a hemorrhage in the 1980s became a slow bleed in the ’90s.

The losses were staunched by a two-thirds increase in immigration, though the rate remained far below the other Americas’. Part of the draw for immigrants is jobs, often at the bottom of the economy _ doing, as it is said, “jobs that Americans won’t do.”

(Even so, Battle Creek Vice Mayor Tony Walker, who is black, has been stunned to see county road crews go from white to brown without, he says, ever providing opportunity to blacks, who make up 18 percent of the city’s population and 11 percent of Calhoun County’s, outnumbering Hispanics by more than 3-to-1.)

But all those folks leaving the Heartland with their college degrees are also creating openings at the top of the economy, jobs Americans will do but would rather do somewhere else; jobs being filled especially by better-educated immigrants from Asia and Europe.

And it is apparent that many immigrants see, in Heartland communities like Battle Creek, the America they have been looking for.

“It’s a small town, a safe town, where you can raise your family,” says Jesus Grillo, a native of Colombia who, with his wife, Lucinda Mosquera, started Battle Creek’s first Spanish-language newspaper and who, when they differed with their partner on the paper’s direction, also started the second. The couple figured if they were going to the United States to raise a family, why settle in some Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Los Angeles or New York? Why not move all the way to America, to Battle Creek?

Hidebound? At times. Boring? So stipulated. Homey? Without a doubt.

“I still feel Battle Creek is Battle Creek,” says Mark Behnke, a former mayor who runs his family’s trucking business and was just re-elected to the city council. “It hasn’t changed that much.”

Not the most startling claim. But how many people who grew up in Southern California or within even the most distant commute of Atlanta can say the same?

Sixty percent of Americans live in the same state where they were born, but the percentage is a lot higher in the Heartland: 75 percent in Michigan, 78 percent in Pennsylvania and 79 percent in Louisiana.

That’s very different from Melting Pot places like Queens, N.Y., and Los Angeles, or New Sun Belt locales like North Carolina’s Wake and Mecklenburg counties, where less than half the residents were born in-state. Only one in three people living in Colorado and Arizona were born there. In Nevada, it’s one in five.

Roots run deep in Battle Creek. Show up at a Historical Society event and there is Edwyn Jae Jenkins I, whose forefathers arrived from Hanover, N.Y., in 1833 when there was nothing here but two log cabins and seven people. On special occasions, Jenkins dresses up as his great-great-great grandfather, Elijah Pendill, Battle Creek’s first mayor.

Becky Squires just completed two years as vice mayor. Her grandmother arrived in a covered wagon.

“I live two miles from where I grew up,” says Squires, who manages the AAA office in Battle Creek. “My 16-year-old says, `We can’t take you anywhere without stopping and talking to 25 people.”’ She remembers saying the same thing to her father.

“In Battle Creek you have to recognize that the person you are dealing with, you are going to be dealing with for years to come and it’s not in either party’s best interest that you make that an adversarial relationship,” says Brian Kirkham, mayor for the last two years, explaining why he passed on practicing law in the bigger city of Grand Rapids to come home. “You don’t get some of the more cutthroat aspects of the practice of law that you would get in the big city.”

Besides, Kirkham says, as soon as he hears about an accident case, “I know exactly what the intersection looks like. I know exactly what they’re talking about.”

Kirkham met his wife when she was waitressing at the old Spa Steakhouse, his family’s restaurant and a local landmark. Mark Behnke and his wife, Geri, went to the same Catholic school, but didn’t really get to know one another and fall in love until they served on the council together. Squires is married to the son of her father’s best friend.

“In the Heartland,” says Frey, “you not only marry the girl next door, you marry her mother and father and her aunt and uncle and they’re with you for the rest of your life.”

In 1980 Squires moved to Detroit to work in the AAA corporate office, returning to Battle Creek as branch manager in 1985. “When the time comes to have kids you want to live in a small town like Battle Creek,” she says. But, before that time, she acknowledges, “Battle Creek is not seen as an exciting place to live. Because it’s not.”

Ryan Hersha, youngest member of the Battle Creek council, returned after graduate school because Kellogg Community College was looking for a writing instructor. When he looks out at his classes, “you can tell the brightest kids are the most likely to leave.”

Indeed, while 22 percent of Heartland adults have a college diploma, 91 percent of its net losses to the rest of America were college graduates. But according to Frey’s analysis, for every college graduate the Heartland lost in the last half of the ’90s, it gained a college-educated immigrant.

Michigan may still be less than 2 percent Asian, but you wouldn’t know it by the names of its semi-finalists in the 2003-’04 Siemens Westinghouse math, science and technology competition: Yuyin Chen, Prasad Gullapalli, Grace Lee, Yao Lu, Rishi Mediratta, Meet Patel, Natasha Pattanshetti, Ishan Roy, Rose Thaisrivongs and Shuyu Wang.

In Battle Creek, Dr. Sridhar Chalasani joined the colon and rectal surgical practice of another Indian immigrant for much the same reason that Dr. Mahesh Karamchandani bought the practice in 1987. They like the scale and pace of Battle Creek, the quality of its schools and the size of its Indian community _ just big enough. “It’s not like we have five splinter groups fighting each other,” Chalasani says.

Chalasani had an offer in Fayetteville, N.C., but didn’t like the schools, and another in South Carolina, but was warned that “it’s different down here, and I’m not talking about the weather.” He took that to be a reference to the racial climate.

Both doctors were previously in Pennsylvania (Chalasani in York and Karamchandani in Allentown), a Heartland state where just about the only thing it is growing is older.

Since 1950, Philadelphia has lost more than a quarter of its population; Pittsburgh, half. The Pittsburgh metro area was the only one of America’s top 40 to lose population in the 1990s. According to the Center for Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh’s problem is its inability to attract new people _ native or foreign-born. In 2001, the center found, only the Cleveland metro area received fewer immigrants and only the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro drew fewer movers from other states.

Battle Creek boasts that it is “the best known city of its size in the country,” and there was a time when no place crackled with greater expectations. It is the birthplace of cereal, of Kellogg and Post. They are still there. But these days most cereal is made elsewhere and Battle Creek’s top employer is Denso Manufacturing, a Japanese maker of automobile heating and air conditioning units.

At Shrank’s, the crowd is so old they call it “heaven’s waiting room.” Even the prices are out of the past _ a blue plate of brisket, macaroni and cheese, Harvard beets and a slice of thick bread, all for less than $4.

Rita De Vore has worked here, on her feet, her whole life. Her parents, who died in 1997, worked here before buying the place from Roy Shrank. Now it’s De Vore’s. But she will not let her children follow in her footsteps. She stays out of a sense of obligation: “There are people who eat two meals a day here. Unfortunately they’re dying and they’re not being replaced.”

On Tuesdays, the Optimists meet at noon in a back room; at 7 a.m., the Pennfield Exchange Club meets in front, Pennfield being a neighboring township. Judy Mackinder, the Pennfield supervisor, introduces herself with something shy of the Optimist Creed. “Born in Battle Creek,” she says. “Afraid to leave.”

Bill Shrubb _ actually, William Edward Shrubb III _ is not afraid.

Shrubb graduated last spring from Olivet College, where he studied communications. For now, he pours coffee at Brownstone, the cool cafe on Michigan Avenue, while his girlfriend, Parri Norman, pours coffee at the big downtown hotel a few blocks away. “I guess I’m leaving when he does,” Norman says.

Shrubb’s latest riff about the Black Hole that is Battle Creek, recounted for his cronies at Sweetwater’s, is a moment of nightmarish revelation at his nephew’s high school football game. “I’m looking around at all the people and THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME!”

But even alienation is homey in Battle Creek. After hours nursing a single cup of coffee and a host of grudges, the young men _ plus Norman _ get up to go, hanging their ceramic cups back on the hooks provided for regulars.

The weekend marks the 40th reunion for Battle Creek Central High School’s Class of 1963, bringing together those who left and those who didn’t and, as these things work, especially drawing those most at peace with their choice. Tom Smith is there.

“I live three miles from where I grew up,” he says. He married the daughter of a minister of a church just down the road. They still live in what was supposed to be their starter home. Their grown sons _ one a Battle Creek firefighter _ live nearby.

Smith, 58, has worked at Post since 1966, for a while in research _ Oreo O’s, Jiminy Cricket Wishing Stars. But when Post moved research to Cranbury, N.J., Smith refused to go. Just as well, he says, because when Philip Morris took over they folded the unit. These days Smith is the guy who gets Blueberry Morning started, going to work each day not far from the 160 acres his family was deeded in 1839. (Smith has the original parchment, signed by President Martin Van Buren.)

“I don’t like change,” says Smith, the picture of contentment.

The day after the reunion, Sue (Hyslop) Fentress, one of the organizers, is at her kitchen table with her sister, Julie (Hyslop) Lantz, three years older, musing about why so many other members of the class who still live in Battle Creek were no-shows, perhaps believing in their own minds, says Lantz, “If you’re still here, you’re a loser.”

“I don’t have any trouble with that,” Fentress says. “I feel I’m just as successful. I could have been successful in North Carolina or Chicago or wherever.”

Fentress and Lantz have three other sisters, two nearby and one in Cincinnati. Fentress was the only one to go to college. She teaches third grade _ “when they still listen to you.”

This is home. Except that Fentress’ three sons, all in their 30s, have moved to North Carolina. There, with her ex-husband, Terry Rudd, they have a chain of pizza and grinder restaurants called Rudinos, an Italianization of their last name. The oldest son lives in Sunset Ridge, the New Urbanism golf course community in Holly Springs.

Fentress, who remarried, has grandchildren growing up in North Carolina. For them, Michigan will be the cold, old country. “The kids are bent that as soon as I retire we’re going to move down there,” she says.

Lantz’s daughter, Lisa, gave up teaching in Battle Creek to move to North Carolina. This year she will open a Rudinos in Richmond, Va., possibly joined by her brother, Brent, from Chicago.

Lantz’s husband, Gary, is eager to follow them, to help his children launch their new life in another America. Lantz bites her lip. She’s not arguing. But, she says, “I’ll be the last one to go.”


Written by jonathantilove

November 6, 2011 at 2:38 am

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