I never pictured myself as the kind of person that would move to a small town. In my head the people who lived in these places were all small-minded, backwards thinking hicks more interested in what the cows were eating for breakfast than the important happenings of the world. For you see, I was born and raised in the city – I thrived on the daily influx of culture, the hustle and bustle, even the anonymity in the masses of people. My opinions about the boondocks were based on a slew of bad B-movies, social studies classes from elementary school, and the typical social stereotypes that we develop about people, places and things that are different from that which we are accustomed to. Still, I always prided myself on having and open-mind. So, when John, the love of my life, suggested that we save all of our money for a cross-country trip during the summer, I jumped at the opportunity.
We drove across New York, through Pennsylvania and into Columbus, Ohio where we found a cheap campground and headed into the city. I had been told that Columbus was like a miniature America which was why politicians were always so interested in it. We wanted to see for ourselves. John and I agreed that it was okay, but we couldn’t see ourselves living there. The next day we had a quick breakfast and continued on our journey. We drove through the Midwest, relatively unimpressed. Stopping at truck stops for some tasty home-cookin’ and talking with locals at the bars were the highlights of the following days.
As we transitioned into scenic America, I began to really pay attention. I had always been interested in the relationship that we as Americans have with nature. People had always said that this was God’s country, but I never understood what they meant until I saw it all for myself. The trip got better after that. We drove to the west coast where we spent several days outside of the confines of our cigarette smoke scented car getting some sun and much-needed exercise. As we looked at the way the cities were structured, all on a grid, we reflected on the chaotic nature of the city planning back home. We agreed that both ways were good – in their own way.
In the early part of August, we started our journey back East. We didn’t have a plan, but we wanted to take our time and see the quaint small-town America that we had read about. What we found is that they weren’t really anything special. There were a few roads, shops, restaurants, and farms. And of course the locals that looked at you funny while you were walking around town.
Then we stumbled across Optimo. The people seemed a little bit friendlier, albeit wary of outsiders. As we sat at the local watering hole, we talked with another couple about the history of the town, current events, and what they thought would be best for the town. They went on to explain that there were some rumblings in the town about some serious changes, paving the streets, building a Wal-Mart, and even tearing down the old, ugly courthouse – the unintentional symbol of small town America.
As we drove back home, I couldn’t help but think that the Optimo had all the makings of a social science study. I was intrigued and I wanted to go back. John, being the man he is, was willing to follow me anywhere. A few months later we got married at the local courthouse, said our good-byes to our teary eyed parents, packed all of our stuff into his old Ford pick-up truck and headed back. We bought a strikingly average brick house on Sheridan Street. John promised we could paint the front door any color I liked. Deciding that I didn’t want to stand out more than we already did, we opted for same standard black as the neighbors.
We weren’t parked for more than ten minutes when a smiling freckle faced blonde woman, a few years older than me, came walking up the driveway with a baby in one arm and a tray of cookies in the other. I couldn’t help but think, “What a quaint scene.” She introduced herself as Mary. She and her husband Paul had lived in Optimo their whole life. She stayed at home with the kids (they had three) and her husband was the manager of the local Agway. I liked her immediately which made it easy for our friendship to flourish.
One afternoon a few weeks later, we sat on her front porch talking. She explained that the new Mayor also happened to be a major real-estate developer and there were grumblings that he was going to try to use his pull in both the public and private sector to fast track a new mall and housing development in the town center. My stomach dropped…had I moved thousands of miles away from home to a small town only to lose it to the development I had chosen to reject?
I spent the following days researching the Mayor, his affiliates, and the proposed changes. I spoke to anyone who would give me answers, or that simply wanted to voice their opinions. Some favored the changes while others feared for the future of their rural oasis. From what I could tell, there was a 50-50 split. Still, I don’t think that it was until a few months later that the reality of the situation was realized.
The mayor and some of his partners were seeking to use an outdated eminent domain law to acquire a significant amount of land on the outskirts of town to start (re)development. The families that were affected were outraged and heartbroken at the same time. The general feeling in the town was much of the same, but the people were unsure how to stop this “progress”. Being who I was, I couldn’t help but put in my two cents and before I knew it everyone in the town was ready to fight.
To this day, I have never witnessed a community come together in the way that it did those early years in Optimo. Between a widespread letter-writing campaign, help from a few environmental activist organizations, a handful of lawyers and business owners, and general disapproval for the governing body the development was stopped. Even better, the Mayor was removed from office after a local journalist uncovered that he was funneling public monies into pet projects that benefited his financial backers. It was like something out of a movie. I rejoiced at the strength that could come from a small town with the intentions of staying the same, even it meant rejecting the modernization that was so readily offered.
Two years later, when Wal-Mart set its sights on some “prime” real estate in the Northwestern part of town, the same people who banded together to save the Jones’, Smith’s, and Albertson’s farms worked to keep it out the town. This time we even had the support of the migrant workers living by the river that had seen first-hand the devastation that Wal-Mart could bring to a community. Still, it moved in a in a few towns over, so we will see how things change, but for now Optimo is still small town America where we love our neighbors, our town and America for giving us the freedom to live as we see fit – dirt roads and all.