I had wanted to stick this thought in the Poughkeepsie post, and it's still much more relevant there, but I was afraid people would miss it.
In the past 4 days, we've stayed in Poughkeepsie and Binghamton, NY a night each. These towns are large former industrial outposts, and were familiar to me least by name. I had admittedly romanticized both towns, especially Poughkeepsie because of Vassar. I was expecting thriving downtown areas, people filling streets, homes and businesses, and generally vibrant communities. It couldn't have been more the opposite, and both experiences turned out to be the most depressing scenes I've directly witnessed in a while. Both towns had the size, number of fancy buildings, and obvious indications of former thriving Main Streets downtown, businesses/jobs/money/investment in public works flourished, pride in what these communities had built, as well as marked optimism towards the future.
All of these things have vanished. Eerily empty downtowns, obviously struggling businesses, literally hundreds of vacant stores and houses. From observation and discussion with longtime town residents in both cities, I've learned that people are turning in, crumbling, and/or moving out of the cities to cheaper land and new opportunities.
The saddest part is noticing how little, proud pieces of the past remain and peek out into the 21st century versions of these towns. Incredibly ornate tin ceilings still cover abandoned stores on Main Street, regal buildings constructed in the heyday of Poughkeepsie's fling with IBM now stand dilapidated. I'm realizing that this is an 'epidemic' for similar towns across the country. Once shining, populous, and economically sound, these industrially lost cities have crumbled, and emptied over the past 15-20 years, and are unable to reinvent themselves for the 21st century.
I know this situation also hits those who live in smaller towns; our group has stayed in these types of communities as well. Small places that not even locals in adjacent towns know about, places like Roscoe, NY and Towanda, PA. It is even harder to observe the effects of the economy in these locations because there are no town centers to notice this same sort of deterioration- I think it mostly occurs in the privacy of people's homes.
One of the few constants that helps to tie these two disparate types of towns together (and also gives a feeling of hope for the future) lies in the churches we have been staying at along our route. (As a quick side note for those who don't know: In order for Bike & Build to donate as much money to affordable housing orgs. as possible, we are put up in churches, schools, and community centers along our route nearly every night. I'm jewish, it's cool.)
Churches play many roles besides being mere places of worship- they are community meeting spaces, a place for individuals to unite and find purpose (not just the Godly kind either), and as a symbol community pride. Just like the term "Sunday best", every church we've stayed at has been the most shining example of what the community has to offer, even when what lies outside the church's walls are decomposing. Look at the photo right below this. Just look at it. This is from a church set right in the middle of downtown Poughkeepsie, amidst depression, and it's one of the most locally beautiful, motivational things I've ever seen. Yes, it was built in better times, but it still represents possibility, sacredness, and devotion, all strongly American themes that have potential to reemerge through eventual economic reform. I hope that in the future, churches like these can stands as a representative pinnacle of what each and every community can possible provide for themselves.
Here's the real takeway, and one of the only solaces I've found from these community observations: People of all means, shapes, sizes, colors, and faiths have stepped forward in their respective communities, welcomed us strangers into their 'homes', provided us with delicious food, amazing hospitality, and genuine care for ourselves and our cause. This will happen across the country, nearly every day of the summer. This outpouring of support from each of our overnights at churches have gradually restored our jaded, college-aged riders' faith in humanity.
Most importantly, it shows that no matter the socioeconomic condition of our American communities, there will always exist a drive and willingness to put our best foot forward, if given the opportunity.