Friday, July 02, 2004
The Real America
At Kew Gardens this spring, just west of London, my wife and I spoke with an Englishwoman who casually asked us where we were from. When I replied, “South Bend, Indiana,” she said, “Oh, the real America.”
I believe I know what she meant, but the more I considered the phrase, the more ambiguous it seemed, and I’ve been trying to understand its implications. I suppose she meant that South Bend is not New York City or Los Angeles or even Chicago, world-class cities known to all as the settings of sitcoms, police dramas, and Broadway musicals. A town in Indiana is a place where ordinary people live, a place that has to be discovered by visitors because it doesn’t appear on the standard tourist itinerary. By this logic, if South Bend is the kind of place where foreign visitors can enjoy an authentic American experience, that’s because the place is hidden from view. Here a visitor can catch America with its guard down. Here, on a sunny weekend afternoon, the Statue of Liberty can be found lounging in a lawn chair by the barbecue, her torch and tablet lying in the turf alongside her frisbee and rollerblades. Is this the real America?
I know some relocated New Yorkers who see themselves as exiles in South Bend, like those ancient Romans who felt their lives had ended the moment they had passed beyond the city walls. When I myself first moved here from southern California—although I was coming back home to the Midwest—I felt I had fallen into a time warp. Nothing really distinctive or different seemed to be happening here, only what had already happened in L.A. months or years before. Which place was the real America? What special “take” on reality might our lives reveal to foreign visitors? How could we show them around so that they would see, touch, smell, and taste this real America? What is our local culture?
On this question, I find myself pulled in opposite directions by two visions. On the one hand, our real America might be best embodied by Grape Road and University Park Mall, that familiar collection of chain stores and family restaurants one can find anywhere in suburban America and that unites us under its flood of fluorescent lighting, aisle after aisle, baked potato after baked potato, light beer after light beer. On the other hand, I could focus on features unique to our area—the river, the Studebaker Museum, Nappanee, the Log Chapel and Old College, as well as local places of entertainment like the South Bend Civic Theatre and events like the Elkhart Jazz Festival. Of course, this answer is more appealing. It reflects the histories, desires, and creativity of people who actually live here, whereas the first answer reflects only what the marketing teams at corporate headquarters, none located nearby, have calculated about the tastes and preferences of average Midwesterners.
Unfortunately, the fact is, most of us are increasingly caught up in virtual lives in front of our TV’s and computers, passively receiving our real America from elsewhere, even as we also live face-to-face. The virtual life is expanding and the local life is contracting. As a result, it isn’t as easy as you might think to find the open and unguarded America in Michiana. Are we still worth a visit? I believe we are; but being real requires more effort than it used to.