Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…
“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.
I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.
What I was thinking, as I sat in the dentist’s chair, was that I had moved to Holland at a just the right time in its history. I grew up in western Michigan and have returned to vacation most summers along Lake Michigan, but I hadn’t lived in the area for more than 40 years. The area I returned to was entirely different from what I remember.
Okay, not entirely different. Holland still looks much like the Dutch settlement along Lake Macatawa that I remember from childhood. Its politics are still conservative and (largely) Republican. There is still a church on every corner—and now in every shopping center, middle school gymnasium, and local arts council. So, the town still retains a good deal of what I remember.
But Holland is also thriving. For example, according to the Sentinel, Ottawa County is currently the fastest growing county in the state. Holland and the surrounding areas also appear to be growing economically. Home values are increasing, new homes are being built, and the downtown—I mean, have you seen the downtown lately? I remember when everyone was concerned about development outside of town, along U.S. 31, and its effect on the downtown. Now it’s the malls that are struggling to survive.
James and Deborah Fallows, in their recent book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, featured Holland as an example of resurgence in small-town life across the United States. A bit breathlessly, James Fallows writes that “most parts of America have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans imagine.”
The argument that the Fallows make, though, seems just right to me. In much of the news we read about the hollowing out of rural America, the closing of factories, the opioid epidemic, and an aging population, with young people increasingly moving to cities to find work. In his 2017 inaugural address, the newly sworn-in president referred to “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” He even coined the phrase “American carnage,” which sadly has found its way into the political lexicon.
But in many places, as the Fallows make clear, this is simply not the case. From Burlington, Vermont (thank you, Bernie Sanders), to Greenville, South Carolina, small towns at both ends of the political spectrum seem to be doing better than most people would have imagined. They have become pleasant places to live and work, a compelling alternative to big-city life.
Of course there is no single reason that small towns are thriving. In Holland, for example, the Fallows argue that economic prosperity is due in large part to successful business owners who live and invest locally, but other towns point to other factors. Brewpubs, to give one example, seem to be both a reason for growth and a result.
While the growth, prosperity, and vitality in Holland are all attractive qualities to me, I recognize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Long-time residents, like my dentist, are not so happy about how “busy” Holland has become. Having lived for long stretches in places like Chicago and south Florida, I hardly notice the traffic congestion, but long-time residents see it and are not happy about it. Getting home from work in the late afternoon now means long waits at traffic signals and other inconveniences that Holland residents never had to endure.
My enthusiasm for Holland hasn’t blinded me to some of its challenges. Every time I drive into Holland, I drive over the Unity Bridge which crosses Macatawa River and unites the northern and southern sides of the community. At the bridge I always enjoy seeing Cyril Lixenberg’s sculpture called “Uniting Sun.” And then, with somewhat less enthusiasm, I see the sign which proclaims “Celebrating our Diversity.”
Holland is more diverse than I remember it, no doubt, but I wonder if celebration is in order just yet. On Sunday mornings, in many of our churches, I see little diversity (and no celebration of the little there is). Racial and ethnic groups keep mainly to themselves and seem not to be aware that other groups exist, sometimes just down the street.
As a newcomer, one who nevertheless happens to have deep roots in this community, I hope to do what I can to encourage the vitality and diversity that I see and enjoy. I also hope I can convince my dentist.
Douglas Brouwer is the author of How To Become A Multicultural Church. He lives in Park Township and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pboto: Having nothing at all to do with my column, but one of the most photographed bridges in the world, the Kapellbrücke in Luzern, Switzerland, where I happen to be living until Christmas.