Why you should care

Even when you can’t return, you may still need to check in. 

This True Story was originally published on Thanksgiving Day 2014.

Thanksgiving was new, but we made it ours. It was the 1980s. My parents had come to Iowa from India, via New York, and for Thanksgiving dinner we got together with local friends, mostly the other immigrant families. There was a turkey, of course, and the counters were crammed with casseroles — standards like green beans and stuffing, but also the food our mothers cooked best: rich curries, fragrant rice pilafs. After dinner, the women tried to refuse to let one another wash up while the men drank whiskey in the living room. We kids played downstairs.

In 2012, I came home for Thanksgiving again, after many years. I’d flown in from New York, but my sister had stayed in Southern California, with her boys, so it was just my parents and me at home. We dressed up and drove to their friends’ house, where about 10 people sat around a gleaming wood table and ate off of china. After dinner, I hung out with the teenagers in a room crammed with Kaplan study guides and AP textbooks. Just as I had 20 years earlier, the kids were plotting escapes from Clinton, only with more drive and anxiety. They talked about crime and meth and said the town had gone downhill.

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since.

On balance, I feel lucky to have grown up in Clinton, and 20 years after I left, I’m old enough to know that you can’t go home again. But the problem isn’t me. It’s Clinton. The town has abandonment issues — everyone seems to leave. Many of my classmates have gone. Manufacturing has gone, and jobs have gone, and malt shops and departments stores. So much has gone that the only place to shop, really, is Target.

Now Target’s leaving, too.

*****

The decline of small-town America is no secret, and it’s not metaphorical, either. In 1980, not long after my parents arrived, Clinton’s population was almost 33,000. Now, it’s about 26,000. Not that it was ever a metropolis. In school our teachers liked to tell us that Clinton once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. They did not tell us 13 millionaires was enough to qualify back then, and that “once” was in the late 1800s.

My nephews say Clinton stinks. Alas, they are correct.

The money then was in lumber. Barges piled with logs cut from the Minnesota and Wisconsin woods floated down the Mississippi. In Clinton, they were cut and processed and shipped farther down the river or elsewhere by train. The Class A baseball team — it’s affiliated with the Seattle Mariners — hearkens back to that time: It’s called LumberKings.

That 19th-century wealth also still remains in some of Clinton’s architecture. From the elevated river embankment, you can see the Gothic courthouse, done up in the late 1800s in red sandstone and oxidized copper at the then-extraordinary cost of $168,000. Fifth Avenue starts a mile south, and as it unrolls west from the river, it passes a building designed by Louis Sullivan — Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, we were taught — a turn-of-the-century post office that manages to incorporate Roman-style columns, and mansions with expansive lawns. In school we learned about the elm trees that lined Fifth Avenue and made a gracious arch in the summer, and also the Dutch elm disease that wiped them out in the 1960s, each tree passing the fungus to the next. When I was a child, the Sullivan building housed a tony department store where my mother dragged me on Friday afternoons, when she got off work early, but it went out of business sometime in the 1980s. Much of the rest of downtown did, too.

The new businesses came in big box stores, south of all this, near the farmland where Highway 30 enters town. Kmart, Farm N Fleet, Target. In 2001, just after my high school’s fifth year reunion, a Walmart Supercenter showed up, too, next to Target, and sometime later Kohl’s arrived. This patch of Clinton is its commercial center, and you’re almost certain to see someone you know in the aisles of these stores. Target is the cheeriest, with its bright, soft light and red-and-white color scheme. My mom prefers Kohl’s, which I find a bit chaotic. But Walmart is the busiest and largest; in the bitterness of winter, the exercise-starved walk along the inside perimeter. Four laps around is almost a mile.

Hearing about efforts to “save Target” made me think of a romance gone bad, a rejected lover trying to win back his beloved.

The vistas down there lack any of Iowa’s romance. There’s so much cement and smog from the industrial plants on Highway 30 that even on sunny days, everything seems gloomy. Like a lot of places, Clinton’s lost manufacturing, but some stalwarts remain: Archer Daniels Midland processes corn into alcohol and high fructose corn syrup, Nestle Purina makes pet food, and Darling International — formerly National By-Products — renders roadkill and other dead animals into things that people use.

My nephews, 14 and 16, have grown up near the Pacific Ocean in a wealthy town that gets lots of sunshine. They love their grandparents but hate visiting them: They say Clinton stinks. Alas, they are correct. The odor from the industrial plants can travel as far north as my parents’ house. Some find it noxious. I suppose we all got used to it.

*****

Lighthouses line the Mississippi riverfront at Clinton, Iowa Thursday November 20, 2014.

Lighthouses line the Mississippi riverfront in Clinton, Iowa.

Source Kevin E. Schmidt for OZY

On Nov. 3, the whole town seemed to wake up. The Target Corporation announced that it would shutter 11 “underperforming” stores, including Clinton’s. After consulting with friends, Nicole Carber, a 38-year-old travel agent and mom, started an online petition asking the corporation to reconsider. Someone else made a Facebook page devoted to the cause. The Clinton Herald called such efforts a grassroots movement, and from where I write, in California, the Herald may have understated the case: This is an outpouring the likes of which my hometown hasn’t ever seen. Not in my memory.

Hearing about efforts to “save Target” made me think of a romance gone bad, a rejected lover trying to win back his beloved. People used words like “devastated” and “heartbroken.” Organizers called for a “shop-in” at Target for the following Saturday so that the corporation would know how much Clinton would miss it. Shoppers were cautioned to space out their visits during the day so as not to overwhelm the staff. “A lot of people took the store for granted,” Clinton’s mayor, Mark Vulich, told me.

But Mayor Vulich also suspects that the Target Corporation misjudged the region’s economic potential. The store draws in people from afar, from towns like Morrison and Fulton and Savannah, he says. And while Vulich concedes that this region of the country is no economic powerhouse, he’s quicker to tell of a big change coming, in tiny Thomson, Illinois, just over the Mississippi: a federal supermax prison that’s poised to open next year.

Then the mayor had a stroke of special brilliance: “Who better to appeal to a corporation than children?”

If it’s odd to think the “newest, most modern supermax prison in the country,” as the mayor describes it, might save my hometown — well, so be it. It’s probably better than riverboat gambling, which was supposed to save the economy in the 1990s. (It seems, instead, to have redistributed a lot of pensions to gambling companies.) Anyway, the prison won’t cost Clinton anything — it was built by Illinois about 13 years ago, and then languished unused. First there were budget issues. Then there was opposition to transferring prisoners to it, because that would mean closing other Illinois prisons. Then Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got arrested for corruption. Then came proposals to relocate Guantánamo prisoners there, in the heartland, and an ensuing Republican backlash. (Thomson residents were said to welcome the potential economic upside.) The feds bought it in 2012 and now, at long last, the Thomson facility has appointed a warden and is starting to hire other employees. That’s what really upsets Mayor Vulich — “we’ll have 11,000 families come in to work at that prison.” A study by an Iowa State University economist, commissioned locally, predicts the prison will inject $36 million a year into the local economy.

When a Target spokesperson called Vulich on Nov. 3 to notify him of the store’s closure, the mayor wanted to know if the corporation had taken the prison and future sales potential into account when it made its decision. The spokesperson’s response suggested to him that it did not: “She said it was above her pay grade,” he told me.

His own salary is $15,000 — the Clinton mayoralty is a part-time gig at best, and he runs a computer consulting business on the side. He’s been in office almost three years now, was on the city council before that, and though balancing the budget and improving city services are constant challenges, the mayor says keeping Target is now his No. 1 priority.

woman in front of a Target store

Nicole Carber stands outside the Clinton, Iowa, Target store. Carber started a petition to save it from closing down.

Source Kevin E. Schmidt for OZY

Vulich spent the week after he got the Target call plotting. He skipped a ribbon cutting at a new school to meet with Iowa State University economists to commission an economic impact study. To the 100-year anniversary celebration of the Lyons fire station, he brought a stack of new petitions; it now has a few thousand signatures. (Not everyone has the Internet, he pointed out.) The city council immediately passed a resolution calling for Target to stay, and the mayor asked 13 other town councils in the area to do the same.

Then he had a stroke of special brilliance: “Who better to appeal to a corporation than children?” So Vulich asked the Clinton schools superintendent to get students to write letters to Target, and school official John Jorgenson worked with teachers to incorporate the campaign into their curricula. Jorgenson thinks the ones by the second-graders are especially poignant. “Where else will we ever get counting jars?” one of them asked. Another wrote, “You gotta save Target. My mom and dad met at Target.” Others, according to the mayor, say they want the store to stay open so that people in town don’t lose their jobs, so their moms don’t have to drive 40 miles to Davenport, because they love the toy section. “Their thoughts are so pure,” says Vulich. “They just say what’s on their minds.”

When I asked Target about Clinton’s efforts, the reply came by email: “We appreciate the interest in keeping the store open, but the decision has been made and the store will close effective February 1.”

*****

People in Clinton talk about the Target as though it’s a local store, not a public corporation accountable to shareholders who may never have set foot in a Target store, anywhere, let alone Clinton’s. And like Mayor Vulich, some believe its departure is Clinton’s fault — that the town, somehow, has failed to do right by the store. In one of her emails to the company’s Minneapolis headquarters, Carber, the woman who started the online petition, wrote: “We are asking for one year. One year to show the Target corporation that our community can and will support this store. Sometimes it takes news like this to make people realize how important things are to them.”

mayor of the city of Clinton, Iowa with piles of paper around his desk

Mayor Mark Vulich commissioned letters from grade-schoolers, asking Target to keep its Clinton, Iowa, store open.

Over the phone, Carber said she blamed consumers who shop at Walmart — where they can buy groceries, too — for prizing convenience and price over quality. “That obviously has hindered these types of stores, and not only stores, but restaurants, too. Anything locally owned,” Carber said. When I pointed out that Target is not locally owned, Carber said, “Yes, but it feels that way. I’ve had Target since I was little.”

This Target, in particular, does have a lot going for it. It’s a quiet, civil, clean place. No one fights over sizes there, unlike Targets in more urban settings or even in Davenport, 40 miles south. If memory serves, the quality of the merchandise was pretty good even before designers like Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi and Phillip Lim started collaborating with the store on special lines.

Working for Clinton can feel like paddling upriver on the mighty Mississippi.

But nearly everyone who is upset about Target’s departure isn’t talking only — or even mostly — about Target. They’re talking about the specter of an empty big box right at the entrance to Clinton, the first thing visitors from Highway 30 see. “It’s almost a symbol of Clinton itself,” Jorgenson, the school official, said. “For it to be sitting here as an empty store — there’s nothing worse.” They’re talking about abandonment, too, about a shrinking population, the shuttering of good schools, and young people with prospects leaving as soon as they can, like I did. They’re also talking about frustration. Despite the beautification of the riverfront and other measures aimed at improving the quality of life, working for Clinton — as citizen or official — can feel like paddling upriver on the mighty Mississippi.

They’re also, of course, talking about Walmart. Clintonians told me they don’t want to be stuck with Walmart where, they say, the selection and quality of merchandise is inferior, and they don’t like how the store feels. One former classmate told me that she cringes whenever she has to go to “that zoo of a Walmart.” (Walmart spokesperson Delia Garcia wrote by email that the company is “committed to providing a one-stop location for fresh, affordable groceries and value-priced merchandise,” adding that it had provided hundreds of good jobs, generated public revenue and donated $32,000 to local charities.)

“Back home here — you remember — we don’t have a lot of options,” said another former classmate, Stacy Bradour Rickerl, over the phone. “We never did. And now we’re down to Target or Walmart, basically. Do we really want Walmart as our only option?”

It was Stacy’s Facebook feed that had alerted me to Target’s closure. Back in our high school photography class, I’d never imagined her staying in boring Clinton — she seemed too arty and boho. But Stacy became a working single mother early on and stayed near her parents for support. She is married now, with two more little ones, and is a pharmacy technician at the local Walgreens. “But I have to honestly have to say, if Target leaves I am seriously going to consider moving out of Clinton,” she told me. “I think this may be the final straw.”

*****

Hearing all these stories made me want to go home, join the fight, attend a shop-in, write a letter the mayor can deliver to Target next month when, he hopes, they’ll meet with him. But this Thanksgiving, I won’t be going to Clinton. My parents still live there, but I’ve got all the excuses lined up: job commitments, weather (last I checked, the midday temperature was 16 degrees), and getting there is a daylong slog.

For Christmas, we’ll all go to my sister’s place, in Southern California. There my mom will cook our favorites dishes — rich curries and fragrant pilafs — and I’ll bring some delicious sauvignon blanc I’ve been saving up. After dinner, my nephews will go play video games, and we adults will try to prevent one another from washing up. There’s a Target just six miles away.

Photography by Kevin E. Schmidt for OZY.

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