There is premonition in my brain. My beloved hometown, bolstered by business incentives, community good will, and Midwestern optimism brings high technology and cutting-edge manufacturing into our city in the suburbs. We emerge from our malaise … and then we wake up one morning to witness robots manufacturing robots.
Kurt Vonnegut, still a young man, wrote a novel in 1952 called “Piano Player” that was a work of speculative fiction about such a conundrum. Social safety nets provided for all the inhabitants, gave them electric kitchens, but both jobs and the human spirit vaporized until an ill-conceived doomed revolution rose against the machine and then collapsed. Written in 1952, the novel contains dark premonitions about vacuum tubes, massive computers in caves, tape-based data (and buffoons in working class bars.)
But then again, I grew up in this town in those same 1950s which was dedicated to and fatally involved with the perfection of the mechanical wristwatch. Western culture invested several centuries in machines that could tell time. The very secret to exploration is longitude and longitude reckoning is the disciple of knowing what time it is (in two places) while aboard a pitching and yawing wooden ship. It takes a gyroscopic clock. They had a contest and a man from nowhere named Harrison solved the problem (look it up.)
My own father engineered precision time-based technology, nose cones in WWII bombs and clocks that separated three-stage rockets at the correct microsecond when Americans won the space race. All this was done with gears, jewels and crude electronics.
That technology disappeared from the Earth and our watchtower came down in rubble. The dairies left, the foundry was demolished, factories closed up and our downtown became vacant to commerce and life.
And stayed that way for a generation or two.
But they are great buildings, albeit from another century. And something incremental but fantastic is going on here in downtown Elgin. A ghostly canyon of bricks is being animated, through restoration, human imagination and something resolutely American— entrepreneurs.
It is happening despite how hard it has become to do anything in these over-regulated, over-governmented, ridiculous times. Elgin is a place more unique than we recognize. We have this synergy of being both a city managed with professional staff and still sympathetic to a council elected at large. It is not always pretty or without contention, but it works better than any other community I have ever lived in.
So how does a city enslaved to time-keeping keep up with the times? What happens when manufacturing things becomes a thing of the past, when locally-owned mom and pop stores become a corridor of franchised big box commerce way out west on Randall Road. Stick around for awhile, and you just may find out.
For the times, they are a changing.
This stagnation we have tolerated and endured may soon accelerate, delight, or frighten us. And a river runs through it.
There are venerable and once proud cities all over America, particularly here in the “rust belt” just dying slow agonizing deaths. Much of what we were is being supplanted by the “edge city”, a soulless but functioning economy of business parks, shopping malls and uninspired tract homes. If the world was Schaumburg, it might survive, but it would kill my enthusiasm.
And then there is Elgin, a town with a past and a city with a future.
Ideas that were grandiose failed and came razor width close to depriving us of any future at all. However, since we have already made a Bob Dylan allusion, it is also true that “when gravity fails you, negativity won’t pull you through.”
This town that was way too ambitious has a current tendency to be way too cautious. But even that assessment may be way to generous. For if there are 108,000 souls living here, why is it that only a few thousand of them seem to be aware that they live anywhere at all?
Then again, if you think about the math and the quantity of things, you will just get goofy. There are enough really talented and engaged people around here to make life worthwhile.
Look at this way, if Elgin were Manhattan, we would be in decline. Instead, we get to be Elgin and we are ascending.
The reason I keep harping on downtown is not because I am ignorant about how culture has necessarily passed by what that village once was, but because if we can repurpose what we were into what we can and should be is the test of whether this city will be a something or a nothing.
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ..
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats