Local social media has been rife with photos of our small city the way it used to be. Nostalgic pictures of Main Street with dozens of favorite stores and eateries that are not there anymore have inspired comments pinning for those days, remembering how good they were, and lamenting how things have changed. Downtown used to be real, now it’s “snooty” boutiques and wine shops, say some.
The curious thing about nostalgia is that it gets stuck in a snapshot of the past, a snapshot not unlike the photos posted on social media. They are the kind of snapshots that capture a stationary moment in time. They have neither past nor future. Carefully composed to remove images of change, they invoke what they are intended to invoke, a fond remembrance and desire to live again in a moment that never really was.
Those wonderful locally owned stores and eateries came into being on the ashes of their predecessors. In time, they went their way because fewer and fewer wanted to patronize them. There came a time when downtown almost died. It was a sad imitation of itself that few visited. They went instead to the new mall on the edge of town. But that didn’t last either. Downtown was revitalized and the mall is gone.
The replacements for those wonderful old places are alive and prosperous, at least for now. In time they too will go – here only for a season. A few multigenerational businesses continue, but only by reinventing themselves for a new time and a new market.
Perhaps there was a time when things were better, but, if so, it was only on the day the photo was taken. More likely it exists only in one’s imagination.
I’m not sure what it is that drives the emotional appeal of nostalgia. Maybe the photos evoke a time of innocence when life was gentler. It wasn’t. We who are old remember not a time when the world was more innocent, but a time when we, in our youth, were more innocent in the very small more innocent worlds we lived in. We didn’t stay there. We couldn’t stay there because those worlds did not really exist, and neither did our own innocence. One way or another we grew up into a world that had never been innocent. If we are honest about it, we will also remember how, even in our childhood, we mastered quickly our own skills contributing to a world that was not innocent.
I don’t mind a brief foray into nostalgia for the way it used to be. The other night over dinner my sister and I rehearsed wonderful memories of the town we grew up in: of Clancy’s Drug, Woolworths, and Snuffy’s Drive In. It was fun. There are, however, people who get stuck in those places, their heads buried in a time that never really was. They resent the changes that have taken them away, and are resistant to the changes that lie ahead. They are the stumbling blocks over which the rest of us must climb to prepare the way for a good life for the generations that will follow us. Nostalgia for the way it used to be can easily become, and probably is, one star in a constellation made up of fear, prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, and violence. Think about it.