Saturday, December 3, 2011

Batavia: This Place Matters

When I started Bill Kaufmann's "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette," it struck me mostly as an angry rant. Bill Kaufmann is angry about homogenization, the failed policies of urban renewal that left us with soulless, empty buildings and saplings were ancient trees once stood, and the death of civic life and small towns. He's angry that society seems to believe that success only comes when you leave your small town, that "communities of exiles" like New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco are glamorized while the Batavias of the country are mocked and ignored. He's angry that more people gravitate towards a mass culture that has nothing to do with them personally while the culture created by their neighbors begs for an audience. It's a lot to be upset about, and it comes through in the first fifteen pages of the book.

But if you stick with it, the angry rant sweetens into a love letter to a flawed small town. Bill Kaufmann achieved success in the larger world, but returned to his roots simply because he liked it better there. But Batavia is a tough place to love. I have visited it a few times. I've seen its soulless "brutalist" mall, which (if Kaufmann is correct) is venerated in planning textbooks as an example of what not to do. It's so awful that it's not even online anywhere. I tried finding a photo of it to show you how ugly it is, and there just aren't any. A lot of its historic buildings have been torn down, and driving around, you don't get much of a sense of place. He's right in saying, too, that the community did it to themselves.

But it's still home to Kaufmann. It's where he went to high school, where generations of his family earned a living, where he grew up watching the single-A baseball team play. And there's that sweetness about the book, too. Kaufmann has been busy since he returned, and sits on the boards of several Batavia organizations, so he's known, and he knows lots of the local characters.

I initially was going to suggest skipping this book. Now I think it's a quality read for anyone who loves small towns.

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